Gëlle Fra - a hallmark of society and Luxembourgish history History of the Remembrance Monument in Luxembourg City

Originally unveiled in 1923 following a citizens' initiative to pay tribute to the Luxembourg soldiers who died in the First World War, the Gëlle Fra has lived an emotional life punctuated by controversy. The 100th anniversary of her creation in 2023 offers us an opportunity to look back and discover - or rediscover - our golden lady.

A monument made in Luxembourg

The Memorial consists of a 21-metre obelisk on a plinth. The base features two bronze sculptures representing a fallen soldier and his comrade. The gilded statue on the obelisk - called the Gëlle Fra (Golden Lady) - measures 3.30 metres and symbolises an angel of peace holding a laurel wreath in her hands.

In 1920, the Luxembourg sculptor Claus Cito won the competition to create a monument in memory of the soldiers who died during the First World War. Out of 18 submissions, he was awarded first prize by an international jury for his project "À nos braves" (To our courageous men). In his studio in Bascharage, Cito created the three sculptures for the monument, first in clay, then in plaster. The figures were then cast in bronze at the Compagnie des Bronzes foundry in Brussels. The identity of the female model who inspired the artist remains a mystery to this day.

The Gëlle Fra explained

In 2010, the Gëlle Fra is the star of the Luxembourg Pavilion at the World Fair in Shanghai.
© SIP / Nicolas Bouvy

The chequered history of the Gëlle Fra

The history of the Monument of Remembrance began in December 1918, when a committee was formed with the idea of building a national monument in memory of Luxembourg soldiers who had volunteered for service with the Allied forces during the First World War. A fund-raising campaign was initiated across the country. In addition to private donations, two sets of postage stamps with a supplement were sold to finance the project. The Gëlle Fra was solemnly inaugurated in 1923 on the Place de la Constitution in the presence of local and foreign officials.

On 10 May 1940, at the start of the Second World War, German troops invaded Luxembourg. As part of his policy to suppress the French influence on the country, Gauleiter Gustav Simon ordered the Gëlle Fra to be dismantled. Destruction work began in October 1940 and after several attempts to remove the Gëlle Fra, it finally fell from its plinth and broke against the obelisk. It caused serious damage to the statue's neck and feet. Thankfully, the two soldiers and the documents encased in the foundations were saved. The Jacquemart company managed to store the two soldiers in safety. A zinc box with official documents was hidden by an engineer.

Interestingly, various Luxembourgish companies invented excuses in order to not carry out the dismantling works demanded by the German civil administration. In particular, they claimed that they do not have the right equipment or that the workers simply refused to perform the work. The demolition work was finally carried out by municipal workers who were threatened with dismissal if they refused.

Between 1944 and 1945, shortly after the liberation of Luxembourg by the Allies, the base of the monument was rebuilt and in 1950 the two bronze soldiers were returned to their rightful place at the foot of the statute.

In 1955, the remains of the Gëlle Fra were presented during Resistance Week. Several parts subsequently disappeared and the Gëlle Fra was only found in 1981 under the stands of the Josy Barthel national soccer stadium. The statute was rebuilt in December 1984 and returned to its place on the obelisk in May 1985. The reconstruction work was entrusted to Jacquemart, already involved in the construction in 1923, Massard from Kayl and Diederich-Colas.

The new version of the Gëlle Fra nevertheless differs from Cito's original in a few details. The feet, which had been damaged in 1940, had to be rebuilt and the inclination of the head of the statute has changed. In 1923, she looked straight ahead and over the city, whereas today her head is tilted downwards, the result of her fall in 1940.

The monument initially served as a memorial to Luxembourg soldiers who fell on the battlefields during the First World War (1914-1918). Today, it also pays tribute to Luxembourg soldiers who died in the Second World War (1939-1945), to Luxembourgers who perished fighting in the Korean War (1950-1953) and to Luxembourgers who volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). 

La petite histoire de l'orteil

Au moment de la démolition de la Gëlle Fra en 1940, un spectateur de l'époque, un étudiant, avait réussi à faire disparaitre le gros orteil original dans sa poche. L'orteil est passé entre plusieurs mains et fait aujourd'hui partie de la collection privée de l'antiquaire Armand Wagner. 

Controversies surrounding the sculpture

Since its inauguration, the Gëlle Fra has been a source of controversy. The sheer sensuality of female sculpture was heavily criticised by the clergy. Despite her dress, in the eyes of the church she represented "pure nudity". Its location on the Place de la Constitution, in close proximity to the cathedral, was also seen as an affront by the Church.

In 2001, the work "Lady Rosa of Luxembourg", by Croatian artist Sanja Iveković, depicting a pregnant version of the Gëlle Fra as part of the exhibition "Luxembourg, the Luxembourgers: consensus and restrained passions", also provoked a heated debate. For example, the Lady Rosa is judged to be a "revolting copy" of the Remembrance monument and a "disgusting parody" of a national symbol.

In 2010, the Gëlle Fra adorned at the entrance to the Luxembourg pavilion at the World Expo in Shanghai. Even though the statue also benefited from a restoration, the decision to remove her from her obelisk and send her to China provoked strong reactions among the public.

Subsequently, it was exhibited for six months in Bascharage, the home town of its sculptor, where spectators could admire it at ground level before it was returned to her rightful place overlooking the city, from where visitors from across the globe come to admired her beauty!