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

onsdag 14. september 2016

The Saint Olaf altar front in Trondheim

I am currently in Trondheim as a visiting scholar at the department of historical studies at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. The purpose of my sojourn is to connect with colleagues here who have worked a great deal with the material of the cult of Saint Olaf in medieval Norway. This term, I am myself working on a thesis chapter on the literature of Saint Olaf, and therefore it feels very good to be working in the city that once was the cult centre of Norway's most important saint.

One of the great benefits of working on Olaf while residing in Trondheim is the proximity to the remains of the once vibrant cult. Among these remains is an altar front exhibited in the Archbishop's Palace, now a museum of Trondheim's medieval past. In the current blogpost I wish to share this amazing piece of medieval art with you, and at the same time provide a brief description of what it actually depicts. For a more thorough description, see this website (in Norwegian). (All pictures are taken by me.)

The altar front depicts the martyrdom of Olaf Haraldsson, king of Norway from 1015 to 1028. Olaf died 29th of July, 1030 in an attempt to regain political control of the Norwegian kingdom, which by then was under the Danish overlordship of King Knud the Great (d.1035). The final battle was fought at Stiklestad, a bit north of Trondheim, and was interpreted in the medieval literature as a battle between Christians and pagans. Olaf was indeed depicted as a new Constantine, who finally - through his great sacrifice - brought all of Norway into the Christian fold. This image of the great missionary martyr was cultivated in the texts composed towards the end of the twelfth century at the court of the Norwegian archbishop Eystein Erlendsson (r.1161-88) and his immediate successors. (For a brief history of this literature, see this blogpost.)

The image of Olaf as a missionary king has been seriously questioned by modern historians, and there is little reason to buy into the image formulated in the medieval texts. However, what is of interest to me as a historian of the cult of Saint Olaf, is exactly how this medieval image worked and how it was maintained. And in this altar front, we see a very vivid description of how the martyr story was imagined.

The altar front is believed to have been made in or around Trondheim in the period 1320-30. Its four scenes depict four key stages in Olaf's death and canonization. Olaf's canonization took place on August 3rd 1031, when his body was exhumed from its first burial site and then translated to the church of Saint Clement in Trondheim (also known as Nidaros). This translation of Olaf's relics was organized by Bishop Grimkell of Trondheim, a bishop whom Olaf himself had brought to Norway from England when he sailed to his native land in 1015. At this time, the canonization of a saint was an episcopal matter, not something that was decided by the pope or his cardinals.

The story on the altar front must be read from bottom left to top left, then from bottom right to top right. It is difficult to assess the immediate source for the narrative of the altar front. The most likely source is the work now known as Passio et Miracula Beati Olavi, in which Olaf's life, death and miracles were collected into one volume. This Latin volume had received its fourth redaction probably sometime in the 1180s, and should be seen as the official version of the legend of Saint Olaf. However, the first panel includes an episode that is not found - as far as I can judge from Gustav Storm's 1880 edition of the Latin text - in Passio Olavi. It is, however, found in Snorri Sturlusson's Heimskringla, written sometime in the 1220s, but - as will be seen below - there is one significant difference between Snorri and the panel which goes against Heimskringla as the altar front's most immediate source.

In the first panel we see Olaf on his way to Stiklestad and he hands over a bag of coins to a passer-by. Olaf tells the man - a farmer in Snorri's story, but in the panel most likely a priest - that the coins are to be spent on prayers for the souls of the heathens who will fall for the sword of the Christians in the coming battle. The speech scroll in Olaf's other hand might originally have said something to that effect.

The second panel takes place te night before the battle at Stiklestad, and while he is sleeping he receives a dream vision. In this vision Olaf sees a ladder ascending to Heaven - iconographically related to Jacob's ladder, presumably - and on the top of the ladder is Christ calling to Olaf and asking him to ascend to Christ and be happy. In Snorri, Christ does not figure in the vision and Olaf ascends the stairs in the dream. This vision is seen as the premonition of Olaf's martyrdom, and is therefore an important evidence to the idea that Olaf's death was a part of God's plan for which Olaf received his just reward.

The symbols of the evangelists Mark and Matthew

Olaf in the centre of the panel
He is olding the axe of his martyrdom and the royal apple, emblem of his kingship

The lower right panel shows Olaf's death at the hands of his heathen adversaries. In Passio Olavi, very few details are provided concerning the killing of Olaf. Since the Passio is a hagiographic text, aimed at emphasizing the victorious sacrifice rather than the corporeal demise, the text is more focussed on Olaf's soul ascending to Heaven.

One interesting detail to note in this panel is the faces of Olaf's killers compared to the faces of Olaf's own soldiers. While the soldiers of the Christian army have rather bland and plain faces, the faces of the enemies have protruding noses and scowling eyes, in sharp contrast to the Christians in the panel. It could be that these faces are intended to highlight the heathen religion of the antagonists, and it would be useful to compare these depictions with contemporary depictions of Jews and Saracens. Øystein Ekroll, PhD and expert on the medieval cathedral of Nidaros, told me once in conversation that Tore Hund - the man holding the spear - was sometimes said to have been a sorcerer, and that is perhaps what is intended to be portrayed in the panel.

However, before drawing any firm conclusions in this matter, it should be noted that in the first panel there is also a figure with a similarly protruding nose who seems to carry a Christian shield. The verdict awaits therefore a more thorough examination of the material.

The symbols of the evangelists John and Luke

The last panel on the altar front shows the exhumed body of Olaf being washed and sprinkled with holy water. The man with the asperigillus, with which holy water is sprinkled, must be a bishop because of his crozier and bishop's mitre, and this is therefore most likely bishop Grimkell, the one who orchestrated Olaf's translation. The man who washes the body is possibly a deacon, although the crozier in the background might suggest that he, too, is a bishop. In the centre of the panel is a man who appears to hold a book, and this might actually be the Passio Olavi itself, the account of his life, death and miracles.

There are more things to be said about the Saint Olaf altar front, and there are more details to be fleshed out - some of which have already been noted at the aforementioned Norwegian website (here). The panel is a beauitful piece of medieval art, and a great example of the kind of condensed narrative that one often finds in pictorial representations of the legends of the saints.

Similar blogposts

A nineteenth-century hymn for Saint Olaf

The royal saints of Hungary

A miracle of Saint Olaf's

The literature of medieval Nidaros

Amateur theories on the burial site of Saint Olaf

Saint Hallvard of Norway

The early cult of Canute Lavard

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