The Odyssey of a Stolen Cranach Painting

PHOTO: The famous "Madonna under the Fir Tree" painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder has reappeared, decades after it went missing.

Decades after it went missing, the famous "Madonna under the Fir Tree" painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder has reappeared under mysterious circumstances and been returned to its home in Poland. But can anyone be sure it isn't just a better fake?

For more than four centuries, the Madonna with the sweet smile hung in the cathedral of what is now Wroclaw in modern-day Poland. Art historians admire the piece as a gem of Renaissance painting, academics have written about it, and it is adored by locals and visitors alike. The artist who painted "Madonna under the Fir Tree," Lucas Cranach the Elder, gave it to the bishop of what was then Breslau in 1510. Since then, it has been one of the region's major attractions.

However, since possibly as far back as 1946, the picture hanging in the cathedral has been a copy, and it took many years before this was detected. This summer, the original painting surprisingly returned to its country of origin, where the Polish culture minister handed it over to the current bishop of Wroclaw.

Officially, nobody knows where the picture was hidden in the intervening decades. The Catholic Church, which is once again the painting's guardian, says it is obligated to keep silent on the matter. As a result, the story of this Cranach painting remains as strange as it is intriguing.

Saving by Stealing

Its odyssey began during World War II. In 1943, the precious painting and other art treasures belonging to the city of Breslau, which was then part of Germany, were taken to a Cistercian monastery in the countryside for safekeeping. Three years later, the artist Georg Kupke used the original to make a copy -- or at least that's what he would later claim. He said he was commissioned to do so by Siegfried Zimmer, a priest from Breslau.

In 1985, Kupke said the priest had told him: "If we manage to make a good copy of the 'Madonna under the Fir Trees,' we can prevent it from falling into communist hands. We can leave them the copy and smuggle the original to the West." Kupke said he was "completely intoxicated with excitement" about the idea.

The Madonna in his copy of the painting has a slight squint. But nobody appears to have noticed that the painting Zimmer hung on the wall was a forgery. The priest emigrated to the West in 1947, and the scam wasn't discovered until 1961, when a Parisian photo agency asked the authorities for a picture of the famous Renaissance painting in the cathedral.

This, of course, left officials wondering where the real Madonna was. To this day, much of the story remains a mystery.

It's not clear what Zimmer did with the painting. After leaving the priesthood, he became a religion teacher and lived in Traunstein, a Bavarian town near the border with Austria. The Madonna allegedly hung in his living room. When he died, in July 1979, he turned out to be a surprisingly wealthy man. His estate included ancient Egyptian treasures, a mummy and a coin collection -- but neither Cranach's Madonna nor a will.

Rumors about the Missing Painting

Nevertheless, beginning in the late 1960s, there were repeated rumors about the Madonna showing up on the private art market.

Renowned Swiss art historian and Cranach expert Dieter Koepplin remembers these shady offers. "In 1969, the Madonna was offered to a German collector in Switzerland who already owned other Cranach works," he recalled.

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