© Thomas Toussaint / RTL
For today’s edition of our Knowledge Bites, we explore one of Luxembourg’s most famous landmarks. Why is the Gëlle Fra such a symbol of Luxembourg?
She’s been buried under a football stadium and she’s also travelled all the way to Shanghai!
First question: Who exactly is the Gëlle Fra?
Like so many other statues of women, the Gëlle Fra, aka the golden lady on the Place de la Constitution, represents a symbol rather than an actual human being. So the question really should be what she represents rather than who she is. The statue represents Nike, the goddess of victory, also known as the “Queen of Freedom” or “Friddenskinnigin” in Luxembourgish.
Victory, freedom,..., so she must be a war memorial?
Indeed, yes! Sculptor Claude Cito began work on the monument in 1921 and the officially-named Monument of Remembrance was inaugurated in 1923. Initially serving as a memorial to Luxembourg’s soldiers who volunteered during World War One, the monument also now commemorates the volunteers during World War Two and the Korean War. The base of the monument has an inscription and two soldiers: one lies at the base, having died during his service, and the other mourns his compatriot.
There are tons of war memorials. What makes the Gëlle Fra special?
A valid point, but the Gëlle Fra is especially significant as she embodies the Luxembourgish spirit and patriotism. She was especially considered a symbol of hope as the Second World War broke out and the Nazis occupied Luxembourg. During the Nazi occupation, they knocked her down and dismantled her in 1940. Historians have agreed that it was at this moment that the statue’s gaze was moved downwards. After the war ended, the authorities wanted to restore the monument, but could only partially do so. You see, much of the monument had gone missing.
Missing? Did the Nazis destroy her?
There does seem to be a consensus that the Nazis broke her into small pieces and then buried her, as the statue was discovered several decades later buried underneath the Josy Barthel stadium. However, there are also rumours that the Church was responsible for burying the pieces of the statue. According to some sources, the Church disapproved of the monument, particularly due to the Gëlle Fra’s scantily-clad form. That rumour suggests the Church’s involvement in the statue’s disappearance. That said, this has never been confirmed so who knows? Most people believe that it was the Germans who buried her, particularly due to the Gëlle Fra’s status as a national emblem.
Is the current statue a new one then?
No, actually! In 1980, two people discovered the remnants of the Gëlle Fra underneath the stands of the Josy Barthel stadium. There is no official explanation for how the statue ended up there and all anybody knows is that she reappeared! In 1985 the monument was re-inaugurated during the National Day celebrations and following a long restoration effort. The return of the original statue after decades missing reinvigorated the monument’s meaning to Luxembourgers, representing the endurance and resistance of Luxembourgers. In 2010, the Gëlle Fra was (this time, gently) removed from the pillar and transported to Shanghai for the World Expo. There, she was exhibited at the entrance of the Luxembourg pavilion.
Anything else worth knowing?
In 2001, Croatian artist Sanja Iveković erected a so-called Gëlle Fra 2 nearby, which sought for a lot of controversy. The artist's sculpture, titled Lady Rosa of Luxembourg, was given a pregnant belly and in its name, referred to the Marxist activist Rosa Luxembourg, who was murdered in Berlin in 1919. Iveković replicated the pedestal at the bottom of the monument, except she put the words "WHORE, BITCH, MADONNA, VIRGIN" and “KITSCH, KULTUR, KAPITAL, KUNST” (Kitsch, culture, capital, art) repeatedly on the pedestal, playing on the initial inscription of the original monument. This caused a lot of controversy. Passers-by were shocked by the vulgar inscriptions and many viewed it as disrespectful to the victims that the original monument honoured.
The aim of Iveković's work was to highlight symbols of freedom and national allegories from women's perspectives, which deny historical women their agency and reduce them to symbols. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York held an exhibition of Iveković's work between 2011 and 2012 and exhibited a project detailed the inception of Lady Rosa and the following reaction.
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