The Lost Museum

The Berlin Painting And Sculpture Collections 70 Years After World War II

Der Flakbunker am Zoo um 1945 (2016) by UnknownBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin


In May 1945, two devastating fires in the Friedrichshain flak tower destroyed the majority of the Berlin museum holdings stored there. The cause of these fires has never been explained and has become the stuff of legend. 

Ausstellung von Schätzen der Berliner Gemäldegalerie 1948 in der National Gallery of Art in Washington (2016) by UnknownBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Additional masterpieces from Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie, which were confiscated by the US Army from their wartime storage site in Thuringia in 1945, subsequently went on tour through the United States. After a stopover in Hessen, they were returned to the West Berlin museums of the newly established Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in the 1950s, along with other holdings. At the same time, about 1.5 million of the approximately 2.5 million objects that had been moved to the Soviet Union by the Red Army between 1945 and 1946 were returned to the German Democratic Republic in the years 1955 and 1958. Most of the visitors to the Gemäldegalerie are so impressed by the many masterpieces on the walls that they probably do not realize that more than 430 paintings from the collection have been missing since 1945. A first-class museum could be furnished with the Berlin losses alone. Ten works by Rubens alone were destroyed, five each by Veronese and Van Dyck, and three by Caravaggio. Among the missing works are many by the most important painters in European art history; some are shown and described here.

Die Schule des Pan (1489) by Luca SignorelliBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The picture is one of the icons of the Kaiser-Friedrich- Museum. For one, we know that it was painted for one of the key figures of the Renaissance, Lorenzo de Medici, called The Magnificent, ruler of Florence. For another thing, it was a thoroughly magnificent yet puzzling picture, the meaning of which is difficult to interpret. It was a painting that one could return to a hundred times and discover something new every time.

Pan is the god of music. Here he sits surrounded by various naked figures. The younger ones play music, the older ones listen.

Präsentation des Pan von Signorelli im Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum zwischen 1928 und 1933 (2016) by UnknownBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Probably the size of the picture was the reason it was destroyed. The Pan by Signorelli was so important that it was one of the first pieces that should have been evacuated from the Friedrichshain flak tower to Thuringia in March 1945. However, the pit cages in the Kaiseroda mine were too small for such large-format paintings, like many of the works shown here as reproductions. Luckily, one of the few colour photographs from before the war is of this painting.

Verkündigung Mariae (1578) by Jacopo Robusti (Tinteretto)Bode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The perspective and the portal direct the gaze of the viewer through the garden into the distance. The open garden is a metaphor for the conception of Jesus, since a virgin’s womb is compared to a “closed garden” in medieval theology.

The 1910 guidebook of the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum states: “Tintoretto goes to extremes in his compositions with exaggerated movements, lurid lighting effects and heroic figures dramatically foreshortened. Despite such exaggeration, bravado and absence of deeper sentiments, he frequently achieves a powerful expression.”

Präsentation der Verkündigung von Tinteretto im Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum 1917 (2016) by UnknownBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Tintoretto seems to be a rather unsettled temperament; he worked out much, if not everything, idiosyncratically from his imagination. He was an excellent draftsman, whose font of inspiration lay not only in Venice. He familiarized himself with the works of Michelangelo and many other artists.

This Pictures shows the presentation of the Annunciation by Tintoretto in the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum in 1917. Presumed burnt in 1945.

Moderner Gipsabguss nach Pierattis Aristaios (?), in der Ausstellung "Das verschwundene Museum" (2016) by Pierattis AristaiosBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Wilhelm von Bode considered this refined sculpture an early work by Michelangelo, for whom the execution of a young John the Baptist is documented. However, an attribution to one of the Pieratti brothers was already suggested in 1910. Moreover, the figure, which is holding a honeycomb, may not represent John the Baptist, but Aristaios, the Greek god of apiary.

Saal mit der Kunst der Hochrenaissance im Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum zwischen 1926 und 1933 (2016) by UnknownBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Volker Krahn: “The dream of every museum curator is certainly the acquisition of a work by Michelangelo. In 1875 the attribution of a marble figure of John the Baptist made headlines, since this work, which at the time was in a private collection in Pisa, was attributed to Michelangelo. Wilhelm von Bode was also confident of this attribution. However, because there was some dissention during consultation over Michelangelo’s authorship of the work at a Michelangelo conference in 1875, the Italian government passed on a possible acquisition, so the statue could be exported and acquired for the Berlin Museums. When the Kaiser-Friedrich- Museum, today the Bode Museum, opened in 1904, the sculpture was prominently displayed. There was a gallery with the works of the Florentine High Renaissance in which it was centrally presented on a wall. Even during Bode’s lifetime, not only was the authorship of Michelangelo called into question, but the figure was also considered a work of a later era. Today it is thought highly probable that the work was produced in the first half of the 17th century by the sculptor Domenico Pieratti, who was active in Florence. Even as a work by this sculptor, this marble figure, which has been missing since 1945, would certainly be an important work in the Berlin collection.”

Flussgott und Erdteil (1614) by Peter Paul RubensBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

This splendid painting is one of the eight very large canvases by Rubens that were lost by the Gemäldegalerie. The 1910 collection guidebook stresses the “powerful depiction of the wild beasts, in which Rubens was a master.” Even in the black-and-white photos one still recognises the powerful modelling of the bodies, the incisive differentiation of the surfaces, the silken fur of the feline predators and the mother-of-pearl shimmer on the light skin of the women. This painting was traditionally seen as a depiction of Neptune and his lover Amphitrite. However, it is striking that the numerous animals have little to do with water and even less to do with the sea, for example, the rhinoceros on the left, which takes Albrecht Durer’s famous woodcut from 1515 as its model.

Furthermore, through the enlargement of old negatives to the original size of the painting, it becomes apparent that the bearded old man’s head does not wear a crown of shells and seaweed, but one of flowers and fruit. As a consequence, the subject cannot possibly be Neptune and his beloved.

Further evidence for the solution of the iconographic problem is provided by the amphora beneath the old man, from which water gushes. It signifies a spring, and correspondingly the white-bearded man must be a river god. Given his advanced age and especially the exotic animals, it is probably meant to be the Nile or the Ganges.

Since the nude woman at the side of the man is white, the Ganges is more likely, and she can be interpreted as being a personification of the continent of Asia.

What in tiny reproductions for decades passed for the sovereign pair of the sea, was revealed by observation in the original size to be a portrayal of one of the four great rivers and one of the four continents known at the time. It is still presumed that the painting was originally part of a series of four large canvases with all the continents known at the time.

Der Rubenssaal im Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum, 1926 (2016) by UnknownBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Of the paintings by Rubens and his pupils visible here, all except two portraits by Van Dyck are presumed to have been destroyed by fire in the Friedrichshain bunker in 1945.

On the walls one can see Rubens’ Coronation of the Virgin, the River God, the Raising of Lazarus, the Penitent Magdalene, the monumental Diana Huntress; paintings by Van Dyck also include the lost Lamentation.

Der hl. Matthäus schreibt sein Evangelium mit Hilfe eines Engels (1602) by Michelangelo Merisi (Caravaggio)Bode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin


After successful collaborations with the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin on various archaeological subjects, such as the Merovingians or the Bronze Age, the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts has embarked on a new joint research venture with Berlin. The aim of the project is to bring back to light important sculptures by Donatello and other Renaissance masters which until World War II were in the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum. Curators and conservators from Moscow and Berlin are working together to study, restore, publish, and exhibit these works so that they once again become accessible to the general public. On 17 September 2015, as part of a scholarly symposium at the Bode-Museum, Vasily Rastorguev, curator of sculpture at the Pushkin Museum, presented recent photographs of five works by Donatello and his circle, including the bronze Saint John the Baptist and the marble relief with the Flagellation. Two of these images are reproduced here, as a promise of more discoveries to be made.

Credits: Story

Text: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz / Julien Chapuis

Concept: Julien Chapuis

Editing / Realisation: Malith C. Krishnaratne

© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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