A Selfie with Jesus: Religious Art or Political Propaganda?

If you could, would you ever take a selfie of you and Jesus?  If you did, would you do it for personal reasons? Or would you do it to try to manipulate others into thinking better of you?  These are questions which come to mind following the rediscovery of a work of art stolen by the Nazis during World War II, particularly as we get closer to election day here in the States.

Our story kicks off with this 16th century portrait of King Henri III of France, the recovery of which was announced yesterday. The painting had been in The Louvre in Paris, but went missing during World War II.  The story of how it was found, as detailed in the article, is quite a remarkable one, and demonstrates just how important the online community can be for finding lost works of art.

From the point of view of what the media presently refers to as “optics”, the idea of painting the portrait of your country’s leader at the foot of the Cross, when he lived centuries after the time of Christ, may seem particularly odd.  However if one takes a look at the rather calamitous times in which Henri reigned, one can see that the image serves a particular purpose.  Just as today a politician might go to a factory and roll up his shirtsleeves for a photo-op with the workers before slipping back into his limousine, so, too Henri needed to convince his kingdom that he was a good Catholic, albeit in a manner which may seem foreign to us today.

In Western art history there is a long-standing tradition of portraying contemporary persons who paid for a work of art alongside Biblical figures.  Art historians refer to these people as “donors”.  Sometimes the identity of a donor is well-known as a result of documentation or the existence of other known images of the person, but sometimes they remain anonymous, unknown to us a result of the passage of time and the loss of records.

Originally, most of these “donors” were sized much smaller than the holy person being portrayed, as we can see in this example from about 1386.  Over time however, the donor grew to be equal in size to the saintly individuals shown in the art.  Eventually the donor became part of the action, as it were, such as in being presented to Jesus Himself. Oftentimes this inclusion in the scene was meant to demonstrate the personal piety of the donor, but sometimes the donor was just as much – if not more – interested in propaganda as they were in prayer.

As it happens, Henri III himself was not very saintly in his personal life, even though he liked to put on a show of pious devotions.  He managed not only to offend many Protestants with his loose living, but to alienate his fellow Catholics to the point that they formed an armed league to dethrone him.  After having to flee Paris when the people turned on him, he tricked his chief rival, the fiercely Catholic and hugely popular Duke of Guise, as well as the Duke’s brother Cardinal Louis of Guise, Archbishop of Reims, into coming to see him at the Chateau of Blos; ironically, this is where the researcher who rediscovered the lost painting currently works.  Henri then had the two brothers murdered by the royal guards.

For his actions Henri was publicly condemned in Parliament but never tried.  He continued trying to mount a military campaign to take back the capital, plotting his return to power  by manipulating both potential Catholic and Protestant supporters to shore up his failing rule.  A year after assassinating the Duke and the Cardinal, Henri himself was assassinated by a fanatical Dominican friar, who had been egged on by the Duke’s widow.  In the end, Henri’s efforts came to nothing, and the throne passed from his family to that of his Protestant cousin Henri of Navarre, who converted to Catholicism and placed the House of Bourbon on the throne until the French Revolution.

When we see images today of politicians attempting to manipulate us into thinking that they are just like us, such efforts are not new.  By appealing to what they believe the average person wants to see, our contemporary leaders are simply following in a long tradition that stretches back through centuries of Western culture. The form of the media may have changed from painting and sculpture to videos and tweets, but the thinking behind these efforts is still very much the same.

Thus, the rediscovery of this painting is not only important for historians, it’s also a great opportunity to remind ourselves that the use of popular, and even religious imagery for political ends will likely always be a part of the media landscape.

King Henri II at the Foot of the Cross by Unknown Artist (16th Century) The Louvre, Paris

King Henri III at the Foot of the Cross by Unknown Artist (16th Century)
The Louvre, Paris

Avert Your Eyes, Children: America’s Nazi Collections

Last evening PBS re-broadcast the superb documentary “The Rape of Europa”, a two-hour film on the Nazi pillaging of public and private art collections across the continent, and their destruction of the world’s architectural and artistic patrimony. Based on the fascinating book by Lynn Nicholas, I wrote about this series when it aired previously. Among the many remarkable stories was that of a little French librarian whose work as a sort of art spy eventually led to the restitution of numerous works to the families and institutions whose pieces had been stolen. (N.B. I am still dumbfounded by the fact that no one has yet, to my knowledge, made a film about the life and exploits of Mme. Valland: what a story there is to tell about her heroism.)

During the course of re-watching the film, another detail caught my attention which I had not focused on previously. In all sincerity, both the book and the documentary are so chock-full of remarkable stories – sometimes horrific, sometimes inspiring – that the mind does not know where to focus, so overwhelming is the subject matter and the stories that are being told. In this particular instance however, the filmmakers made reference to the fact that, surely unbeknownst to many, the U.S. Army collected and archived an enormous amount of paintings by Nazi-approved artists, often portraits of Hitler and his henchmen.

Readers may or may not be aware that Adolf Hitler started out life as an artist, but was denied entry to Vienna’s Academy of Fine Art since he was not a painter of any great talent. In the documentary, we are taken to a U.S. Army storage vault, where a number of watercolors by Hitler are kept in a drawer. As the camera pans around the room, we see that there are hundreds of paintings being stored there. Glimpses of just a few of them show Nazi propaganda themes and the types of happy-peasant genre paintings that all dictators, not just Hitler, usually tend to enjoy.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the size of Hitler’s propaganda machine, after the war the efforts of American forces to get these things out of the public eye resulted in the carrying away of many thousands of pieces. These were kept in military hands for decades, until the early 1980s when the U.S. and then-West Germany came to an agreement about the return of these pieces. A committee was formed to work on the repatriation of most of the works, which in the end numbered about 6,000 pieces.

The remaining 400 pieces were kept by the United States and are archived at the U.S. Army Center of Military History and the U.S. Air Force Art and Museum Branch. As the narrator explained in the documentary, these pieces are often so polemic that the military, in its wisdom, believes they are too controversial to put on display. However, some of the works are put into appropriate exhibitions when the occasion warrants, such as for an exhibition at the Holocaust Museum or in a retrospective in one of the military museums on different aspects of World War II.

For my part, I am very happy that the U.S. military has the common sense not to put images of evil mass murderers on display, unlike those who enjoy wearing t-shirts with images of Che Guevara or displaying Warhol posters of Chairman Mao. The concealment of these images for the sake of public decency also brings home to us the great power of art to influence the human mind. Manipulation of the image can lead to remarkably inaccurate understandings of individuals.

For example, by all accounts Hitler was, in person, an undistinguished, pudgy midget; not surprising as both he and most of his Nazgul started out as a bunch of nobody-social climbers. Yet through the use of image manipulation, their propaganda art portrays them as giant, heroic figures. Similarly, consider the figure of Josef Stalin which we have been conditioned to accept as one of a giant bear of a man, as a result of the statues, portraits, and posters created of him during his reign of terror. In truth, “Uncle Joe” was only about 5 foot 6 inches tall – shorter in fact than the rather petite Harry Truman, who stood 5 foot 9 inches. This is nothing against those of shorter stature, of course, but it is often the case that smaller-scaled men of evil intent – be they Hitler, Napoleon, or other monsters of history – like to imagine themselves as being tall, and because of the power they yield no one has the courage to make fun of them to their faces.

The fact that the Nazi paintings are safely housed in military hands, away from public eyes, is a very good thing; no one wants that ridiculously tacky image of wee little Hitler dressed as a knight but looking more like St. Joan of Arc with a mustache hanging at the National Gallery. The long-term question of what to do with these Nazi works however, is an open-ended one, and one which I suspect neither I nor the contemporary readers of this blog will ever answer. Burning would be too good for them, frankly, particularly after the many wonderful things which the Nazis themselves unfortunately burned. Will future generations, perhaps a century from now, find these images too remote in time to do any harm, and take them out of storage, or will they eventually simply rot away in their drawers and cabinets?

U.S. Military Policeman guarding crates of Nazi art.