And yet to look at the Madonna – the beautiful face of the Virgin, the carved robes so reminiscent of Michelangelo’s contemporary masterpiece the Pietà, the Christ Child not cradled in his mother’s arms, but standing within the folds of her gown, still protected by her – was to know immediately you were in the presence of greatness. By the 1600s, with Michelangelo elevated to exalted status, the Belgians had come to regard the statue as a national treasure, and a century later the French had begun to covet its glory. In 1794, after conquering Belgium in the Napoleonic Wars, they demanded that the Bruges Madonna be shipped to Paris. It was returned only after the defeat of Napoleon two decades later. Would the Madonna, and the world, be as lucky this time?
And still, the miners mined as they had for a thousand years, diverting water into empty corridors, washing their rock salt down the mountain to Bad Ischl. Even as artwork continued to arrive through 1944 and into 1945, the miners worked. Often they were called upon to help unload shipments, many stamped “A.H., Linz.” From May 1944 to April 1945, more than 1,687 paintings arrived from the Führerbau, Hitler’s office in Munich. In the fall of 1944, the Ghent Altarpiece was transferred from Neuschwanstein. Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna arrived soon after, having been transported out of Belgium by boat, in October 1944.
The Monuments Men backtracked and, by way of half-hidden, pitch-black tunnels, were able to maneuver around the bomb blast. A guide led them deep into the cold heart of the mountain, past branching passageways, to a large rock-vaulted chamber. Their torchlight, swinging into the gloom, illuminated rack after rack of plain pine boxes filled with some of the world’s great artistic masterpieces before falling, finally, on the milky white surface of Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna. She was lying on her side on a filthy brown-and-white-striped mattress, almost assuredly the very same mattress onto which she had been pushed just ten days before British Monuments Man Ronald Balfour had arrived in Bruges eight months earlier. Monuments Man Thomas Carr Howe Jr. (who arrived in June) would later write, “the light of our lamps played over the soft folds of the Madonna’s robe, the delicate modeling of her face. Her grave eyes looked down, seemed only half aware of the sturdy Child nestling close against her, one hand held firmly in hers.”