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War is a period in which many destructive events occur. Many works of art or architectural works have survived World War II because of the effort of a handful of brave men, from the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program. 

A team of 400 soldiers and civilians worked together to protect cultural heritage and to recover artworks stolen by the Nazis. Below, you can find five of the most famous cultural heritages that have been saved during the war:

The Mona Lisa

Mona Lisa revealed after the war (via louvre.fr)

Few of those who visit the Louvre and want to see Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, know how many times the “Mona Lisa” traveled during the Second World War. As the war expanded, the greatest treasures of Paris were packed in waterproof material and were sent to rural areas. After leaving the Louvre on augsut 28, 1939, the “Mona Lisa” has been moved five times.

“The Winged Victory” being relocated during the art evacuation of the Louvre (photograph by Pierre Jahan/Archives des musées nationaux)

The Last Supper

“The Last Supper” before World War II (via witcombe.sbc.edu)

“Mona Lisa” was not the only artwork of Leonardo da Vinci who was very close to being destroyed. The “Last Suppuer” fresco was very close to being turned into dust and powder. So the mural on the wall of Santa Maria delle Grazie church in Milan, was carefully covered with sandbags and scaffolding, which probably saved it while the city was being bombed. Almost all of the church turned into rubble during the air raids, but remaining standing in the middle of the debris was the wall with the “Last Supper”. 

After the air raid, with “The Last Supper” behind the scaffolding on the right (via monumentsmen.com)

The Prinzhorn Collection 

1909 letter by mental patient Emma Hauck, part of the Prinzhorn Collection (via Wikimedia)

One of the lesser known works of art that was saved during the Second World War, is the Prinzhorn Colletion. 

The collection which is in a university psychiatric clinic in Heidelberg, was gathered by Hans Prinzhorn, an art historian and practitioner of medical science during World War I, which was specifically interested in how a mentally sick person manifested through art. Around 5,000 pieces of approximately 450 patients could have been destroyed by the Nazis, in their desire to cleanse Europe of what they considered as degenerate art that does not fit their idea of perfection. However, the works of art were hidden in the warehouse university and are now exhibited in the clinic.

“Witch’s head” (1915) by August Natterer, who had schizophrenia, part of the Prinzhorn Collection (via Wikimedia)

Altarpiece of Veit Stoss

Detail of the Veit Stoss altar (via Poland Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

The altarpiece of St. Mary’s Basilica in Krakow, created by Veit Stoss in the late 15th century, is the most massive Gothic altarpiece in existence and it was nearly destroyed during the Second World War. Polish citizens had taken apart the altar and hid it in different parts of the country. But once Poland was occupied, they were found and transported to Germany. There it layed in the basement of Nuremberg Castle, which was completely destroyed by the bombs. But the Polish prisoners there announced the Polish Resistance of the presence of the altar. Despite massive bombing, it was found intact in the basement which was not affected. It returned to Poland in 1946.

The altar in the church (photograph by Jorge Lascar)

Salt Mines of Altaussee 

At the mines in 1945 (via Wikimedia)

Hitler had a vision to create a museum, “Führermuseum”, containing all the works of art from Europe. To make this possible, he stole as much as he could from museums. Many of these works of art have reached the Austrian salt mines of Altaussee, including works by Michelangelo and Vermeer, along with Jan van Eyck’s stunning Ghent altarpiece.

The mines were on the verge of being blown up, along with the 6,500 paintings that were inside, but something prevented the explosions. Eventually, the American army with the MFAA Monument Men took control of the mines, although sorting out where all the art goes is still an ongoing project.

The Ghent altarpiece recovered from the mine (via Wikimedia)