Adventures of St Luke, Part 1

Frans Hals (1580 – 1666). St Luke. Oil on canvas (70 × 55 cm) — mid-17th century. Museum of Western and Eastern Art, Odessa St Luke can be recognized by his personal attribute, the ox. His gospel starts with the sacrifice by Zechariah, and the ox was often used for such purposes.

The year was 1965. No, let me turn the clock back a few years. Or a few centuries, and start again.

The year was of Our Lord 1771. Now hang on to both of these dates, and let me make another try. The year of the same Lord was 1625, give and take a few, but no later than 1628.


Frans Hals, a Dutch Golden Age painter, was mainly and most recognized as a portraitist. He rarely — as in almost never — painted saints or explored religious themes. A chance of finding Biblical theme in Hals paintings is as rare as finding a still-life by Michelangelo.

But, as the saying goes. never say never. Sometime midway his illustrious career he managed to complete a series of paintings of the four Evangelists: saints Luke, Mark, John and Matthew.

Painted crudely, freely, the saintly images look so vital that their laborious breathing is almost audible — Luke’s and Mathew’s in particular. With exception of John, none other conveys “saintliness” or emanates “godly light”. They look rather ordinary — local folks, farmers, toiling over the unfamiliar and tedious tasks of writing (Luke),  reading (Matthew), thinking (Mark).

1771.  That year the four Evangelists were acquired by Catherine the Great, Empress of All Russia, for the collection of “her baby”, the Hermitage Museum. The same year, the transport of 2 ships embarked on a voyage to Russia, carrying the four Evangelists and a great number of other artwork acquired by the Empress for the museum. The ships were caught in a storm, one of them sinking, the other, Frau Maria, sustaining huge damages. Miraculously, Frau Maria made it to Saint Petersburg in one piece, with all four pieces of the Hals’ series of paintings intact.

The first mention of the paintings appears in the catalog of the Hermitage in 1774. However and unfortunately, the curators of the Hermitage rendered them inferior, “not outstanding” as it were, and the saintly foursome was banished to the museum’s vast underground storage.

St Matthew oil on canvas (70 × 55 cm) — mid-17th century Museum Museum of Western and Eastern Art, Odessa
Frans Hals (1580 – 1666). St Matthew
Oil on canvas (70 × 55 cm) — mid-17th century
Museum of Western and Eastern Art, Odessa

In 1812, Tzar Alexander I decided it is as good time as any “to decorate Catholic churches in Tauride province.” Franz Labensky, Hermitage curator, has selected 30 paintings from the storage, Hals’ four “not outstanding” Evangelists among them, and the load left Saint Petersburg on March 30.

Frans Hals 1580 – 1666 St Mark oil on canvas (68 × 52 cm) — mid-17th century. Private collection
Frans Hals 1580 – 1666

St Mark

oil on canvas (68 × 52 cm) — mid-17th century. Private collection, The lion’s head in the background is Mark’s attribute. His gospel begins with the story of John the Baptist in the wilderness, where the lion lives. As of March, 2010, the painting was in the collection of a German art trader.

In the turmoil of the October Socialist Revolution (1917) all four  paintings disappeared and were considered to be lost. Decades later, one of the pictures has emerged at the Odessa flea market. The curator of a local art museum bought it for 9 rubles. The identity of the painting has not been established, and the painting’s authorship has been arbitrarily assigned to “unknown Russian painter, early 19th century”.

In the fall of 1958, browsing  the reserves of the Museum of Western and Eastern Art in Odessa, the art historian from Hermitage (Saint Petersburg, then Leningrad) noticed two unusual paintings. In the corner of the paintings, clearly visible, drawn in large red print were numbers 1895 and 1896.  Ms. Linnik identified the numbers as a 2 centuries old Hermitage brand cataloging (№ 1895 — Luke and 1895 –Matthew). At the first examination of the pictures Linnik was convinced that “unprecedented in its boldness style of painting, broad and energetic, could only belong to the most brilliant innovator of painting technique – Frans Hals”  The pictures were thus identified as the lost Franz Hals’ Saint Luke and Saint Matthew. No longer “not understanding” the two Hals’ paintings became the museum’s most treasured masterpieces.

In the spring of 1965, Saint Matthew and St Luke arrived from Odessa to Moscow’s Pushkin Museum as showpieces of the Dutch painting exhibition.

on the wall

Both saints hung symmetrically on the wall until March 9th, which happens to be a “cleaning day”. The museum was closed for the occasion. The next day, much to the horror, panic and amazement of the museum staff, St Luke was gone. Only the frame has been left hanging on the wall, slightly askew.

Saint John the Evangelist, painted about 1625 - 1628. oil on canvas. Currently atThe J. Paul Getty Museum
Frans Hals 1580 – 1666. Saint John the Evangelist. Painted about 1625 – 1628. Oil on canvas. Currently on display at the J. Paul Getty Museum

Art theft was almost unheard of in the USSR, thus making a disappearance of St Luke the first major case of theft of artwork in the country.  Ironically, only a few weeks before, the Minister of Culture of the USSR, Yekaterina Furtseva has infamously declared that unlike the West, in the Soviet Union museum robberies do not exist.

The fate that befell St Luke was a closely guarded secret. The Dutch exhibition folded and the museum closed its doors “for scheduled repairs”. Soviet media kept mum.

Investigation was put under the special supervision of the Ministry of Interior. KGB and police (then called militia) were put on high alert and joined forces to search for St Luke. Detectives worked round the clock. The Minister of Culture found herself in a hot seat…

Every art collector in Moscow and beyond was under suspicion, mercilessly harassed. Every foreigner ever so slightly interested in art was followed and investigated.

In spite of all this tremendous effort, however, five months have gone by with no progress in the investigation, and no trace of the painting. The case was quickly becoming cold.

St Luke has vanished…

>>>>to be continued in the next post<<<<<


One comment on “Adventures of St Luke, Part 1

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