eep under Mount Saint Peter in Maastricht, Netherlands, hides the Saint Peter’s caves, also known as the Maastricht Underground, dating back over a thousand years. Originally dug by the Romans to mine marl (a type of limestone) for buildings and construction. It is located some 30 meters underground and now houses more than 60 km of intricate tunnel systems and approximately 8000 passages. Between the 16th and the 18th century, Maastricht was continuously invaded by, primarily, the French and the Spanish, due to its important, strategic location. Large fortifications were built on the hill to defend the town, but in every time of crisis, these caves continuously provided a natural shelter for the local civilian population.
From the initial work by the Romans, the 17th century saw the expansion of the caves to extend under the Belgian part of the border, but also the construction of a water well, cooking ovens, and toilet facilities. In the 18th century, it was further extended to be able to house up to 25.000 refugees.
A wealth of early “graffiti” from this time still survives.
As a distraction, and as a recreation from their hard labour, the order let the monks have Wednesdays off, to pursue artistic practices here. Still with the acquisition of skills in mind. They slowly converted the passageways into workshops and galleries with hundreds of artworks. They chiselled, carved, and painted the walls in these dreamlike catacombs and left some of the most wondrous and breathtaking art behind.
Though most of the works were secular, or of a Christian origin, curiously and uncommonly for a religious catholic order, they recreated many works taken from other religions too. In an almost idolatrous admiration, statues of Egyptian Pharaohs, Buddhas, and Hindu deities were created along with obscure and phantasmagoric sculptures.
In reverence of the Islamic, Moorish architecture, they even recreated parts of the famous Alhambra in Granada. Complete in all its splendour with bright, vivid colours, intricate geometric patterns, arches, gateways, and pillars, and even a miniature version of the Court of the Lions fountain, as clearly seen in the photo below.
The beginning of the Second World War, sadly, led to the expulsion of the monks by the invading forces.
In May 1940, the Germans took Holland by surprise, during the Battle of Maastricht. Yet again, the city’s strategic position made it one of the first targets for occupation by the Nazis. Maastricht would stay occupied until the allied forces finally liberated it on the 14th of September 1944.
The photos that are the basis of this story, showing the guards in front of the gates to the vaults, were taken on the 25th of September 1944, eleven days after the liberation.
During this time of occupation, the population of Maastricht once more found shelter and safety in the depths. They hid their most prized and important art within this treasure vault that had over time become a national treasure.
The Nazis hungered for the arts, but not all art was equal, nor considered art to them. In his youth, Hitler had wanted to be an artist but failed twice to be accepted into the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, due to his “unsatisfactory” drawing skills. He continued to paint, but it came to an end in 1914, when he was picked up by the police, having avoided registering for the military draft. He also failed his military fitness exam, but nevertheless, enlisted voluntarily at the outbreak of WWI.
Subsequently, during his rise to power, he railed against “degenerate” and “deviant” art. He believed non-representational and experimental artworks to be products of mere “Jews and Bolsheviks” in stark opposition to the stereotypically “Aryan” and more conventionally “beautiful” art.
Art was a powerful tool in Nazi rhetoric. A firm position was taken that “any true German would immediately be able to tell the difference” between what was right and wrong. Visual symbolism and storytelling were at the core of the conveyance of Nazism, and it became vitally important, not just to destroy the opposition, but to completely erase its very existence.
By opening the “Entartete Kunst Exhibition” (Degenerate Art Exhibition) at almost the same time as the “Große Deutsche Kunstausstellung” (Great German Art Exhibition), Hitler made it quite clear what was classed as ‘acceptable’ arts and what was dangerous and impure iconography, that threatened the very fabric of the Aryan nation and fueled its cultural disintegration.
The ”Degenerate Art Exhibition”, was cleverly staged and marketed as a “freak show”. It gave the German population a “last chance” to publicly mock, scorn, and reduce previously high-regarded artworks to simplified, decadent, and perverted objects of ridicule, before their imminent destruction. There would be no room for interpretation.
Slogans were painted on the walls in between the art, to enhance the shock and outrage the viewer should be left feeling. Among these slogans were sentences such as “Nature as seen by Sick Minds”, “Deliberate Sabotage of National Defence” and “Revelation of the Jewish Racial Soul”.
Over 2 million people attended. Later, historians argued that the majority of the visitors were most likely forced.
Paradoxically, many within the highest echelons of the Nazi party strongly disagreed with Hitler’s ideas of “degenerate art”. Among them were powerful men such as Goring and Goebbels. They eventually, officially, adhered to the party line.
Goebbels, in fact, so eager to redeem himself, conceived the idea of the “Entartete Kunst Exhibition”. Many of the paintings had first been selected by him for the original “German Art Exhibition”!
In only two weeks, more than 5.000 works were seized, and in total over 16.000 pieces were put on display, derided, and ultimately burned, in the same way, they had done with much of the opposing literature in Germany.
According to Hitler’s belief, all the art, literature, music, and philosophies of the decadent Weimar period were to be permanently erased and replaced by traditional ideals.
Hitler had a clear idea about what was to happen with all the esteemed “Aryan” art. He had long held a vision of what was eventually to be the “Fuhrer-Museum”.
All the art treasures that were bought, appropriated, or simply stolen were to become the foundation of this great big bastion in his hometown of Linz. Thankfully, this never happened and the museum, intended to be finished in 1950, was never built. For the people of Maastricht, it was, however, extremely important, for the aforementioned reasons, to hide away their art to stop the Germans from stealing or destroying their heritage.
In recent years, some paintings have resurfaced. Purportedly destroyed during the war, but actually, “acquired” by certain contemporary scrupulous art dealers.
Many will possibly have seen the 2014 film “The Monuments Men”, a film loosely based on the book “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History”, by Robert M. Edsel.
His book was based on a true initiative, started by the Allied forces in 1943.
By then, it was widely known the Germans were systematically looting art. They created the MFAA, an acronym for “Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Program”. Its task was to protect and safeguard cultural property and historic buildings along with finding, identifying, and later returning works of art the Nazis had stolen during the war.
While the world above was ablaze, the citizens of Maastricht took refuge in the caves below once more. Nearing the end of the war, an estimated 45.000 individuals were hidden in the deep. Along with them were also 30 tanks (to be deployed at the time of liberation), various armaments and, more importantly for this story, about 800 of the most priceless pieces of art and artefacts, embodying almost the entire national art treasures of Holland.
Among them were Rembrandt’s “Night Watch”, “Titus at his Desk” as well as his rendition of “Saul and David”. There was Vincent Van Gogh’s “Poplars Near Nuenen”, several Claude Monet paintings, The Lamentation of Christ by Rogier Van der Weyden, and The Wayfarer by Hieronymus Bosch, just to name a few.
Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” in the caves
The Night Watch was placed on a roll (left bottom) that had to be turned to prevent damage, due to the extreme humidity in the caves. At 12 x 14 feet, it is the largest and one of the most famous works of Rembrandt.
Rembrandt’s “Night Watch”
Interestingly, the Jesuits, some 60 years prior to 1944, copied several of Rembrandt’s works onto the walls. Fate would have it that decades later, the master’s actual original works, would occupy the very same space as they had once been so revered.
Van Gogh’s “Poplars near Neunen”
Meegeren was considered, arguably, the greatest art forger of the 20th century, and was famously arrested and put on trial in 1945, for collaborating with the enemy, having traded a supposed original Vermeer painting with none other than Hermann Goring, for a total of 200 original Dutch paintings.
Han Van Meegeren
When faced with prison, Van Meegeren came clean and allegedly exclaimed: ”The painting in Goring’s hands is not, as you assume, a Vermeer of Delft, but a Van Meegeren! I painted the picture!”. Although he was undisputedly a criminal, Meegeren was eventually hailed as a national hero, rather than a Nazi collaborator, for having ingeniously saved the precious paintings that Goring himself had stolen earlier in the war.
Additionally, while serving as a refuge for civilians and treasures, the caves were also a hiding place for downed allied pilots. The many passageways, previously extended to the Belgian side of the border, now served as part of an elaborate escape route out of Holland. Once on the other side in Belgium, the airmen would be provided with new papers, and clothing and brought on from there.
Mentioned on the sleeve are also the names of the two American soldiers in the photo. While nothing can be found about Sgt. Bernard Sheldon, the other man, Major Leo “Senecao” is in fact, a certain Major Leo Paul Senecal. Like so many other inscriptions on these press sleeves, much of the info would have been given in haste and often misheard or mistyped.
Leo P. Senecal was not only a Major in the U.S. Army but also the Mayor of his hometown Chicopee, Massachusetts from 1940-1943. He went on to become the Commanding Officer of Civil Affairs and “Military Governor” of Maastricht from 1944-1946. He was a very popular man with the people in Maastricht, so much so that he was given Honorary Citizenship at a large and festive farewell gathering, held for him in 1946.
In 1945, The artist Charles Eyck, a pioneer of the Limburg School, drew two portraits that have very recently surfaced, in the 75th-year commemoration of the liberation of Maastricht. One portrait is of, and dedicated to, a “Kitty”, the other of Leo P. Senecal. Though a married man at the time, Leo personally dedicated his portrait “To My Friend Kitty”, intending it as a gift. The article describing the find states, in a slightly lewd and sordid fashion, “We can only guess at the nature of Leo Senecal’s relationship with Kitty”. Maybe Leo discovered more than one treasure whilst in Europe?
He died in 1950 and was buried in his hometown of Chicopee, where he had an apartment block named in his honour posthumously.
Later photos emerged that show other people posing in the guard room of the caves and speculations have been made whether they were part of a recovery team, similar to the “Monuments Men”.
The Caves of Maastricht were, however, never on the official list of art repositories by the MFAA, as this was not a cache of stolen goods made by the Germans, but rather a treasure vault filled with goods, hidden from the Germans. So while the individuals responsible for the hiding, safeguarding, and preservation of these pieces were never really technically “Monuments Men”, their work nevertheless was invaluable. The stories of how the paintings got there, how they left, and to where, is a different matter altogether.
Frida Kahlo once wrote, “I paint flowers so they will not die”. By painting them, she believed the flowers would be preserved and immortalized in perpetuity. These men, likewise, preserved the very foundation of modern humankind, by protecting these paintings. For what is art, but the most fragile, pure, and elevated expression of human emotion and capability? The cradle for the advanced ability to freely and without inhibition or repercussion – observe, imagine, and create. The very essence of what was, arguably, in danger of disappearing, had the outcome of the war been different.
As a sad footnote, the caves were excavated again after WWII and were extended to more than 230 km and over 20.000 corridors. Large parts of the caves were regrettably demolished during this time as a result. Excavations ceased in 2006 and luckily since then, Dutch Heritage has taken over the site and now provides guided tours to tourists in the deep, to show off this remarkable place.
The map below was made on the wall inside the caves during the 1940s. The parts above the diagonally snaked line (bottom-left to top-right) were those lost during the post-WWII excavations.
Map of the caves
“A simple line painted with the brush can lead to freedom and happiness”.
– Joan Miro
Previously a teacher of music, arts, drama, English, P.E. and martial arts. Studied Comparative Religion, Philosophy and Psychology at the University of Southern Denmark as well as Multimedia Design and Marketing. Author of the trilogy “Letters From The Past” and several other books, primarily about WWII. Photographic image restoration for TopFoto.co.uk, an avid musician, antiques dealer and a great lover of single malt whiskey!