Monday, February 24, 2014

Loc Dieu and Mona...Who?

Abbey Loc Dieu
With the recent release of the Hollywood film, "The Monuments Men," I've been thinking a lot about art and World War II. Which naturally led me to think about a 12th century Cistercian monastery near here. You don't see the connection? Let me tell you the story...

The Abbey Loc Dieu, founded by Cistercian monks in the 12th century, sits at the corner of three Rouergue departments: the Lot, the Aveyron, and the Tarn-and-Garonne. It's the oldest monastery in the area.As is typical of Cistercian monasteries, it is far off the beaten track, isolated and hidden, but with easy access to both water and agricultural land.
Where Mona Lisa smiled for a few months in 1940

In 1939 its isolation brought it to the attention of the administrators of the Louvre. Already they were beginning to crate up and move some of the priceless art housed there in anticipation of the war with Germany. Some found its way to the Loire valley chateaus, but in 1940 when Hitler's 'Phony War' ended with German troops rolling into Belgium and eastern France, the curators of the Louvre began their packing in earnest. The Loire Valley was still too close to Paris for comfort, so they hurriedly devised a plan to transport 3500 works of priceless art further south. The roads were a mess as thousands fled Paris and everything was in short supply. They requisitioned the biggest trucks they could find to transport such huge works of art as 'The Wedding Feast at Cana' by Veronese which measures 33 feet by 23 feet! One large truck hauled nothing but gasoline to fuel the others in the convoy. 3120 paintings and sculptures arrived here at the Abbey Loc Dieu between 5 and 17 June 1940 among them the world famous 'Mona Lisa,' who made the trip in her own personal car! Not only did the church house the artwork, but also the over 250 people who arrived with it to care for the pieces. Many lived in the old monks' quarters which had become an elegant manor house over the centuries, while others were housed in the nearby villages of Memer and Valhouries.
After WWII, trenches were dug around the foundation of the buildings to drain away standing water and alleviate the dampness problem inside.
Alas, Mona's visit to the monastery lasted only a few months. It was determined that both the church and manor house were too damp for the paintings. No one wanted to risk damage to them even though the monastery seemed like the perfect hiding place. Everything was re-packed and moved. The 'Mona Lisa' went to nearby Montauban for the duration of the war. But she hasn't been forgotten in Loc Dieu. One room in the manor house is dedicated to her and her brief stay at the Abbey. She is undoubtedly the Abbey's most famous visitor!
The room dedicated to all things Mona Lisa
I'll be back in my next blog post to tell you more about the history of the Abbey and its beautiful park.

If you are interested in learning more about how art from the Louvre was transported and hidden during WWII, here are links to two excellent sources: "The Rape of Europa" a scholarly book detailing Hitler's war on "degenerate" art and the theft of thousands of pieces of art during the German occupation, and "Rescuing da Vinci" a book of fascinating photographs of the art from the Louvre being crated, transported and hidden.

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