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Poor Maximilian, so recently shot.

Updated: Nov 27, 2022

The statue of Empress Helena in the chapel of the Finding of the True Cross at the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem.

I have recently read the chapters of Mark Twain's "Innocents Abroad", the account of his visit to, among others, Palestine in 1867. In the chapter about his visit to the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, Twain recounts descending into the Chapel of St Helena, to the place of the Finding of the True Cross, and then writes:

"… a new bronze statue is here of St. Helena. It reminded us of poor Maximilian, so lately shot. He presented it to this chapel when he was about to leave for his throne in Mexico".

I know the chapel very well; I know the statue; I've seen it hundreds of times with my tourists there. I vaguely knew the story of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, but never knew it had anything to do with Jerusalem, but Twain's remark, "poor Maximilian, so lately shot" struck a note with me. This distant, rather bizarre historical anecdote of the 1860s, which was actually well recorded in art, suddenly became close and immediate, with Twain's obvious sympathy and even empathy for this unfortunate Habsburg prince, become Emperor, who was executed shortly afterwards. It happened in 1867, the exact year Mark Twain had visited Palestine, so the news of the Mexican emperor's execution probably arrived in Jerusalem sometime later.

Maximilian's Story

Erzherzog (Archduke) Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph Maria of Austria was born in 1832 in

Vienna. The younger brother of Emperor Franz Joseph, he was a bright and imaginative man. He travelled extensively with the Austrian navy to distant lands and at the age of 22 became the chief commander of the Austrian Navy. He developed it quite successfully.

In 1855 Maximilian, at the head of an Austrian flotilla visited the Holy Land and Egypt and came to Jerusalem, inspected and approved the site for the building of an Austrian pilgrim hostel, originally intended for Italian pilgrims of Lombardy-Veneto. He also donated the bronze statue of St. Helena to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, with her traditional attribute – the cross.

Just behind the statue there are two bronze coats of arms, embedded into the stone wall. The first, Maximilian's personal vice-royal arms of Lombardy-Venetia, charged with the quartered shields of his titular kingdoms of Hungary, Bohemia, Lombardy-Veneto and Galicia and Lodomeria (today in Poland and Ukraine). In the center – the Habsburg-Lorraine shield.

The second emblem is the Papal coat of arms of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, here the Papal mitre is placed on a crown of thorns. It has the special Jerusalem colors of Gold upon Silver. The Austrian emperors were titular of Kings of Jerusalem.

He married princess Charlotte of Belgium, daughter of Belgian king Leopold and in 1857 and that very year became the Viceroy of Lombardia-Veneto, an Austrian possession which extended over most of northern Italy. The young couple moved to Milan, but by 1859 Maximilian was dismissed by his brother after the Battle of Solferino, briefly before Austria would lose the entire kingdom anyway in 1866 to the new independent Italy.

The couple moved to their Miramar Palace in Trieste, in northern Italy in 1859, which Maximilian had just finished planning and building. It was a dream-palace, and they socialized and held court there.

Visit of Empress Elisabeth (Sisi) at the Castello di Miramare 1861; Charlotte of Belgium (in pink dress) welcomes Elisabeth while her husband Ferdinand Maximilian and his brother Emperor Franz Joseph I wait on the boat.

But life does go on in unexpected paths. On the far end of the planet, a new event was unfolding, which would influence the young couple's life. In 1861, Emperor Napoleon III invaded Mexico because of a loan President Juarez refused to repay European countries. Then Napoleon III construed a wacky idea, namely to put a European monarch on the throne of the defunct Mexican Empire of 1821.

Mexican conservatives appealed to the Habsburg prince to become their emperor, and to help them oust the liberal president Benito Juárez.

Was it adventurism or idealism that made Maximilian accept this offer? He was a liberal, but so was Juarez's government. Why did he accept the bid of the Conservatives?

He left for Mexico as Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico, with his wife, now titled Empress Carlota.

Dramatis Personae: Napoleon III, French emperor, Maximilian as emperor of Mexico and the legitimate President of the Mexican Republic, Benito Juárez.

They arrived in Mexico City in 1865, and were met with hostility by most of the population. His government tried to appease the republicans, led by Benito Juárez, but to no avail. Everything went wrong. His decrees caused massacres and the French eventually withdrew because of domestic problems. The young Emperor was captured by the Juárez forces, court-martialed and was executed by firing squad on June 19, 1867. He was 36 years old.

The execution of Maximilian is renowned more for the Manet painting commemorating it, than for the historical event itself. The painting, which is a masterpiece, is probably not accurate historically, we know that because a photo has survived of the event. It has four versions by Manet and was not allowed to be shown in France because the firing squad are wearing French uniforms, which was interpreted as a statement that it was France who was to blame for Maximilian's demise.

The Execution of Emperor Maximilian is a series of paintings by Édouard Manet from 1867 to 1869, depicting the execution by firing squad of Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico.

Painting by Jean-Paul Laurens: The Last moments of Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico and the original photograph of the execution.

Charlotte returned to Europe before his downfall to recruit help for him, he himself refused to abandon his supporters. When she heard of his death, she broke down mentally and never recovered. She was 27 years old. She never remarried till her death in 1927.

His older brother, Emperor Franz Joseph I Visited Jerusalem two years later, in November 1869, after the inauguration of the Suez Canal. He stayed at the Austrian Hostel. Some of its rooms and chapel still retain a sense of elegance and majesty. Today it is still a hotel for pilgrims. The hotel seems like a time-capsule, a quaint European colonial enclave in a Middle-Eastern city. It is a much beloved spot of refreshment for tourists, with its Viennese coffee and pastries.

The Entrance to the Austrian Hostel in Jerusalem with the Austrian flag. The Imperial Salon, all painted; The Trompe-l'œil on the ceiling; The Chapel of the Holy Family, with the imperial coats of arms, such as Maximilian's, decorating the walls. Finally, a fresco showing Franz Joseph leading the old Crusader knightly orders and the nations of his empire back to Jerusalem.

Poor Maximilian, what can we say? Just to acknowledge the statue he donated, here in Jerusalem.

As I finished photographing the statue in the depth of the crypt, I walked out through processions in the church of the Holy Sepulcher, into the bustling Ramadan market, full of food and sweets, for the breaking of the fast meal, the Iftar meal.

The sun sets on another day in this town's long and amazing history and the night covers its legends, stories and fairy tales. What a city!

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