A painting by Rembrandt hung almost unguarded in a small church in the south of France for about 200 years. Recently, the work has been seriously secured.
It concerns Christ on the cross, a work about one meter high that was painted by the Dutch master in 1631. According to reports in the French press, the painting is worth millions of euros.
In 1804, the work was purchased by a French army officer. He didnt know it was a Rembrandt. A year later, the soldier donated the painting to the church of his hometown, Le Mas dAgenais, southeast of Bordeaux. It has been seen there since then, without much publicity being given to it.
In 1959, Rembrandts initials and a year were discovered on the artwork: RHL 1631. RHL stands for Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Leiden. At that time, it was officially established that the Dutch painter was the creator.
Between 1805 and 2002, the protection of the painting in the church was “primitive”, says the municipality of Le Mas dAgenais. “For a long time, there was no protection at all,” agrees City Councilor Arnaud Petit. “After that, an alarm was set up and a box was built around it with glass. But the glass plate let go.”
In 2016, the Rembrandt was therefore taken to a warehouse in Bordeaux Cathedral. A specially secured box made of wood, steel and glass was made in the church of Le Mas dAgenais. It has now been applied and Christ on the cross can be seen again for the first time after six years. The public can enter seven days a week.
“It is a well-known painting by Rembrandt among connoisseurs,” says David de Witt, curator of the Rembrandt House in Amsterdam. “As far as I know, its the only Rembrandt that doesnt hang in a museum or is part of a private collectors collection.”
De Witt has not seen the new formwork yet, but knows the concerns of the past. “That French church was not secured. Everyone could just get close to the painting. You just hope that such an important work of art by such an important painter remains unharmed.”
There are also such concerns in France. According to the Ministry of Culture, the more than 40,000 churches and cathedrals spread across the country contain around 270 highly valuable art treasures, both artistic and religious.
Between 80 and 150 objects are stolen from churches each year. Usually these are occasional thieves who take smaller items with them.
In June of this year, a relic containing – it is said – the blood of Jesus was stolen from the cathedral in Fécamp, northern France. It was later returned to Dutch art detective Arthur Brand. In Nantes Cathedral, a famous painting by Hippolyte Flandrin was destroyed in 2020 in a major fire.
Access gates or camera surveillance
“Churches are open, poorly secured, an easy target for thieves and also vulnerable to fire and floods,” lawyer and art expert Julien Anfruns wrote in an open letter as early as 2020. He advocated better protection of ecclesiastical art treasures, with the government as the initiator.
That has not happened so far. Last month, a working group of the French Senate presented a report on French monuments. It also advocates better measures against, among other things, theft in churches. Experts argue, for example, for entrance gates or camera surveillance.
“After more than 200 years, our Rembrandt is now really in safe hands,” says Arnaud Petit, who deals with the painting on behalf of the municipal council of Le Mas dAgenais. “There are surveillance cameras in the church itself. The cabinet where the painting hangs is as strong as a safe and fireproof. Believe me: this Rembrandt really wouldnt have returned to our church if it wasnt 100 percent safe.”