Spotlight: Stockholm’s Oldest Painting

Spotlight: Stockholm’s Oldest Painting

Wailana Kalama gives us a behind-the-scenes look at Stockholm’s oldest painting.

All photos courtesy of author.

Along the shadowy southern aisle of Storkyrkan, an elegant, Brick Gothic church on Gamla Stan, hangs an oil painting. Passing across the pews, you may be too enraptured by the statue of Saint George and the Dragon, or the monumental pulpit, to notice the artwork at first.

The “Vädersolstavlan,” as it’s known, is a 17th-century depiction of a lost 16th-century original. A blend of gold, rose and powdery blue portray Sweden’s capital eclipsed by celestial phenomena known as dog stars. Below the painting is a cartouche with the inscription in Swedish, Latin and German: “The twentieth day in the month of April was seen in the sky over Stockholm such signs from almost seven to nine in the forenoon.”

Ye,t despite its unassuming placement in the church, the painting’s inclusion in the city’s oldest church is no mistake. Over the centuries, it has become an icon of Stockholm’s history, a symbol of a time when Church and State pitted wills against each other.

First painted in 1535, the original Vädersolstavlan was the oldest color portrait of Stockholm and the oldest landscape painting of Sweden. By all accounts, the later depiction that currently hangs in the church is a close replica. Broad brushstrokes and earthly colors combine to depict Stockholm as it was in the Renaissance–small, wholly contained on the island of Gamla Stan.

The city is surrounded on all sides by dark waters and forested isles–but indubitably the most striking features are its five sun dogs that dominate more than half the canvas. Sun dogs, or solar phenomena where halos seem to appear around a sun due to a refraction of light through ice crystals, were once considered foreboding presages from God. The painting was intended to be as beautiful as it is unsettling.

“It’s a spectacular painting, and the first true representation of Stockholm and its surroundings,” says Peter Gillgren, Professor of Art History at Stockholm University. “The light phenomena in the sky is not only strange and beautiful, but was also thought of as divine signs from God. Such a painting was sure to attract attention — and it did.”

So how did this delicate portrait of Stockholm come to hang in Storkyrkan?

In the early 16th century, Lutheran theologian and clergyman Olof Persson, better known under his Latin name Olaus Petri, was one of the most powerful men in Stockholm. As his religious influence grew, so did his struggle against King Gustav Vasa I, the founder of modern Sweden.

Once united by mutual advocacy of the Reformation, their relationship deteriorated quickly after Petri was ordained as a priest. In an effort to keep the Church under his control, the King ordered severe taxation policies, the confiscation of treasure from their stores, and even repurposed selected churches and monasteries to new use.

Petri distrusted the State’s control over the Church and began to criticize the King’s policies in his sermons. He even hinted that Stockholm would soon suffer God’s wrath. When the Sun Dogs appeared in the sky quite suddenly–one early spring morning in 1535–he and many others took it as an apocalyptic message from God. The people had lost their faith, Petri determined, and needed to be brought back into the fold.

In light of this dramatic event, the clergyman commissioned an unknown artist to paint the Vädersolstavlan. It was to be a portrayal of Stockholm as a city of light slowly being overtaken by darkness, with the light of God spinning in the sky.

As Marco Folin, Professor of Architecture at the University of Genoa, writes of the depiction: “Beneath a sullen sky in which the ‘sun dogs’ stand out like apocalyptic omens, the waters of the Riddarfjärden are sinisterly swollen, seething round the city walls and revealing the fragility of its defenses.” The church of Storkyrkan is depicted larger than in actuality, and notably much larger than the king’s own palace. Many art historians believe this was a deliberate choice of Petri’s, to subtly demonstrate that the Church was more powerful than royalty.

Incensed by Petri’s rebellions, King Gustav ended up arresting Petri and seizing the painting. When the court tried the clergyman for conspiracy, the picture was  brought as evidence of his transgression.

Fortunately for him, he was eventually acquitted and released–but as for the original painting, to this day no one knows its fate. It’s surmised that Gustav Vasa probably had it destroyed.

Thanks to several recommissions, the painting–or some rendition of it–has continued on through the centuries. King Johan III had a similar work painted in 1592, and became certain that it was an omen of his impending death. In 1636, court painter Jacob Henrich Elbfas was commissioned to make yet another copy or refurbish the old one (exactly which is unknown). It remained hanging, mostly forgotten, in the Storkyrkan until 1998, when restorers brushed away the layers of dust and yellow vanish that had obscured it for ages.

Even today, the legend of the Vädersolstavlan persists in Swedish cultural history. Due to its role as one of the first famous depictions of the city, the painting has become an unofficial emblem of Stockholm. Its connection to Olaus Petri, Stockholm’s first church reformer, and Gustav Vasa, first king of a unified Sweden, further solidifies the country’s past.

The sun dogs that overlook Gamla Stan are a recurring motif that has appeared on postcards, puzzles, and souvenirs in museum shops. It appears on the Stockholm Town Hall, where the Nobel Prize dinner is held each year. Even the 1989 thousand-kronor banknote shows the details of the sun dogs, as do two stamps produced in March 2002.

Both local and foreign artists have adopted the motif as their own. Benin-born artist Georges Adéagbo was inspired by the painting to include it in his exhibition La Naissance de Stockholm, which appeared at the Moderna Museet in 2014. “The stars influence life but do not determine it,” Adéagbo declared, “Man is the architect and free arbitrator of his own destiny.”

The next time you stop at the Gamla Stan metro station, look for an abstract mural on the wall. During the station’s renovation in 1998, the city commissioned artist Göran Dahl to furnish the walls and floors with symbols from medieval textiles and manuscripts. Look for the sun dog arcs, reproduced with artistic license, on the east wall just south of the platform.

Stockholm, the mural seems to say, is never too far from heaven.

Author: Wailana Kalama

Wailana Kalama is a freelance travel writer from Hawaii. She spends her evenings exploring her leafy district of Skogås and reading far too many obscure histories. Read more of her work at waikalama.com.

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