Category Archives: Scandinavia

A Royal Wedding Dress, Remodeled? How Princess Alexandra of Denmark Got It Right

When Princess Alexandra of Denmark married the Prince of Wales, in 1863, to judge from the photograph, she looked a bit like a wedding cake. The silk satin dress was festooned with tulle and specially made Honiton lace which featured English roses, Irish shamrocks and Scottish thistles. It was all very fitting for the 18-year-old who was marrying the son and heir of Queen Victoria. The dress’s train was 21 feet long and required eight bridesmaids to carry it.

I recently saw that very dress in a special exhibit at the Costume Museum in Bath, England. But wait, what happened? According to the placard, the original dress was designed by Mrs. James of London for the wedding, then remodeled that same year by Madame Elise, also of London. If I had rented the audioguide, I would probably know more about why and how this happened.

I assume that even a princess in those days might be practical and frugal enough to remake a fancy dress so as to get more use out of it. To a modern eye, the remodeled dress is much more elegant. The skirt must have been made more sleek, and some of the royal crinolines packed away for another time. (I’d cheerfully wear this dress if I were invited to a grand enough occasion. Go ahead, invite me!) This will definitely not happen with Meghan Markle’s dress after her marriage to Prince Harry. Royal wedding dresses these days cost several hundred thousand dollars, and they go straight to preservation and later display.

Princess Alexandra was known for her elegance and style. (In fact, she was so avidly followed that when an illness left her with a limp, all the stylish ladies hobbled around with the Alexandra Limp). She reportedly favored slimmer, simpler silhouettes than her new mother-in-law, Queen Victoria. That’s Alexandra above, in a portrait now in Fredericksburg Castle in Denmark. It’s by Edward Hughes, 1904. (This would be after her husband, Prince Albert Edward, became King Edward VII, and she became Queen and also Empress of the British Empire).

The arrival of Alexandra for her wedding was a grand occasion, painted by Henry Nelson O’Neil: “The Landing of H.R.H. the Princess Alexandra at Gravesend,” March 7 1863, Public Domain.

The marriage seemed to be a happy one, although even after he became King, Alexandra’s husband enjoyed the company of a string of mistresses. They had six children.

In her homeland of Denmark, Alexandra sponsored the building of a very English-looking church for British residents, 1885-7. It’s St. Alban’s Anglican in Copenhagen, pictured above. (Photo is by Blake Handley, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0).

I was lucky enough to take in a Christmas concert at St. Alban’s last December, and admired a memorial plaque honoring Alexandra.

Alexandra’s wedding took place in St. George’s Chapel on the grounds of Windsor Castle. It’s one of the most beautiful and evocative churches I’ve ever been in, but photos are not allowed inside. I’m sure the excitement ahead of the royal wedding is intense, but then again this is a real parish church with everyday business to attend to.

As on most evenings, Evensong is probably happening–a small, intimate service which I highly recommend. (Many Anglican churches have either Evensong or Evening Prayer–a restful end to a tourist’s day). The evening I attended at Windsor, I was disappointed that I missed the Boys’ Choir. But a choir of girls had been invited instead. No photos were allowed inside, but excited girls in blue dresses, and their parents, had a once-in-a-lifetime experience–and the girls sang beautifully.

Will I be watching the royal wedding on May 19? Oh, yes! I’m looking forward to seeing a bit of the pomp and pageantry. I’ll be with two of my granddaughters, explaining to them why Britain still has royalty and why this marriage is significant. To honor the occasion properly, I stopped at the local Dollar Store to get tiaras for us all to wear, plus crepe paper and such to decorate the living room. We’ll be wishing Harry and Meghan a long and happy life together! (And drinking tea and eating scones warm from the oven, of course–the wedding is at 6:00 am where I am in the USA).

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

St. Hallvard of Oslo

How many cities have their own patron saint? Oslo does, and May 15 is his feast day. Since the Middle Ages, images of local boy St. Hallvard have appeared on the city seal of Oslo, and elsewhere in the city. Above is a carving of St. Hallvard from the City Hall.

The entire City Council Assembly Room is dedicated to St. Hallvard. It was designed by Magnus Poulsson, with a beautiful tapestry designed by Else Poulsson and woven by Else Halling.

But wait, who is that woman lying at Hallvard’s feet in the first carving? Legend has it that Hallvard was a farm boy, born around 1020, who gave sanctuary to a poor pregnant woman who was accused of being a thief. He believed in her innocence. He allowed her onto his boat to get away from her accusers, and offered them recompense for the supposed theft. But they killed both the woman and Hallvard with arrows–three arrows for Hallvard. The carving just above shows him shielding the woman while bad guys shoot him. But what’s that round object in the lower left-hand corner?

According to legend, the murderers buried the woman, then tied a millstone to Hallvard and tried to sink him. But he would not sink. So their crime was discovered. Hallvard is usually depicted holding a millstone in one hand and three arrows in the other.

The tapestry is front and center in the assembly room.

I can’t tell whether Hallvard was ever officially declared a saint by any authority. The people just admired him and wanted to remember him. Christians saw him as an example of righteous self-sacrifice. A cathedral was dedicated to him in 1130, and it was the most important church in Oslo for several centuries. Its ruins are still visible in a park.

Anyway, I think the City Hall is the best place for Hallvard. In egalitarian, practical Norway, common people and their common lives are celebrated. Like the other fine art in Oslo’s City Hall, Hallvard’s tapestry shows people building, caring for others and for animals, enjoying a peaceful life, and generally getting along.

I know that every city and town has its own undeclared secular saints: people who quietly work for good and give of themselves. We need to celebrate them all, as Oslo celebrates its native son, St. Hallvard.

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

Some Danish Moms for Mother’s Day

It’s Mother’s Day in the USA, and I’m thinking of a portrait I admired last winter in Copenhagen’s National Gallery. It’s “At the French Windows, the Artist’s Wife.” Lauritz Anderson Ring painted it in 1897. This portrait must have given some people pause. Even in Denmark, this was the Victorian era.

Here’s the whole painting. Putting the belly of an obviously pregnant woman front and center was a bit daring. But the artist had just married Sigrid Kahler in 1896. He was in love! And he was a freethinker, moving away from sentimental and constraining views of women (paraphrasing the gallery’s caption, which, thankfully, is in English as well as Danish).

Even earlier, in 1884, Michael Ancher painted “Portrait of My Wife.” It’s just across the park in the small but perfect Hirschsprung Gallery.

His wife, Anna Ancher, was a renowned artist herself. She painted ordinary interior scenes with extraordinary subtle colors, like “The Girl in the Kitchen” above, 1881-1884. It’s also in the Hirschsprung Gallery. Anna refused to give up her painting after her marriage, but she clearly loved and valued the small humble tasks raising a family. I’m sure Anna spent plenty of time on housekeeping herself, but I’m glad she didn’t put away her paintbrush just because she had children.

And rounding out my Danish salute to motherhood, here’s “Mother and Child,” 1860, by the Danish painter Constantin Hansen, also in the Hirschsprung.

Here’s to mothers everywhere!

St. George’s Day and a New Prince

St. George has been the patron saint of England since around the end of the fourteenth century. His feast day is April 23, and the royal Chapel of St. George on the grounds of Windsor Castle is dedicated to him. It’s one of the most beautiful and historic churches in England, but photos are not allowed inside–a fact I bemoan, but also respect. (At least nobody is taking a selfie). The photo above is from the guidebook: St. George casually resting his foot on the vanquished dragon. It’s on a baptismal font.

In 1415, St. George appeared in the sky above the battlefield at Agincourt, presumably helping King Henry V win his great victory over the French, against overwhelming odds. The photo above, again from the guidebook, is a 1998 copy of a gilded 15th century wood carving, now too fragile and precious to be on display.

That same year, Archbishop Chichele ordered that St. George’s Day be celebrated like Christmas Day. (This lasted until 1778, when it went back to being a simple day of recognition mostly by English Catholics).

The origin of the saint is probably of an early Christian martyr, possibly from the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. Legends grew up around a story about a virtuous knight who defeated a dragon that demanded human sacrifice. In some stories, the dragon had a princess in his clutches, and St. George happened along and killed the dragon.

The dragon in the legends represents pure evil, defeated by goodness. Naturally, the story was adapted to various times and places, the dragon standing in for contemporary enemies of Christianity or the ruling powers. In the Swedish Cathedral of Stockholm, there’s a huge and elaborate sculpture of George and the Dragon. I’m not sure of the date, but everybody in Sweden after 1471 remembered that Swedish troops wearing the image of St. George defeated the cruel oppressive Danes at the battle of Brunkeberg.

I liked the simplicity and modesty of an early medieval wood carving of St. George and the dragon from the Hinnerjoki Church, now in Finland’s National Museum in Helsinki. The Finns appealed to St. George not so much as a military hero as to protect their livestock.

I also liked a contemporary needlework depiction, in a display at Canterbury Cathedral a couple of years ago.

Today in London a new prince was born, fifth in line to the throne. I happened to be in London the day Princess Charlotte was born. Today, I imagine a lot of BLUE party hats and banners in the crowds waiting for a royal sighting outside the hospital.

Meanwhile, St. George’s Chapel is getting ready for the royal wedding of Prince Harry and the American commoner Meghan Markle next month.

I won’t be there, but I’m happy to have spent time in St. George’s. And I’ll be up early to watch whatever is on TV about the happy occasion!

Easter in Copenhagen: Church-Lady Angels, A Sunburned Gardener, and Thermal Onesies

Last winter in Copenhagen, I admired a very unusual Easter-themed painting in the Hirschsprung Gallery. Joakim Skovgaard painted it as an altarpiece in 1890. The title is translated as “Christ Welcomes the Penitent Thief into Paradise.”

In the Biblical account, one of the thieves executed with Christ admitted his sins, repented, and begged desperately for help. Christ promised him, “Today you shall be with me in Paradise.” I’ve never seen this event depicted anywhere else, maybe because I’m not Catholic. I understand the Catholic Church celebrates the feast day of this man, now called St. Dimas, around Easter time. I think his feast day is March 25.

I admire the gentle realism of the painting, along with the liberal use of gold leaf. Three angels with gold haloes AND rose wreaths stand ready with new clothes and a pitcher of water. They look like very earthly angels, wearing pretty Scandinavian jackets and embroidered dresses. Their wings are barely visible; these angels could easily pass for kindly church ladies. (They’ve probably also made a nice casserole and some lemon bars for their newest guest).

Above are some actual church ladies, for comparison. They were helping people at the Christmas bazaar at the Swedish Church in Copenhagen this past November. I have a high opinion of angels as well as helpful church ladies in pretty Scandinavian outfits.

Paradise has a thick wall with guard towers and a narrow door.

An angel with a flaming sword guards the door. I especially like this angel’s gold armor and comfy gold sandals.

So which side of the wall is Paradise? At first I thought the angel with the flaming sword was “inside.” But that side of the wall drops off sharply into nothingness. The flaming-sword angel perches on some kind of pillar beside the door, looking off into the nothingness in case anyone else approaches. I think Christ has already ushered the thief through the door and on into Paradise, which looks a lot like rural Denmark in springtime. Or maybe it looks like the Garden of Eden. But I don’t want to overthink the theology here, not that I know enough theology to overthink it. I just like the painting.

Religiously themed art is not very common outside of churches in Scandinavia. And the churches tend to be austere. This altarpiece must have been a real center of attention and worship. I’d like to have seen it in the church it was painted for.

For those who celebrate Easter more as the beginning of spring, here’s another Hirschsprung Gallery painting from the same time period. Fritz Syberg painted “Spring” in 1891-93.

A sturdy fellow in wooden clogs cheerfully rakes the bare soil. It looks like he’s been at it long enough to get a bit of sunburn.

Neighbors stroll and gaze off into the distance under flowering fruit trees. They look glad to be outside. Winters are long and hard in Scandinavia. But spring finally comes.

In nearby Tivoli Park last December, thousands of hyacinths were featured in the Christmas flowerbeds–a real novelty in the long winter. (Temperatures were around 40 degrees Fahrenheit, almost the same day and night. I wondered if the plants were dug up and put to bed in a greenhouse while the park was closed at night).

It wasn’t cold enough to snow in early December. The dusting of pretend snow on the hyacinths must have been sprinkled by human hands.

We were lucky enough to also be in Copenhagen last April (we liked it so much we went back in December). Even in spring, we bundled up in layers of sweaters and raincoats.

Actually, I think it was colder in April than in December. I was wishing I had a parka, or better yet, a onesie snowsuit like the ones all the kids wear.

Chilly or not, I’m sure the Tivoli flower beds are overflowing again this spring with tulips and daffodils. I’d like to be there again.

Happy Easter and happy spring!

First Day of Spring

I think spring is coming late to England this year. I’ll be there soon, and I’m thinking there might still be snow in the ground. Or flooded spring rivers. Still, I’m hoping for tulips. They were spectacular a couple of years ago.

These were in the gardens of Ann Hathaway’s thatched-roof cottage near Stratford-on-Avon.

The tulips and daffodils were in bloom at Sudeley Castle in Winchcombe, where Richard III’s banqueting hall lies in picturesque ruins, sheltering a Tudor Knot Garden (planted much later, using Tudor designs).

Fruit trees blossomed overhead…

…and in St. Mary’s Church on the castle grounds, angels hovered over the Victorian tomb of Queen Catherine Parr, the last wife of King Henry VIII. (Her coffin was lost for a few centuries following the English Civil War, when the castle was “slighted” by Cromwell’s troops).

I was on the lookout for bluebells in all the woodsy places.

We should have been on the lookout for hidden springtime potholes too. This one caused not one but two flat tires on our rental car. Country roads are narrow, we’re driving on the “wrong side,” and sometimes we have to swerve.

Where I live in the mountains of Colorado, it’s still winter. The moose are finding tender branches to chomp, though.

In the dead of winter, I admired a painting by Fritz Syberg, from 1892. It’s called simply “Spring.”

Birds sing, rivers flow, and trees bud.

The young girl’s face is oddly melancholy. Or maybe she is just thoughtful.

Art should make us think. Travel makes us think too, about the past, about being present in the moment (even if the moment involves flat tires), and about the future. I’m anxious to be off again!

High Fashion at Copenhagen Design Museum

In honor of Fashion Week in New York City, I thought I’d post photos showing the closest I ever get to high fashion. In December, Copenhagen’s Design Museum, which covers an entire city block, featured an exhibit of the work of Erik Mortenson, a Danish designer who worked in Paris for years.

He was creative director at the couture houses of Pierre Balmain and Jean-Louis Scherrer between 1982 and 1995.

Call me old-fashioned, but I’m not particularly interested in seeing the navels and other anatomical parts the rich and famous like to display on red carpets these days. I could do with a return to elegance.

I could even do with a return to covered-up elegance.

For afternoon tea at the Ritz, maybe you’d like a satin Bermuda shorts ensemble? Didn’t think so, but somebody paid cash money…

For an evening entertaining guests at the chateau, how about velvet PJ pants with a handwoven ethnic-looking top?

Out on the street, how about a fun fur?

Or a pretty red wool number that I could (almost) see myself wearing?

People seriously interested in design could study the detailing on these hand-made works of wearable art.

Whether anyone actually wore them, couture designers have always come up with out-there designs. Those are bat-wing sleeves above–note the mannequin’s hands below. Who knows what holds up those finely-pleated silk sleeves? Sometimes fashion is mystery.

Sometimes super-wide hips can be fashionable.

They were in the eighteenth century, as in this wedding gown in the adjoining historic fashion gallery.

A wedding gown that Mr. Mortenson designed for a favorite niece in 1982 left me a little cold. It had a few ruffles and pearls too many for my taste. But I’m sure the groom thought his bride was the most beautiful woman in the world when she walked up the aisle.

The Design Museum also featured an exhibit on Japanese influences on Danish design–more on that later.

Half the fun of design museums is seeing what people wear.

As for me, my idea of high fashion is high ALTITUDE fashion.

I’m very happy to qualify for a senior-discount season pass at Steamboat, and to still be able to stay vertical on the mountain (most of the time). I do come in a lot earlier than I used to, which leaves plenty of time for dreaming of trips to come.