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 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.