And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

lørdag 17. november 2018

Saint Olaf in Sweden, part 1 - Granhult

This summer I attended a conference in Sweden, organised in Växsjö in Småland which is about a two-hour train-ride north of Copenhagen and in the heartland of some of the books by Astrid Lindgren. This is a landscape of pine forests, parcels of rock-strewn open land, marshes and lakes, with scattered farms and homesteads that suddenly appear as you drive through the area. Historically, the region has been somewhat poor due to the soil being difficult to cultivate on account of the many stones and rocks and thick-set forests, and it is for this reason that the region of Småland was the area of Sweden from which most people emigrated to America in the nineteenth century.

Despite the difficulties of the landscape itself, the area around Växsjö contains an impressive number of medieval churches. This has in part to do with Växsjö being one of the oldest bishoprics of medieval Sweden, which dates to the first half of the eleventh century. Its first bishop was the Saint Sigfrid, a monk of Glastonbury who was most likely sent by King Ethelred to help Olaf Tryggvason (d.1000) to Christianise Norway. From there he went to Sweden, and according to his - not uncontested - legend it was he who baptised the Swedish king Olof Skötkonung (Tax-king) (r.995-1022). Sigfrid became venerated as a saint and is the patron of Växsjö. He figures in the municipal coat-of-arms.   

Saint Olaf in Granhult Church

Another important saint in medieval Sweden was Saint Olaf of Norway, who had been king of Norway from 1016-28 and who was killed at Stiklestad in 1030 in an attempt to regain the Norwegian kingship. From the mid-eleventh century onwards, Saint Olaf was an increasingly popular saint, and in medieval Sweden there was a strong liturgical tradition.

As a part of the conference, we had an excursion in which we travelled through Småland and visited four of its surviving medieval churches, all of which are impressively well preserved and very beautiful. In the present blogpost, I'm focussing on the last of the churches we visited, which was the church of Granhult (meaning small wood of spruce).

Granhult Church

Granhult Church was built in the 1220s and the timbers and woodwork of the nave has been dated and proven to be of the original structure. The sacristy and the porch are both post-medieval additions.

It is a beautiful little space, and the interior walls are covered in floreate decorations from the eighteenth century. As we were entering, I noticed a figure seated in a canopied niche on high up on the western wall, and it did not take long to recognise the typical late-medieval depiction of Saint Olaf of Norway. I was not the least bit surprised, as he had made appearances in the last two of the three churches we had already visited, and because I knew - as mentioned above - that his cult was important in medieval Sweden.

As we can make out from the picture above, the niche in which Olaf is seated is relatively high from the ground floor. During the divine service the congregation would have its back to him, but as they turned to leave they would all see his protective gaze and absorb his iconography, to which I will return shortly. From the present church space, however, it is difficult to say just how the medieval experience of the church would have been. Its white painted walls deocrated in once brights colours are a feature of the modern era, and although a lot of light enters through the windows it is difficult to say how that light would have illuminated the possibly dark medieval walls. In the winter, the light would naturally have come from candles, but even in the summer we might expect that the figure of Saint Olaf appeared with somewhat less brightness than it does today, if only on account of the colours surrounding him.

Saint Olaf and the dragon

The seated figure of Saint Olaf is a typical represenation of him from the later Middle Ages. The wooden figure is most likely fifteenth century, and was possibly made in Sweden or else in Lübeck from where a high number of late-medieval sculpture was shipped to Scandinavia. The figure shows Olaf enthroned with a full beard and a crown. In his right hand he holds a battle axe which is modelled more on the late-medieval halberd than the battle axe of eleventh-century Norway. This axe is Olaf's emblem, and is variously - and sometimes confusedly - identified as the axe with which he was wounded on Stiklestad - he was wounded by a spear, a sword and an axe according to some versions of the legend. In his left hand he holds what is now a broken royal orb. In its original state, this orb would most likely have been divided into three parts, signifying the three continents of the known world, since the orb symbolised the earth's sphere - and yes, they knew that the earth was spherical in shape in the Middle Ages.

Underneath his feet we see a dragon with a human head carrying a crown. As can be seen, the dragon's crown is of a similar colour to that of Saint Olaf, but the dragon's face is not beareded. This figure, known as an underlier, is typical in the iconography of Saint Olaf, but its interpretation is disputed. The Norwegian art historian Harry Fett (d.1962) argued that the dragon had the face of Saint Olaf and represented his former pagan self. However, in an MA thesis from 2010 from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Å drepe dragen (To kill the dragon), it was established that the face of the dragon does not always resemble the face of Saint Olaf. This is borne out in the figure from Granhult.

There exist other interpretations as well, such as the dragon symbolising the devil, Saint Olaf's enemies, the secular kingship which he spurned according to his Latin vita, but no consensus has been agreed upon. In my opinion, there is probably no consensus to be had, as it is likely that even in the Middle Ages the symbolism of this iconographic feature was open to various interpretations, and indeed was interpreted differently, which is why we see so many variations of it. It is also likely that the iconography changed over time.

The Saint Olaf of Granhult is a beautiful treasure from the medieval period, at once typical and specific to the church in question, situated in a thirteenth-century church in the middle of the Swedish forests. 

onsdag 31. oktober 2018

Address to the toothache - a poem by Robert Burns

I try not to get too personal on this blog, as it is mostly inteded for sharing scholarly or cultural things that interest me or that I find worth sharing or talking about, and also pictures of nature. However, this time I give you a poem by Robert Burns which mirrors my own personal life for the few days, in which I have been struggling against that most aweful of tortures, a toothache. Burns' poem provides the perfect description. I have here taken it from The poem came readily to mind during these travails, as it is a hauntingly comic work which I've had somewhere on the periphery of my mind ever since I first read it in an excellent translation into Norwegian by Johannes Gjerdåker, several years ago.

Address to the toothache
MY curse upon your venom’d stang,
That shoots my tortur’d gums alang,
An’ thro’ my lug gies mony a twang,
Wi’ gnawing vengeance,
Tearing my nerves wi’ bitter pang,
Like racking engines!

When fevers burn, or argues freezes,
Rheumatics gnaw, or colics squeezes,
Our neibor’s sympathy can ease us,
Wi’ pitying moan;

But thee—thou hell o’ a’ diseases—
They mock our groan.        

Adown my beard the slavers trickle
I throw the wee stools o’er the mickle,
While round the fire the giglets keckle,
To see me loup
While, raving mad, I wish a heckle,
Were in their doup!

In a’ the numerous human dools,
Ill hairsts, daft bargains, cutty stools,
Or worthy frien’s rak’d i’ the mools,—
Sad sight to see!
The tricks o’ knaves, or fash o’fools,
Thou bear’st the gree!

Where’er that place be priests ca’ hell,
Where a’ the tones o’ misery yell,
An’ ranked plagues their numbers tell,
In dreadfu’ raw,
Thou, TOOTHACHE, surely bear’st the bell,
Amang them a’!

O thou grim, mischief-making chiel,
That gars the notes o’ discord squeel,
Till daft mankind aft dance a reel
In gore, a shoe-thick,
Gie a’ the faes o’ SCOTLAND’S weal
A townmond’s toothache!

fredag 26. oktober 2018

The hunt of the griffin - a detail from Trogir cathedral

In a previous blogpost I gave a brief introduction to the portal of the cathedral of Trogir in Croatia. The main parts of this portal were carved by the master mason Radovan in the mid-thirteenth century, and as a whole the portal displays familiarity with both Northern Italian as well as Byzantine iconography. In its complex net of images and stories, the portal of Radovan is an exceedingly beautiful example of the skill of medieval masons, and it also provides a great example of the iconographical influences that shaped the art of medieval Croatia.

One example I want to highlight here is a hunting scene in which a griffin is depicted in the moment it captures a pig. The griffin is a familiar feature in medieval iconography, and its medieval reception history is complex and long. In The Divine Comedy, for instance, Dante describes how a griffin was drawing the car of Beatrice and in this the griffin belonged to the side of good. However, griffins could also be representatives of the wild regions beyond Christendom where paganism reigned and where there were no civilisations. This can be seen in how griffins were described in Pliny, who relied on Herodotus' description which in turn relied on the now-lost work of Aristeias. According to this classical tradition, griffins were guardians of gemstone mines in the far north near the cave Geskleithron, the abode of Boreas the north wind. These mines the griffins guarded from attacks by the one-eyed nation of the Arimaspi.

The depiction of the griffin in Radovan's portal is also a demonstration of the griffin's fierce aspect. Here we see the griffin in the moment it has struck a helpless pig and begun biting its face. This scene is remarkable for its beautiful execution. Moreover, it is noteworthy for its typicality. This scene is one that can be found in various versions in medieval bestiaries, where the antagonism between the griffin and the pig is firmly established. As such, Radovan's depiction not only displays his skill but also his familiarity with an established icongoraphical canon that in consequence reminds us that medieval Croatia was not a strange periphery but part of a wide-reaching network of ideas and images that spanned the Latin West and beyond.

Griffin and pig by Master Radovan

mandag 22. oktober 2018

Book repair from the past

A few months ago, my colleague Jakob Povl Holck at the university library of University of Southern Denmark sent me a batch of photographs from a book he had recently examined. The main attraction of this book was the liturgical fragment on its cover, and which I might return to in a later blogpost. But I was also struck by the frontispiece of the fragment carrier, which is an edition of Eusebius' Chronicon translated into Latin by Jerome - the Chronicon only survives in translations as the original in Greek has been lost - and which was printed in Paris by the printer Henricus Stephanus, also known as Henri Estienne (1528-98).

As can be seen below, the frontispiece shows a beautiful, if incomplete, reparation in which the central roundel has been reconstructed, and in which the original abbreviation of "eius" has been retained in the missing words written out by pen. Understandably, the elaborate knotwork and fronds have not be recreated, but it is clear that the repair work has been undertaken with great care.

We do not know when the frontispiece was repaired. We do know that the book was kept at Herlufsholm School in Denmark for a long time - although we do not know when it came there - and it is easy to imagine that the tear has happened due to carelessness on the part of a Danish student possibly struggling with the sheer size and weight of the book. It is, however, equally possible that the work has been commissioned by the bibliophile who quite likely purchased this work and then later donated it to the school.

Although scholarly speaking the liturgical fragment of this book holds the greatest fascination for me, and the greatest mysteries, there is something very pleasing about such a repair work as this, and I keep coming back to it.

Eusebius' Chronicon, translated by Jerome
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek, RARA L 15
Photo by Jakob Povl Holck

tirsdag 16. oktober 2018

Music for the season - Ana Vidovic and Isaac Albéniz

Even though it is a significantly warmer October than usual, there is still an unmistakably autumnal feel about these days, a certain crispness in the air, and the scent of rotting leaves and distant aromas of mulch and soil. Somehow, this mood seems to me to be perfectly encapsulated by the instrumental piece "Asturias" by the Spanish composer Isaac Albéniz (1860-1909), here mesmerisingly performed by Ana Vidovic.

onsdag 26. september 2018

The sausage-maker in Trogir

In the Croatian city of Trogir there is a medieval cathedral with a stupendous and beautifully crafted stone arch. I will tell you more about this in future blogposts, but today I will give you one of my favourite details of this masterpiece of masonry.

The stone arch is the accumulative product of the skills and efforts of several masons over a period of three centuries. But the earliest elements of the arch were put in place by the master mason Radovan, who finished his work in 1240. We know this because an inscription survives from the time of its completion, giving the name of the maker and the year it was finished.

The arch has been the subject of extensive study throughout the twentieth century, and there has been established a consensus concerning the layers of its genesis.

One of the details established as belonging to Radovan's workmanship is a scene depicting some of the labours of the year, namely the making of sausages. Below, we see how skilfully and life-like Radovan rendered this scene, one with which he was most likely very familiar from his own life. We see the sausage-maker in his clogs, minding the stew that will go into the intestines already prepared and drying from being cleaned, hanging above him. Meanwhile, a young boy pours liquid into a bowl. This is most likely pig's blood that will be mixed in with the stew that will go in the sausage.

There are many stunning things about this depiction. For instance, it shows that realism and sophistication were not absent from medieval masonry - a point that should not have to be made, but which bears repeating. Secondly, moreover, this scene is a great reminder that we modern people are not all that different from those of the Middle Ages. Having grown up on a farm, I am well familiar with the making of sausages, and in its basic elements we do this in the same way as the thirteenth-century Dalmatian man who served as Radovan's inspiration for this beautiful carving.

mandag 24. september 2018

A requiem by Cristóbal de Morales

As the autumn takes hold on Denmark and various signs of ending and transition appear in my everyday life, it somehow feels fitting to share with you a mass for the dead by one of my favourite composers, the Spanish Cristóbal de Morales (c.1500-53), whose music is among the most beautiful things in this world.

Cristóbal de Morales, Missa pro defunctis