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Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Vive St Eloi...and the Spirit of the Monuments Men: Painting of Farrier Patron Saint Returns to Owner

It's the first week in December, time to toast all those French farriers and veterinarians and jockeys who are taking the day off (Monday or Wednesday, depending on your preference) in honor of their patron saint.

But we have something else to toast this St Eloi's Day. Call it an idea whose time came round at last, or call it the influence of Hollywood or the charm of George Clooney and Matt Damon. Whatever you call it, it makes a great blog story.

Because you couldn't make this kind of thing up. Truth really is stranger than fiction sometimes.

It's the feast day of St. Eloi (or Eloy, or Eligius), the kindly 6th century saint (and farrier) who was so sensitive to the nervousness of a horse during shoeing that he simply removed the leg, took it to the anvil, shod the hoof, and (with some divine assistance) replaced the limb--all to spare the horse the stress of standing for shoeing.

Now, that's worth a toast.

Paintings, sculptures and frescoes depicting St Eloi's miraculous method for shoeing a horse abound. You'll find them listed among the world's great religious art treasures, and attributed to artists like the Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli. He painted the famed "The Birth of Venus" in 1486, not to mention another, slightly lesser known canvas depicting "The Miracle of St Eloi".

But the most spectacular, inspiring and unforgettable depiction of St Eloi is Gaetano Gandolfi San Matteo della Decima's powerful "Miracle de la Saint Eloi". Now that's a painting.

Until last February, the big canvas was hanging in the Louvre in Paris, France. But since then, it's been in the news, and on the move.

The painting was one of a group that was finally returned to the heir of its rightful owner. He was Robert Neumann, an Austrian Jew who fled to France when Germany annexed Austria and the future looked grim for Jews.

Nazi law in Austria prohibited Neumann from taking the bulk of his paintings with him when he left the country. But Hitler had other plans for Mr. Neumann's magnificent art collection anyway; in 1938, the paintings became part of a massive inventory of confiscated art from all over Europe.

After the war, the painting surfaced in Paris.

What became of Neumann? He spent four years in Paris, but when Germany invaded the city, he knew he needed to move again. This time he headed to Cuba, where he worked in a factory by day and lectured on art at night on the then-glamourous American-friendly resort island, according to his grandson.

It took almost 60 years for France to validate the rightful owner of the St Eloi painting as Neumann and his heirs. It's not that they weren't trying: France even made a law that any unclaimed art from the war must be exhibited in public, in hopes that someone would recognize and claim it. The French thought highly enough of the St Eloi painting to hang it in their museum of national treasures, the Louvre.

Last year, they finally ascertained that it was indeed Mr. Neumann's painting.

Robert Neumann is no longer with us to reclaim his painting, but his grandson (below, with Austrian art historian Sophie Lillie) is.

The recent Hollywood film "The Monuments Men" premiered soon after the Neumann announcement by the Louvre. The film documents efforts to retrieve some of the art hoarded in Germany and Austria. Perhaps Gandolfi's "Miracle de la Saint Eloi" was on their list, or perhaps someone stumbled on it after the war. Its dots are not all connected for us; somehow, it ended up in the Paris museum.

But there are some dots you can connect; the painting's next stop was the USA, where Robert Neumann's grandson, now 82, lives near Boston.

Did the pending release of the film accelerate the process? The spotlight would be on the European art establishment during the promotion period for the film.

There you have it: The magnificent Italian painting depicting a Roman Catholic saint in Belgium, owned by an Austrian Jew, plundered by Germans, displayed in France, now lives in the USA.

I think we might need to start celebrating St. Eloi Day in this country, too, just so we can tell this story and celebrate this painting's survival, and its place among us.

By the way, December 1 is the date of St. Eloi's death, and it is the traditional feast day of the farriers in France and/or Belgium, while we are told that some will only celebrate mid-week. However, in late June, villages host a festival of St. Eloi which includes farriers and horses. Whether they hope to keep the tradition secret or no one has ever properly written about it in English is unknown, but some great videos show what goes on.

Here you see a long single-line "hitch" of heavy horses (some without shoes) wearing traditional headgear in what is called a St Eloi procession on his day in June. Each is led by a handler who has to run to keep up! The symbolism of the greenery-covered carriage is a mystery. Fertility? The solstice? Whatever it is, it's wonderful:

Vive St Eloi, in art and legend!

To learn more:
The Farrier's Holiday: Patron Saint of Farriers, Saint Eloi, Honored Today
Louvre returns Nazi-looted artwork (BBC)
Tom Seldorff's first set of paintings recovered (before St. Eloi discovered in Paris)
Been There, Done That? Farrier Shrine to St Eloi Shoeing a Horse in Florence, Italy
Monuments Men: The role of sculptor Walker Hancock of Gloucester, Massachusetts
Monuments Men Foundation (in-depth factual information on World War II art and culture preservation/restitution efforts)

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