And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

lørdag 29. juli 2017

Saint Olaf in Rome

Today is the feast of Saint Olaf of Norway, a day which in Norway is known as Olsok, coming for Old Norse "Olavsvaka", meaning the wake or vigil of Saint Olaf. To mark the day, I give you one of the more curious manifestations of the importance of Saint Olaf to the Norwegian imagination and the Norwegian identity, namely the painting of the altar of Saint Olaf in Rome.

This altar is found in the church San Carlo al Corso, dedicated to Saint Carlo Borromeo (d.1584). It was dedicated April 9, 1893, and the altar painting was carried out by the Polish painter Pius Welonski (d.1931). The altar itself was established on the initiative of Norwegian Catholics and was intended to mark that it was fifty years since Pope Leo XIII had been ordained as a bishop (although he would only become pope in 1878).

Olav, King of Norway
Painting in the church of San Carlo al Corso, by Pius Welonski
Courtesy of this website

The painting depicts Olaf with his axe and his royal orb, standing on a defeated dragon in a very Norwegian landscape. As such it fits in a tradition in the depictions of Olaf from the late fourteenth-century onwards, in which Olaf is positioned on top of a beast, often interpreted as a dragon. It is clear that Welonski had some very good directions for how Olaf should be depicted according to how late-ninteenth-century Norwegian Catholics expected to see him.

From the lower half of the left-hand side of the frame and to the lower half of the right-hand side of the frame, one can read the legend "S. Olavus Martyr Norvegiae Rex et Patronus", Saint Olaf Martyr, king and patron of Norway. This is perfectly in keeping with how Olaf was understood in the contemporary mindset. However, when seen from the angle of the medieval Olaf iconography and its development, it is noteworthy that the image fuses two separate stages in this development. On the one hand we see Olaf as patron and king of Norway, a presentation and interpretation of Olaf which appeared in the mid-twelfth century under the auspices of Archbishop Eystein Erlendsson (reigned 1161-88). On the other hand, we see Olaf situated on top of a beast, which is a tradition that only emerged later in the Middle Ages, and possibly outside Norway, meaning that it might have its conception in stories of popular origin or stories which were generated outside the control of the Norwegian medieval church. This fusion of Olaf the patron and Olaf the dragon-stander had by the nineteenth-century become perfectly canonical to the Norwegian mind, and this is the version presented to the Catholics of the world who enter the San Carlo church. But this fusion hides a complex and long-winded evolution which has merged elements originating in very different milieus and at very different times, and made it the modern idea of the medieval Olaf.


Kari-Anne Bye, Å drepe dragen, MA thesis, NTNU, Trondheim, 2011

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