Lady With an Ermine (Madonna z Lasiczka)
Poland has for centuries been home to two of the most famous and admired paintings in the world. And they managed to survive hundreds of years of that nation’s turbulent history, most remarkably the devastation of the second world war.
One of them is a secular work of art, the Lady With an Ermine by Leonardo da Vinci, one of about a dozen undisputed Leonardo paintings in existence. The other is the Black Madonna, also known as Our Lady of Częstochowa or Matka Boska Częstochowy. It has been revered by Poles generation upon generation and there is hardly a church in Polonia, in America or elsewhere, that does not display a replica.
Lady With an Ermine was created by Leonardo in 1489-90. It pictures the mistress of Italian nobleman Ludovico Sforza, whose grand-niece Bona Sforza was to marry Polish King Zygmunt I in 1518, and become Queen of Poland. The painting’s history for its first three hundred years is mostly unknown, but in 1800 it was bought by Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski while on a trip to Italy. The Czartoryskis were one of the most wealthy and influential families in Poland. Prince Adam bought the painting for his mother Izabela Czartoryska, an art collector who lived in Puławy to the southeast of Warsaw. Upon receiving the portrait, she decided that she did not like the detailed background and so had it painted black. In 1809 she opened a small museum where the public could view the painting as well as other works of art in her collection.
When the Poles launched an uprising in November 1830 against the Russians occupying that part of Poland, Pani Czartoryski took Lady With an Ermine and other pieces of art and walled them up in a basement for safekeeping. A short time later, the Czartoryski family fled to Paris with their artworks where they lived in the Hotel Lambert.
By the late nineteenth century the family had returned to Poland with the painting and opened the Czartoryski Museum in Austrian controlled Kraków, where the Lady was once again put on public display. When much of Polish territory became a battleground during World War I, the painting was sent to a museum in Dresden, Germany for safekeeping. That museum reluctantly returned it to the Czartoryski Museum in a free Poland in the 1920s.
After the German Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 in the second world war, the painting was spirited out of Kraków and hidden behind a false wall in a country manor. But suspicious of trucks at the house, the Germans soon found its location. At first, they took only gold and silver objects hidden with it and simply tossed the painting on the floor. It was even trampled on and received a boot mark. Later, the Germans realized what they had and sent it to the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin. But Hans Frank, the governor-general of occupied Poland, requested the masterpiece to be returned to Kraków. He much admired Lady With an Ermine and hung it above a steam radiator in his suite of offices in Wawel Castle.
When the Germans fled the city ahead of advancing Russian troops in 1945, Frank took the painting with him to his country estate in Bavaria. It was found by allied soldiers after the war and repatriated to the Czartoryski Museum. It hangs there on display today in Old Town Kraków, part of Poland’s National Museum, as one of the jewels of world art. It has twice toured the United States, in 1992 and 2002.