Historiska museet

Sunday. Not a day off. I squeezed an hour from the morning to devote myself to mediæval art. Train to T-Centralen, confused directions and opted for a taxi to Historiska museet. “I am here for the mediæval art!” “Well, that is good because the collection has just been restored! You must go up the stairs, into the Baroque collection, then follow the timeline backwards. Here is a map.” I lost the map.

Up the stairs, onto the timeline (it’s an actual timeline on the floor), into the—nope, not that way, back onto timeline, into the battle room, cases of skulls and bones hacked, chipped, dented by swords. One skull has a red oval drawn on it, marking a dent grown over with fresh bone. There are chainmail and steel plate helmets to try on, and gloves. The gloves have polished metal fingernails and spiked knuckles, satisfyingly heavy and damage-inducing.

Into the art.

I was looking for the Swedish or Scandinavian regional equivalent of what I’ve seen in Berlin, Wrocław, and elsewhere. Also hoping to see how far north St Mauritius travelled, and if Balthasar was represented as African. As well, wondering if a couple of more obscure Saints turned up north of the Baltic sea. Was I disappointed? Nope! Only 50 minutes for all of it though.

The earliest pieces, from the 1100s, are gorgeous and unlike anything I’ve seen elsewhere. The square, frontal, tall and narrow symmetrical sculpture style takes an alien countenance in Madonna från Mosjö kyrka (Närke, c. 1150), huge, black-rimmed eyes, down-turned mouth, long, almond-shaped face, high forehead, and the Jesus som överstepräst från Forsby kyrka (Västergötland), both seem barely human with such unreadable expressions. There were some more recognisable pieces, but none I saw ventured far into the International Gothic Style—Madonna från Hedesunda kyrka (Gästrikland, 1350-1375) and Sankt Olov från Frötuna kyrka (Uppland, 1325-1350) are about as far as it goes.

The colours used also seem distinct, as in Helgonskåp från Fröskogs kyrka (Dalsland, 1250-1300), with pink and rose skin and clothing. Mary here looks especially Swedish to me, like people I’d seen on the streets (I kinda wanted to say to someone I know, “Hey, you look like a 13th century Mary!”, but that’d probably sound weird, no matter how I phrase it). The crucifixions, like the magnificent Triumfkrucifix från Botkyrka kyrka (Södermanland, 1325-1350), often had this pulled-up, twisted legs, and sharper, geometric limbs and clothing.

Then into the big hall, name forgotten because of aforementioned loss of map. (Found map. Name is Gotiska hallen.) Two things in here I especially found charming. The first, by the entrance is the cordoned-off work area where two painted panels are being restored. For all the museums I’ve been in, I’ve not seen this, and it somehow made the works around stronger for the mundane extension cables, work chairs, utilitarian tables. Next to that was a small door into a dark room: a recreated rural mediæval church. The altarpiece lit only by candles, the walls, ceiling rafters, almost everything in darkness, the works now seen behind glass or properly lit experienced as they often would have been. I wanted to stay here, let my eyes adjust, feel the cold. No time.

Other side of the restoration tables, Altarskåp från Vadstena klosterkyrka (1383-1394), behind glarey glass but a fine piece of Bynum (what I call excessively bloody crucifixions). Same side as the church is the quite massive Altarskåp från Ganthem kyrka (Gotland, 1325-1350), which I assembled from several images. Jesus’ vagina-shaped inter-dimensional orifice is splurting gloriously, and Mary’s chest bears a heart of similar shape. Her hands and fingers, Jesus’ torso, feet, arms are all long curves and unusual proportions.

And then St Mauritus turns up. Well, I’m guessing it’s him in the Altarskåp från Törnevalia kyrka (Östergötland, 1470-1490). He’s missing a forearm and the banner-pole but otherwise he’s dead jaunty. This is also one of several attributed to Hermen Rode of Lübeck, and one of several here that seem stylistically closer to what I’ve seen in Berlin and Germany than specifically Swedish. I didn’t stop for an audio guide, but quite a few works have additional notes beside the captions that are informative. Context! Historiska museet does it!

Rode also is responsible for the massive Altarskåpet från Österåker (Uppland, Lübeck, 1468). Besides the gigantic central section and wings, there are the outer panel paintings, (the right one I couldn’t photograph). I find it frustrating that photographs don’t convey size so well, it could be this piece is no larger than say, a tabletop. It’s in fact several metres long and almost as tall as me. It can be seen in Historiska Museet — 64: Kyrka Hall on the right-hand side.

Altarskåp från Odensala kyrka (Uppland, 1514) next to it isn’t in that photo, but is equally large. This piece is interesting for several aspects: Mary standing on the moon, surrounded by sunbeams which are also stylised in a manner that represents Jesus’ spear wound; the partition of his wounds from a single body to isolated parts, hands alone in the upper corners and feet in the lower. On the left at her feet, the clergy, but on the right, the laity and females, possibly Beguines and Beghards.

From here into a smaller chamber, darker though still with windows. From outside only the back is visible, but one turned around to face it, the vast, tall, incredibly detailed carved wood altarpiece with Life of Christ is one of the most beautiful objects I’ve seen. A problem here in this room is almost all the works have no captions. I could spend ages photographing this one. The depth of the sculpture, its massiveness combined with the multitude of small figures, the detail of their clothes, headdress, the animation in their bodies, their facial expressions, it’s a whole lot of wow, I was going, “Faarrk!” grinning like a loon, squeezing just one more minute out.

These pieces also mark the arrival of the Renaissance, and coincide with the end of the mediæval art collection. There are other rooms though, many of them. I dash (broken-toed dash, that is) through the tapestry collection, difficult to photograph because the light is dim and yellow. The Wall Hanging from Fogdö Church (Södermanland, late-15th Century) I made an effort on for the almost houndstooth stitching of Jesus’ blood, which covers him from head to toe in a regular pattern. I have no idea what the actual colour of the thread is, I tried to balance out the yellow of the light without pushing the white thread to bleached, guessing it’s something like this, but could go either way, more brilliant or more muted.

Departing and getting lost, I find a room for Saint Birgitta. The hand is actually a seal’s foot. The reliquary itself contained part of an upper arm. It’s a strange and close to incomprehensible object. I would come back to Stockholm just to go through this museum properly.

Departing, into the sun, I land on a bus. The driver is playing what sounds like Swedish folk music. After the second song, I have to ask him. It’s Torgny Björk, arrangements of the 19th century poet Gustav Fröding. Later in the day, Dasniya, Tova, and I perform to this music.


I’ve been very remiss. I wrote to the Historiska Museet shortly after getting back to Berlin, and received a beautiful reply (which has been sitting in my “reply” folder for three months) from Elisabet Regner, Senior Curator in the Department of Cultural History and Collections, filling in the missing information on images 56-63 below. More than filling in. Oooh excitement!