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

lørdag 27. september 2014

Evil cast triumphantly to ground - dragonslayers in Odense

It is roughly a month since I came to Denmark to start my PhD, and in this time I have had some opportunities to explore the city centre with its charming streets, its lovely old-fashioned houses and its beautiful churches. Odense is one of the best preserved medieval cities in Denmark, and although much of today's cityscape is predominantly early modern, we find everywhere sundry reminders of the city's importance in the Middle Ages, like the statue of the sainted King Canute IV, the streets named after Franciscan and Dominican monasteries and the preponderance of places and institutions named after Saint Alban, whose relics were taken from England to Odense in the 11th century by the Danes.

Denmark has long been a Protestant country and the medieval vestiges are now mostly kept within a larger Protestant nostalgic framework, a framework of regional pride and romanticism towards the past. However, there is also the Catholic Church of Saint Albans, built in the early 20th century, and several streets still bear the name of saints such as Anne and Clara, illustrating that the medieval past is still a living part of the city. I have also found two dragonslayers in Odense, and in this blogpost I wish to present them to you.

St Alban's Church, Odense

St George and the dragon

The dragonslayers I encountered were different renditions of St George, the legendary fourth-century martyr from Cappadocia who became increasingly popular in the west from the 12th century onwards, and who became the patron saint of England in 1351. I have written a bit about him earlier (herehere and here), and he continues to fascinate me, largely because of the evolution of his iconography. In Scandinavia he is referred to as Sankt Jørgen (in Denmark and Norway) or Sankt Göran (in Sweden), and although his cult in the north is not yet fully examined, there are several tantalising hints about his popularity. One of these hints can be found in St Alban's Church in Odense, a Catholic church that was begun in 1906 and consecrated, although unfinished, in 1908 to St Albans, the Virgin and St Canute IV. The church became in this way a successor to the medieval St Alban's church where Canute IV had met his martyrdom in 1086. The church possesses some beautiful stained glass windows, which were crafted by Georg Schneider from Regensburg, the royal glass painter. One of these windows depicts Saint George. The window can be found to the far left as you enter the church, situated at the end of one of the side parts of the nave (German: Seitenschiff; Norwegian: sideskip). As can be seen below, George is here depicted as a blonde, clean-shaven knight, an iconographic composition harkening back to the Middle Ages which invokes the ideas of George as a virgin martyr, and at the same time conflating his office as a soldier with the image of the miles Christi, the soldier of Christ. (For more on this church - in Danish - see here.)

The iconography of Saint George is probably influenced by the iconography of Saint Michael, the slayer of Satan in the battle at the end of times as prophecised in the Bible. To some people, perhaps especially soldiers, George may have become a more accessible helper in the Middle Ages, in part because he had been a human, not an archangel and therefore differently placed in the celestial hierarchy, but perhaps also because his past as a soldier made it easier for knights to identify with him.

The second rendition of George and the dragon can be found on a house corner at the junction of Klaregade (St Clare's street) and Skt Anne gade (St Anne's street). The statue of Saint George is cast in bronze, but I don't know by whom or when. The state of the metal suggests a fairly late date, and as can be seen below it is masterfully positioned which gives a very good three-dimentional effect. That the statue in question is of Saint George rather than Saint Michael is suggested by the statue's lack of wings.

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