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!