Mystery surrounds location of haunting image of Irish soldiers in first World War
Lost Fortunino Matania masterpiece depicts the Royal Munster Fusiliers regiment on the eve of a battle which would wipe out most of their number
‘The Last General Absolution of the Munsters at Rue du Bois’, by Fortunio Matania. This painting relates to an incident in France in May of 1915, when the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Munster Fusiliers suffered very heavily at Rue du Bois, in the Pas-de-Calais close to Arras. Credit: Illustrated London News Ltd/Mary Evans
The most haunting and poignant image of Irish involvement in the first World War is at the centre of an unsolved art mystery.
The Last General Absolution of the Munsters at Rue du Bois – a painting long presumed lost – depicts soldiers of the Royal Munster Fusiliers regiment receiving “general absolution” from their chaplain on the eve of battle in May 1915. Most of them died within 24 hours.
The painting, by Italian-born war artist Fortunino Matania, became one of the most famous images of the war when prints of it were published in illustrated weekly newspapers.
Copies hung in houses throughout Ireland, and especially Munster, but, as Irish public opinion towards the war changed, the picture gradually disappeared from view.
Centenary commemorations of the first World War have prompted renewed interest in the whereabouts of the original painting among art and military historians.
A widely held theory that the painting was lost when archives were destroyed in a fire during the blitz of London in 1940 is “very much” doubted by English historian Lucinda Gosling, who is writing a book about the artist.
She told The Irish Times there was no definitive proof to confirm this theory and it was possible the original painting was still “out there”.
The painting could, conceivably, be in private hands or, more improbably, be lying forgotten or miscatalogued in a museum’s storage area. Matania’s work occasionally turns up at art auctions, but there has been no known or publicly-documented sighting of the original Munsters painting.
Ms Gosling described Matania as an artist “able to work at great speed, producing pictures that were unnervingly photographic in their realism”.
His pictures, she said, had “reached and influenced millions” and “he combined skill and artistry with a strong streak of journalistic tenacity”.
The painting is based on an event that took place on Saturday evening, May 8th, 1915.
Soldiers from the Second Battalion, Royal Munster Fusiliers, commanded by Lieut-Col Victor Rickard, paused beside a wayside shrine near the village of Rue du Bois in northwest France. The following day, they were due to go into battle, in what became known as the Battle of Aubers Ridge.
The painting is imbued with a sense of impending doom.
In Catholic canon law, a priest may grant general absolution of sin to a gathering of the faithful where there is imminent danger of death and no time for individual confessions.