Category Archives: History

Viking Artistry in Oslo

Talk about spectacular resting places! The Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, Norway displays boats and artifacts from four different boat burials along the Oslo Fjord. Three of the boats are well preserved, and the fourth was reduced to iron nails and other bits and pieces. They date from about 820 A.D. to about 900 A.D. All the boats were used at sea for some years, then drydocked and fitted with burial rooms before being dug into the ground. They were found and excavated between 1852 and 1904.

The most beautiful of the three, the Oseberg, was used to bury two women. How important must they have been? A pair of the legendary shield-maidens, perhaps? Maybe a couple of princesses? How did two powerful women die at the same time? There’s a story here, but it’s lost in the mists of Scandinavian history. Modern dating techniques place this burial at 834 A.D.

The intricate carved wood detail is beautiful.

Oar openings are still present–fifteen of them on this boat. Still-intact shields were hung from some of the oar holes.

Some elements, like the serpent above, were reconstructed from fragments. Mostly, though, preservation was excellent, because the ships were buried in moist ground with high clay content, and covered with turf for centuries.

More beautiful carving…

The solemn fellows shown above worked on the excavation in 1903. The photo clearly shows the intact wood carvings. The graves had already been looted long ago of precious materials, but plenty of grave goods survived.

Who is the bearded fellow above?


He’s part of a fantastically carved wooden cart found with the Oseberg ship. Vikings were known to use utilitarian carts, but this elaborate one was most likely used in ceremonies and religious processions.

The cart is made of oak. Every surface is covered with carved people and animals, possibly showing Norse legends or historical events.

Did Vikings have cats? I think so! The Norwegian Forest Cat is said to have sailed on ships. Who doesn’t need a good mouser?

The cart is not only beautiful, but quite a feat of engineering.

The cart was most likely pulled by two horses. A bridle, decorated with metal studs, is on display in a case nearby.

There’s also a sleigh, proof that the Vikings knew their way around snow and ice.

The sleigh carvings are as elaborate and beautiful as the ones on the cart.


Solid wood sleigh shafts are intricate carved and studded.


Burials included cooking pots and a good supply of food for the journey to Valhalla.


Rattles were most likely used in religious ceremonies. This one would make quite a racket. Maybe it scared away evil spirits?


Leather shoes? Sure.


There are even a few surviving textiles. Most likely some were woven at home, and some came from trading–or raiding.


This is by far the most complete Viking exhibit I’ve seen anywhere. I wouldn’t care to see fearsome Viking raiders on my horizon, but from the safe distance of many centuries, their faces are fascinating.

Art Nouveau Vikings at Frederiksborg 

Frederiksborg Castle in Hillerod, Denmark houses tons of fine historic art, but one of my favorite pieces is pretty humble: it occupies a long lower-level hallway leading to the exit.

From 1883-1886, Lorenz Frolich painted a commissioned piece: a 37-meter frieze depicting the Danish conquest of large chunks of England. It was to be a Danish counterpart to the embroidered Bayeux Tapestry, which documented the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. The style of the frieze was from the very early years of Art Nouveau,  also known as Jugendstihl, also known as Skonvirke in Denmark.

The Danish Vikings began sailing their shallow-depth longboats across the sea and up the rivers of England in the late 700s. Before that, they had only ventured as far as the Baltic countries on their raids. The trouble was, the Baltics were almost as poor in resources as Scandinavia. Pickings were slim. But England had rich soil where Danish settlers could grow much more food than in their own rocky soil. English monasteries were crammed with gold and silver candleholders, crosses and chalices.

Raiding was wearying work, but somebody had to do it, right?


After a couple of centuries of striking fear into the hearts of the Brits, and much bloody axe-swinging, the Dane Swein Forkbeard was crowned King of England in 1013.

When Swein died, his son Canute the Great took the crown, and in due course Swein’s grandsons Harold Harfoot and Hardecnut had their turns at ruling the rich land of England. The printed information at Frederiksborg skips over the period when the Danes lost their grip on power in 1042 after the death of Hardecnut. But we’re informed that 1066 was all about the Danes: the Normans were direct descendants of the Danish Vikings who had conquered the part of France that became Normandy.


The Frederiksborg frieze is at pains to depict the conquering Vikings as reasonable, law-abiding fellows willing to sit in orderly rows and debate issues like gentlemen.


There’s also emphasis on their domestic qualities. And it’s true: they were fine farmers and they had domesticated animals.

Travis Fimmel as Ragnar Lothbrok, photo from review in “Variety,” Feb. 21, 2014

 

All the qualities of the Vikings are on display in the History Channel’s TV series “The Vikings.” I’m anxiously awaiting the 5th season. A disclaimer: yes, I know the show is full of appalling violence. Don’t even ask me what a Blood Eagle is. But for the first time, I begin to understand the Vikings, their world view, and the elaborate mythology that guided their behavior.

The series tells the story of Ragnar Lothbrok, an early Viking of song and legend, and his descendants, who eventually became the Normans of 1066 fame. Following the time-honored traditions of TV showrunners everywhere, real events are compressed and characters invented. But historical research is said to be quite accurate as far as clothing, houses, community organization, laws, and religion.

Travis Fimmel, pictured above, plays Ragnar. He is a former Calvin Klein model, but he has real acting chops to go along with his fierce blue eyes and intimidating tattoos. I’ll watch him do anything, from his early daring voyage to pillage Lindisfarne monastery, through adultery and divorce, and right on into the murderous madness of his old age.

Katheryn Winnick and Travis Fimmel in “The Vikings,” photo from review in “The Telegraph,” May 3, 2014

 

Another big selling point of “The Vikings,” for me, is the depiction of strong women. Lagertha is Ragnar’s brave and loyal wife, a formidable “shieldmaiden.” Even after their messy separation after he takes up with a tall, graceful, ladylike beauty, Lagertha graciously returns again and again to bash heads alongside Ragnar and their sons. Axe, sword and shield in hand, she’s ready save Ragnar’s bacon when he finds himself in trouble. What a woman!


I like the kinder, gentler version of the Vikings depicted in Frolich’s frieze paintings. But I’ll take my Vikings at their fiercest, too.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe, Scandinavia and the British Isles!

Frederiksborg Castle: Renaissance in Knitting Needles

Frederiksborg Castle in Denmark is a riot of Renaissance elegance. A recent exhibit featured a jaw-dropping collection of hand-knitted ensembles based on the costumes in royal and noble portraits in the castle.

I love the idea of knitting, but I’m terrible at it. A simple scarf from my hands turns into a lumpy mess. So I was in awe.

The source portraits were hard to identify in Danish, so I gave up and just enjoyed the knitted versions of the costumes. How about an artfully ruched sleeve on a simple gray sweater?

Or an elegant dress based on two portraits from the 1500s? I’d cheerfully wear this if I had an occasion fancy enough.

Perhaps an elaborate lace collar?

I’d wear this dress too, if the artist knitted me one in a different color combination. Maybe subtle blues and purples?


The same goes for the pantaloon-turned-skirt number, based on a portrait of one Captain Sir Thomas Dutton. I’ll take one in grays and blues, please.

Two of my favorite colors, and an Elizabeth vibe…

A peplum number in deep blue.

Textures and colors fit for a long-ago princess…


I’m not sure of the inspiration for this creamy white wool coat. It kind of looks like a gentleman’s long-sleeved undershirt, lovingly sewn by his lady. Whatever. Just ring it up. I’ll wear it home!

Join me next time for more explorations in the art, past and present, of Europe and the British Isles.

My Scandinavian Fathers

Actually my Scandinavian father and father-in-law are no longer with us, and I only knew grandfathers back one generation. But they were all descendants of families from Sweden, Norway and Finland who made the perilous journey to America in the 19th century. (The one exception was my British grandfather, who made a perilous journey of his own). The sculpture above is from Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland’s fantastic outdoor collection in Oslo, where the city gave him an entire huge park and studio for his lifetime. It’s a carefree image of fatherhood.

My forefathers did not have carefree lives in the Old Country. I never heard any of my relatives speak longingly of returning, although my grandmother used to croon Finnish lullabies to us in the rocking chair. My people were no doubt poor potato farmers trying to scrounge a living from rocky little plots of land. They were very happy to arrive on American shores and begin new lives in the rich soil of Minnesota. I was not particularly motivated to visit Scandinavian or Nordic regions–I guess I vaguely thought of these lands as poor backwaters, maybe lacking paved roads and indoor plumbing.

Over the past few months, I finally got around to visiting, over four different trips: first Sweden, then Denmark, then Finland, then Norway.  Now they’re my new favorite destinations.

Looking at Scandinavian art, I was struck by images of children parting from parents they would never see again.

This painting, by Adolph Tidemand, is “The Youngest Son’s Farewell.” It was painted in 1867, when the great wave of migration was well under way. It’s in the Kode Gallery in Bergen, Norway.

In the National Gallery of Norway in Oslo, there’s a similar poignant scene painted by Harriet Backer in 1878, “The Farewell.”

What’s going on here? It’s either a scene of emigration, or possibly of going off to war.  One of the reasons for leaving the Old Country was to escape compulsory military service. A servant hauls the young man’s duffel bag.

Whatever the reason, the parents are devastated to part with their son. There was no email, no Skyping, no jet planes for quick visits home.  Leaving very often meant leaving forever.

Life in Scandinavia was full of peril as well as poverty. In this 1858 painting by Carl Bloch, a Danish family looks anxiously out to sea was a storm approaches.  Will Father return, or will they all be left to fend for themselves? “Fisherman’s Families Await Their Return in an Approaching Storm” is in the Hirschsprung Gallery in Copenhagen.

In Vaxjo, Sweden, I stopped by the House of Emigrants, full of fascinating displays about the great wave of migration that brought my people to America starting around the 1850s and continuing well into the 20th century.

 

The museum contains a replica of the writing hut of the Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg, who meticulously documented the immigrant experience is the four historic novels “The Emigrants.”

Moberg spent a lot of time in the very Minnesota counties where my ancestors put down roots, just north of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

I had already watched the fine Max Van Sydow/Liv Ullman movies “The Emigrants” and “The New Land.”

While still traveling, I downloaded the four novels and devoured them.  Suddenly, I wanted to know all about my Scandinavian fathers.  Travel constantly opens up new doors!

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe, the British Isles, and now the Nordic and Scandinavian countries!

Easter Time in Helsinki


Helsinki in early April is chilly and blustery.  All the children are bundled up in one-piece snow suits. I was wishing I had one! Finland is not a place for religious pageantry and parades as in Southern Europe.


The Lutheran Helsinki Cathedral is impressive in its grand spaces, but very austere. Aside from Martin Luther gazing skyward, there’s not much to look at. And (at least on an admittedly quick stop) I didn’t see a children’s corner with little chairs, or posters about bake sales, or ladies dusting things, or a single clergy person.


The National Museum of Finland was a much more church-like experience. This pulpit is from the church in Parainen, Finland, dated 1650. At the time, Finland was a frontier to the west of Sweden–and very handy as a buffer between Sweden and Russia. Newly built churches were required to have pulpits. Lutheranism was the state religion of Sweden, and everybody was expected to sit still for it or else.


This pulpit is from the Kalvia Church, around 1726.  I like the cloudy heavens painted on its ceiling just above the preacher’s head.


Wait, there are hourglasses? Four of them? How long is this sermon going to be, anyway? Better not ask.


My favorite item was an altarpiece depicting the Last Supper. It’s from the Ylane Church, dated around 1675.


The faces are friendly and everyone is having a nice time together. There seem to be only 11 apostles. Apparently Judas has already left the building.


Jesus (with spiky sun-ray halo) seems to be holding a child in his lap. So the story is maybe doing double duty here: “Let the little children come unto me.”

The museum also had wonderful religious wood carvings dating back as far as the 1200s. I liked St. Martin on his horse, about to share his warm cloak with a beggar. He was carved and assembled from several pieces of wood around 1320.


I gazed for awhile at the Archangel Gabriel, carved and gilded around 1500.


Then I was back on the friendly but chilly streets of Helsinki, wishing I had a striped snowsuit and a red polka-dotted hat with flower ears.

Julius Caesar and the Ides of March

In the midst of the most turbulent American political season in decades, I recently re-read Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar. His source was mostly the historian Plutarch. The play is still relevant, and still illuminating on the subjects of loyalty to others versus loyalty to country, honest differences of political opinion, the uses and abuses of power, and whether and when violence is justified. And because it’s Shakespeare, every word is memorable. In history and in the play, Julius Caesar meets a bloody end.  But  Shakespeare gave him some memorable lines before he went down.  In the play, contemplating his risks, Julius Caesar says, “Cowards die may times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.”

This day, the 15th of March in year 44 B.C., did not work out well for Julius Caesar.  According to the historian Plutarch, a fortune-teller warned Caesar that something terrible would happen to him before the “Ides of March.”  There were other warnings, too:  a graphically violent dream by Caesar’s worried wife Calphurnia, men seemingly walking around on fire in the marketplace, a lion wandering the streets. Confident (or foolhardy) fellow that Julius Caesar was, he laughed at the portents and predictions. He even gloated, as he made his way to the Roman Senate on that morning.  When he reached the Theater of Pompey, where Senate sessions were being temporarily held, he figured he was home free.  But a lethal circle of assassins awaited him, knives concealed under their togas. Calphurnia’s nightmare came horribly true.

"Death of Caesar," 1798, VIncenzo Camuccini, public domain

“Death of Caesar,” 1798, Vincenzo Camuccini, public domain

Julius Caesar’s death marked the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of fierce civil wars that eventually led to the formation of the Roman Empire–a period that was stable, but definitely not democratic. Julius Caesar had already more or less ended the Republic:  at the height of his power, he had named himself “Imperator.”

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Could Caesar have avoided his violent end? Given his personality and supreme self-confidence, he probably could not. He had refused to resign when the Senate politely requested that he step down, and with one of his legions he had defiantly crossed the Rubicon River into Italy.  That was strictly forbidden. Military conquest was for the frontiers. Rome was for reasoned debate among civilized men.  Ever since Julius Caesar’s audacious and risky march across that border river, the expression “crossing the Rubicon” has meant a fateful and irreversible action. There was no turning back, for Caesar or for Rome.

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Looking back over the centuries, it appears that the common people loved Julius Caesar for his flamboyance and for the military glory he had brought home to Rome. But his aristocratic peers saw only danger ahead. They decided that Caesar had to go. Once he was safely dead and out of the way, his heir, Octavius, obligingly made Julius Caesar a god. No danger there, and the move placated the restive common people.

HauntingForum

Today, the Roman Forum is a haunting place to wander, pondering the ups and downs of history. When I visited, I bought a book with clear overlays which shows how the various buildings must once have looked back in the day.  But even without a visual aid, it is not hard to imagine Julius Caesar and his entourage making his way through the Forum on his way to the Senate session on that fateful day, the Ides of March in 44 B.C.

Join me next time for more explorations into the art and history of Europe!

No More Red Boxes? What Would Disraeli Say?

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At Hughenden Manor last spring, I was thrilled to spot Prime Minister Disraeli’s famous “red box” in his study.  It’s a  kind of box used for the last 150 years or so by British government officials. It’s really just a briefcase, but so much more romantic–and quintessentially British. These boxes were first used in the 1860s.  They were covered in red-dyed rams’ leather, embossed with the Royal Cypher and lined with lead–reportedly so that if the carrier were captured at sea, the box would sink with all its secrets intact. The lead also made the boxes pretty strong in the event of bombing or other catastrophe. The lock is on the bottom of the box, guaranteeing that nobody will walk off without locking it. (Does anyone ever forget, grab the handle and spill the important documents?  Let’s hope not).

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Photo from “Daily Mail” article cited below

Until very recently, important government officials proudly carried their red boxes wherever they went. (Naturally, a government official is always hard at work, so the box is necessary at all times). Any man or woman would walk a little taller carrying the jaunty red case. And what a status symbol to casually place on one’s table on the train!

Queen Elizabeth, like Disraeli’s Queen Victoria, receives her own royal red box daily.  It contains documents the sovereign must sign before they become law.  I’d like to think the Queen’s red box will exist for a long time.

But now, the British government is phasing out the revered symbol of power in favor of secure smartphones. For one thing, ministers have developed the wasteful habit of having their boxes shuttled from place to place in chauffeured limousines, as described in an article from The Independent. Then there’s the problem of security. A fingerprint-activated smartphone is apparently safer (at least until it’s hacked.)

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So in England, red ministerial boxes are going the way of red curbside telephone boxes.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli lived in a slower-moving world.  His red box came with him to his country home, where he worked in his quiet study between long walks inspecting his grounds. There was time for him to think, to read actual books, to reflect on the weighty problems of state. I fear that Britain’s government ministers will now be more like the rest of us: constantly intent on a pocket-sized screen.

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Somehow, I can’t see the elegant Mr. Disrael hunched over a smartphone.

I wouldn’t give up my own smartphone for anything, of course.  It’s my only camera, as well as my window into the wider world.  I can look up most anything with a few thumbstrokes. But if I were a British government minister, I would miss my elegant red ramskin box with the Royal Cypher and the lock on the bottom.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2958851/Traditional-government-red-boxes-phased-150-years-ministers-given-thumbprint-activated-smartphones.html

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/the-government-ferried-briefcases-around-alone-in-chauffeur-driven-cars-3000-times-in-the-last-three-a6812851.html

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!