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

torsdag 31. oktober 2019

A Danish hell

Halloween is approaching, and even though I - as a Norwegian having grown up in the late '80s and early '90s - have no proper emotional connection to this season, I nonetheless appreciate how many of my fellow medievalists take the opportunity to share medieval depictions of the horrible and uncanny. So as an excuse to share this image, I present to you in this season of horror a heavily restored early sixteenth-century hellmouth from Sanderum Church near Odense in Denmark, one of the many masterful and wondrous details of this church interior.

mandag 28. oktober 2019

An autumnal view

This term I'm working in Växjö, Sweden, my first residence in Sweden and my first encounter with the Swedish autumn. There is much that resembles home, save for the notable absence of mountains, and I have been very fortunate in that my apartment has a balcony with a vista showcasing some of the beautiful colours of the season. While the temperatures usually do not allow me to enjoy this balcony as much as I would do in the summer, it nonetheless allows me some wonderful sights, such as the one in the picture below, which is a very good representation of my first Swedish autumn.

lørdag 26. oktober 2019

Panteísmo - a poem by Juana de Ibarbourou

This autumn I happened to become acquainted with the poetry of Uruguayan poet Juana de Ibarbourou (1895-1979). It was all a matter of chance, and it does not in any way speak of a great knowledge on my part of the poetry of Latin America. I was simply looking through a list of poets from Uruguay that my current university would have access to in its inter-library loan system, and this was part of my ongoing quest to read one book from every country in the world (a quest inspired by the project A year of reading the world by journalist Ann Morgan).

The Swedish university libraries do not carry a lot of Uruguayan poetry, and most of what is available has been produced by male poets. In general, I try my best to read works by women when entering into the literary heritage of a country that to me is new and largely unknown. I was therefore lucky to get my hands on a volume containing two of her collections, which I have been reading for the past two months.

In the course of my reading, I found that her verses struck a chord with me. Juana de Ibarbourou wrote about encounters with the natural world, about the kinship with forests, fields and countryside that resonated with my own upbringing in a rural district of the Norwegian fjords. And I was struck by how much of what she conveyed through her intense verses, depicting an antipodean world which I have never visited, easily translated into familiar vistas of my home tucked away somewhere in the Northern hemisphere. I became enamoured of her verses, and I kept reading until there was nothing more to be read in that volume I had borrowed.

At present, I do not know whether Juana de Ibarbourou's poetry is accessible in English translations, and whether they are accessible in complete editions of her collections. But in this blogpost, I present a preliminary translation of one of her poems that particularly caught my attention, and this is an attempt partly to improve my own Spanish through translation, and partly to present a sample of Juana de Ibarbourou's poetry to new readers. The poem in question is a sonnet from her collection Las lenguas de diamante (The tongues of diamond), published in 1919.


Siento un acre placer en tenderme en la tierra,
Con el sol matutino tibio como una cama.
Bajo mi cuerpo, ¡cuánta vida su vientre encierra! ¡Quién sabe qué diamante esconde aquí su llama!
¡Quién sabe qué tesoro, dentro de una mirada,Surgirá de este mismo lugar done reposo,
Si será el oro vivo de una era sembrada,
O la viva esmeralda de algún árbol frondoso!

¡Quien sabe qué estupenda y dorada simiente Ha de brotar ahora bajo mi cuerpo ardiente!
Futuro pebetero que espacerá a los vientos,

En las noches de estío, claras y rumurosas,
El calor de mi carne hecho aroma de rosas,
Fraganica de azucenas y olor de pensamientos.


I feel a bitter pleasure in lying down on the earth
With the morning sun warm as a bed.
Underneath my body, how much life is enclosed in its entrails!
Who knows what diamond hides here its flame!

Who knows what treasure, within a myriad,
Will rise up from this same spot where I now rest,
Whether it will be the living gold sown in a bygone age
Or the living emerald of a leafy tree!

Who knows what stupendous and golden seed
Is now sprouting beneath my burning body!
A future thurible that will spread to the winds

In the clear and noisy summer nights,
The heat of my flesh now given the scent of roses,
Fragrance of lilies, and the smell of thoughts.

tirsdag 8. oktober 2019

Canaan's grapes in Denmark

And speaking to them and to all the multitude, they shewed them the fruits of the land
- Numbers, 13:27

In the Book of Numbers, chapter 13, Moses sends twelve spies into Canaan, one from each of the twelve tribes of Israel, to examine the quality of the promised land. The spies return with reports of a land of abundant riches, of milk and honey, of inhabitants of immense stature, and as proof they bring with them a cluster of grapes so large that two men have to carry the grapes between them.

In Christian art of the Middle Ages, the enormous cluster of grapes became a symbol of the bounty of God that the faithful eventually will receive. The scene of the two men carrying their burden of promise became an element of the pictorial narratives with which churches were often decorated in medieval Christendom. Consequently, this scene became part of a universal visual code that allowed men and women of all estates of any society of Latin Christendom to absorb Biblical history, and in this way people of Scandinavia, of Spain, of Dalmatia, of Germany could access the same iconography. In this blogpost, I wish to show you two such examples from parish churches in medieval Denmark - more specifically, the island of Fyn. The two examples are not only from two different churches, but also two different centuries, thus showing the stability of this iconography in medieval Christian art. And before I commence, I wish to thank my dear friend Dr Rosa Rodríguez Porto, whose insight into medieval art was what taught me about this scene in the first place.   

From the choir of Sanderum Church

The first example of this scene comes from Sanderum Church, about which I have written briefly in a previous blogpost. The church itself was built in the latter half of the twelfth century, a time when several parish churches were built on Fyn, and which might serve as a testament to the wealth of the diocese, whose centre was Odense. The scene of the grapes can be found on the northern wall of the choir, where several scenes from the Old Testament are depicted. These scenes are from a thirteenth-century wall-painting programme that is likely to have once covered the entire interior with scenes from the Old Testament and the New Testament, and possibly also scenes from the stories of certain saints. However, the only part that remains of this thirteenth-century decoration is the northern wall of the choir. Even this part is incomplete, since rebuilding in the later Middle Ages, a time when Sanderum most likely belonged to the Bendedictine convent of nuns at Dalum Monastery, altered several parts of the structure, both of the choir and the nave. But the two men bearing that large cluster of grapes have since then been rediscovered after a long period behind white paint, and can still serve to remind us of how this episode was transmitted to the local parishioners.   

Bellinge Church

The second example is from the church of Bellinge, a church that by the first quarter of the fourteenth century definitely belonged to Dalum Monastery, and whose oldest, and now almost completely lost, structure is in the late romanesque style. The interior of this church was covered by a wall-painting programme in 1496, in which scenes from the Bible can be found along the walls of the nave, in the vaulting, and in the choir, as well as a large depiction of St George killing the dragon. The scene of the two spies returning with their bounty of grapes can be found in the second of the two vaults of the nave, and can be seen from the choir when facing towards the congregation. This means that it would not have been seen by the parishioners in the course of the service itself, though they would likely see it when looking up after receiving the Eucharist - if they did so by walking up to the altar. 

There are most likely several more depictions of this scene throughout the medieval churches of Fyn. Many of them have been lost to us, either by the application of layers of white paint, or by rebuilding that have necessitated the removal of the crucial part of the wall. I hope to see more examples of these two spies in future visits to Danish parish churches, and I shall look for them eagerly. 

søndag 29. september 2019

Saint Michael in Segovia, a modern medieval knight

In my previous blogpost I ruminated briefly on the iconography on Saint Michael the Archangel for the occasion of today being Michaelmas, and I had intended to leave it at that this year. But as I was looking through some pictures from earlier this year, I came across another depiction of Saint Michael that I encountered on a late night in Segovia just a few months ago, and this is a picture I really want to share.

Sancte Michael Archangele, defende nos in proelio
Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle
From a medieval prayer to the archangel

I was puzzled by this image, especially as it was posted on the door of a cafe in a way that made it seem that there was no clear relationship between the image and the place in which it was placed, and that this was not a part of the cafe's deliberate decor. In and of itself, the image is perhaps only to be expected in a city like Segovia, where the medieval cityscape is very well preserved, and where medieval iconography is ubiquitous. And to be sure, the image is a variation on the typical medieval representation of the archangel: A sword-wielding knight standing above his vanquished enemy, the satanic dragon. The legend arching across the upper part of the image is the opening of a liturgical chant for the feast of Michael going back to at least the ninth century (as can be seen here). He is carrying a shield that resembles that of Saint George, a common detail in Renaissance imagery, as illustrated by one of Raphael's famous paintings.

Saint Michael and the dragon
Raphael, between 1504 and 1505
Courtesy of Wikimedia

But there is one detail that strikes me as notably modern in this depiction, and which shows to me that this is a case of a modern medievalism used in representing Saint Michael as a symbol of fantasies of medieval knighthood. That detail is his armour, which is a chainmail armour covering most of his body (including his feet, from what it seems to me), partly covered by a tunic that reaches to the knee. This is a very common feature of medieval depictions of knights, including illuminations of Saint George. But it is not a typical feature of medieval depictions of Michael the Archangel. In medieval illuminations, Michael is usually wearing a kirtle or, more typically from the fourteenth century onwards, a full plate armour as in the painting by Raphael.

The monk Gelduin presents his work to Saint Michael 
Avranches - BM - ms. 0050, f.001, c.980-1000 
(Courtesy of

The final battle from BL MS Additional 11695, ff. 147v-148
Beatus of Liébana, Commentary on the Apocalypse, 10th century
(Courtesy of British Library)

Saint Michael battling the dragon 
Cambrai - BM - ms. 0528, f.198v, Homiliary, twelfth century 
(Courtesy of

A minuscule rendering of an epic battle
Cambrai - BM - ms. 0190, f.149, Epistolary, Cambrai, 1266 
(Courtesy of

In short, despite efforts, the Saint Michael I encountered in Segovia is clearly a product of the modern imagination and its imaginings of the medieval period, rather than a product of the medieval period itself, even though the iconography and the liturgical intertextuality clearly draw inspiration from the cult of Saint Michael as it was established in the medieval period. All in all, I will argue that this rendition has more in common with the Spanish comic book hero El Capitán Trueno (Captain Thunder) than with medieval renditions of the archangel.

When I encountered Saint Michael in this guise, I was intrigued as I always am when I see examples of how medieval culture inspires modern imitations. But I was also a bit perturbed, and precisely because I know that modern imitations of medieval culture are often likely to have their genesis in fantasies that champion violent nationalism. In Scandinavia, this is seen in racist appropriations of the Viking past, and in Spain the medieval past and its chivalric trappings can easily be applied to fuel sentiments of anti-Semitism and islamophobia. When seeing the modern rendition of the medieval Saint Michael, one immediate question was: Who is the speaker of the supplication in the legend, what is the battle in question, and against whom is Saint Michael to be expected? I would love to know whether this imagery is more widespread in Spain, and whether it does have the kind of troubling connotations that I fear, or whether it is simply an act of enthusiasm.

lørdag 28. september 2019

Saint Michael in Roskilde

Today, September 29, is the feast of Saint Michael the Archangel. Saint Michael is a popular figure in medieval Christian art, where he is most commonly depicted as the leader of God's army in the fight against the rebel angels. This is often portrayed as the winged Michael in battle with a dragon, and it is a scene that can be found in religious art throughout Christendom. It is likely to have inspired the iconography for several saints who have also become famous for battling dragons. This might especially be the case with Saint George, who is often rendered in a way that makes him appear as more or less a Saint Michael sans wings. This can be explained in part by George typically being depicted as an armed knight, which really emphasises his similarity with the armed general of the heavenly cohorts, Michael. The iconographies of other dragon-battling saints might also have been influenced by Saint Michael, either directly or indirectly through such imitators as Saint George. This is particularly likely in the cases of saints where the dragon has not been an instrumental part of the foundational legend. An example of this can be seen in the case of Saint Olaf of Norway, who is often shown with a dragon or dragon-like figure under his feet. Such a scene is not found Olaf's oldest narratives, and the scene is therefore more likely to have been shaped by other influences. A counterexample are scenes of such famous dragonslayers as Saint Margaret of Antioch, who emerged from the dragon after being swallowed, a scene so iconic that it is unlikely to have been inspired by Saint Michael or any more nondescript dragon slaying stories. The same goes for the legend of Saint Martha fighting the tarasque in Provence, where the iconography of a half-swallowed man's legs protruding from the beast's mouth is unlikely to have any immediate iconographical origin from outside the legend itself. I am, however, not familiar with whether there are any studies of these possible connections.   

For the feast of Michaelmas this year, I'm putting up a picture from a bench end in Roskilde Cathedral. The scene was made around the turn of the fifteenth century. 

Michael battling the dragon
Bench end from Roskilde Cathedral, c.1500

torsdag 26. september 2019

Utopia - a poem by Wisława Szymborska

One of my fascinations is how people imagine their ideal societies, their utopias, and I have a particular soft spot for stories that flesh out a Utopian society in one way or another. The other day I came across a very beautifully formulated description of Utopia that really highlights the gaping chasm that exists between the ideals that humans wish for, and the willingness they have to actually take the necessary steps to achieve those ideals. The text in question is a poem by Wisława Szymborska from her collection People on a bridge, translated by Adam Czerniawski and published by Forest Books.