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The Strange story of the Mona Lisa and the Monastery

strange story of the Mona Lisa

The 2014 release of the Hollywood film,’ The Monuments Men‘ has me thinking about art, World War II and 12th century Cistercian monks. You don’t see the connection?  Monuments Men is the story of an unlikely World War II platoon tasked to rescue art masterpieces from Nazi thieves and return them to their owners. Now… let me tell you the story of how the Mona Lisa took a secret journey across France by truck…

strange story of the mona lisaIt begins almost 900 years ago when a group of Cistercian monks established an abbey in a place they named ‘Loc Dieu,’ or Place of God. Located at the intersection of the modern-day departments of the Lot, the Aveyron, and the Tarn-et-Garonne, the place had everything the monks were looking for. It was isolated but with the bastide town of Villefranche-de-Rourgue close enough for supplies, agricultural land and a water source—here provided by numerous springs that dotted both their valley and its hillsides. They proceeded to build a typically Cistercian church, simple and elegant, almost austere, a cloister and a large dormitory with workrooms. Over the centuries, the fortunes of the Abbey ebbed and flowed with the political times. While the church itself was never damaged, the dormitory and workrooms were almost destroyed many times during the Hundred Years’ War, the Wars of Religion, and the French Revolution. They were re-built and restored so many times that they now look more like a 19th century manor house than the medieval buildings they originally were. In 1793, the Abbey was confiscated by the government and sold as national property. In 1840, the Cibiel family purchased it. Descendants of the family still own the Abbey and its grounds.

Let’s fast forward to the late 1930s. All of Europe was nervous about what was going on in Germany. Officials at the Louvre in Paris were preparing contingency plans for evacuating the museum’s priceless art in the event of war. And when Hitler’s ‘Phony War’ ended in 1940 with the invasion of Belgium and eastern France, their efforts to crate, transport and hide thousands of artworks became frantic. Thousands were fleeing Paris; the roads were packed and everything was in short supply. Officials and volunteers crated up 3500 works of art. They requisitioned every big truck they could find to haul such mammoth paintings as ‘The Wedding Feast at Cana’ by Veronese which measures 33×23 feet. One large truck just carried the gasoline necessary to fuel the other trucks in the convoy. Between June 5 and June 17 1940, over 3000 of these pieces of art arrived at the Loc Dieu Abbey deep in la France profonde... the perfect hiding place for the treasure. Among these priceless works was da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’ which made the long trip to southwest France in her own private car.  Over 250 people arrived with the art, brought along to unpack and care for it while it was in hiding. Some of these people were housed at the monastery, while others found lodging in the tiny villages of Memer and Vailhouries nearby. The big Abbey church was filled with art instead of parishioners.

strange story of the mona lisa

Alas, the art stayed only a few months. The multiple springs which supplied the monastery grounds with water also made both the church and the other buildings too damp for the precious paintings. Even though it was the perfect hiding place, no one wanted to risk damage to the art. It was re-crated and moved.  ‘Mona Lisa’ found a new hiding place in the nearby city of Montauban where she spent the duration of the war. She is not forgotten in Loc Dieu, though. One room of the house is dedicated to her stay. She is undoubtedly the Abbey’s most famous visitor, after all.

The Abbey is open for guided tours from July 1st to the first part of September. Its 100 hectare grounds are open year-round. Both require a small entry fee. Further information can be found on the Abbey website: www.abbayedelocdieu.com

By Evelyn Jackson

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