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!