There is nothing in the image presented to the world by modern Sweden to suggest that the Swedish people have ever had a deep attachment to any saint in the Christian calendar. A rather cold indifference to religious practice and devotion seems to characterise most Swedish people today, an indifference perhaps tinged by a vague nostalgia for the pagan mythology of their Viking forbears, coupled with some perfunctory symbolic recollections of the lives of the old martyr kings, Saints Olof and Eric. It is therefore most surprising to find that at one period of Swedish history there was an intense popular devotion to the Great Martyr, Saint George; a devotion expressed in song and visual art and festal occasion; a devotion which for more than half a century acknowledged St. George as the Protector and Patron Saint of the nation.

What is even more surprising is the fact that, largely unrecognized and unacknowledged, memories of that devotion still echo within the daily pattern o f life of the Swedish people. On every working day at 12 noon, throughout the land, the ballad of St. George rings out through the radio network; and twice daily in summertime the victory of St. George over evil is re-enacted by the clock figures on the great tower of Stadshuset, the City Hall, in full view of the citizens of Stockholm, the city that was saved from the invading Danes through the aid of the saintly Protector.

Chapt 8 Bernt Notke
St George and the Dragon. 15th century statue by Bernt Notke

In the old city of Stockholm, Gamla Stan, there still stands, within the Cathedral, Storkyrkan, the most magnificent carved equestrian statue of St. George that exists in Christendom; it is indeed far more than a single statue, for this intricate and massive carved group of statuary is one of the great iconographical works of art of 15th century Europe.
In Kopmanbrinken, a small public square not far from Storkyrkan, there also stands a superb bronze replica of this same group of statuary, open to the gaze of tourist and citizen, churchgoer and non-churchgoer alike. And for full measure even the plastic shopping bags, holding purchases from the Cathedral Bookshop, carry a striking representation of the Diocesan arms in red and gold; a shield dominated by a silhouette of St. George and the Dragon in combat, based on the pattern of the 15th century group within the Cathedral.

Detail of Bernt Notke
Detail of the statue of St George in Storkyrkan, Stockholm

An observant eye finds the St. George motif cropping up time and again in Stockholm, and indeed throughout Sweden and even Finland, which until 1809 was a part of Sweden. Groups of St. George and the Dragon statuary, many of them based on the design of the Storkyrkan group, are to be found in many churches in both of these countries. In Stockholm a major hospital and also the city district to the immediate north of Stadshusetare named after St. George, and the St. George and Dragon motif can be seen on ironwork gates and railings in the city. One small but elegant hotel in the Old City carries on its walls framed depictions of St. George and the Dragon, including a delightful example of 18th century Swedish folk-art painting on cloth, in which St. George, dressed as a naval officer, brandishes a cutlass over a fiery dragon.

What lies behind this unexpected evidence of such a widespread interest in a Christian saint, in the heart of the capital city of a country which is widely regarded either as irreligious, or at the best as coldly indifferent to religious devotion and observance? We have to hark back to pre-Reformation times, when Sweden was still an integral part of a united Christendom, to find the answer to this question.

For obvious geographical reasons Christianity came late to the Scandinavian countries. The conversion of the Scandinavians was largely accomplished with the help of English priests, during the 11th and 12th centuries. King Olof of Norway, who succeeded to the crown in 1015, brought over from England several priests and monks, one of whom, Grimkel, was chosen as bishop of Nidaros (Trondhjem). Olof was killed by his rebellious and infidel subjects in a battle fought at Stiklestad on July 29 1030. A shrine was built where he was buried by the river Nid, and later this became the metropolitan cathedral of Nidaros. As the shrine of the martyred king, and as the seat of the archbishopric of the country, it became to Norwegians what Canterbury is to the English. Several English churches were later consecrated to his memory, including the London churches of St. Olave in Hart Street and in Old Jewry.

Another Olof, King of the Swedes from 993 to 1024, also sought the help of English priests. He was especially assisted by Siegfried, a devoted English missionary who had instructed him in Christian doctrine, but his attempts to convert his pagan people had relatively little success. Nevertheless, over the next century the faith spread, slowly but steadily, under successive monarchs. In 1152 Swerker Carlsson, who reigned from 1135 to 1155, sent a plea to Rome for the formation of a formal hierarchy of bishops and priests. Pope Eugenius responded by sending the English priest Nicholas Breakspear to be papal legate in Scandinavia. Breakspear, who later became Pope 
Hadrian IV, reorganised the hierarchy in the whole region, and earned himself the title of “Apostle of the North”.

His evangelical efforts were highly successful. Although many pagan ideas and customs persisted, the Scandinavian countries were now firmly established within the Christian fold, and the faith grew stronger. Pagan revolt was however yet to claim the life of another martyr king, Erik Edwardsson, who reigned as king of Sweden from 1150 to 1161. Erik did much to establish Christianity in Upper Sweden, and built or completed at Uppsala the first large church to be erected in his country.

He also helped in the evangelisation of the pagan Finns, and after a campaign there he left in Finland another English evangelist, St. Henry, Bishop of Uppsala. Henry was later murdered by a Finn whom he had excommunicated, and was canonised in 1158. He is still venerated as the Patron Saint of Finland. Erik himself was killed by Swedish rebels who had joined forces with invading Danes, after he had commended his soul to God at the celebration of Mass after the feast of the Ascension.
St. Erik was never formally canonised, but he was regarded as
the Patron Saint of Sweden for the next three centuries. His relics are preserved in Uppsala Cathedral, and his banner was always carried forth from the Cathedral in time of battle. His effigy appears on the arms of the city of Stockholm.

Over the next three centuries the faith grew strong, and in consequence the established church, as in the rest of Europe, grew powerful and rich. It also became inevitably involved in the complex politics of the Scandinavian region, where there was a continuous struggle between the aspirations of each separate nation, and the aspirations of those who sought to merge the nations into a political whole. In 1397 the dynastic ties between Denmark, Norway and Sweden led to the formation of the Kalmar Union, which for more than a century was destined to dominate the political life of the whole region.

From the outset, there was bitter rivalry between the older land-owning class of Swedish nobles who favoured the Union, and younger commercially oriented nobles who were strongly anti-Danish. In 1438 the young Charles Knutsson, a son of one of the leading noble Swedish families, threw his lot in with the faction of nobles supporting the peasant revolt against Eric of Pomerania, who was then Union King. He succeeded in being elected regent of Sweden in 1438, and when Christopher of Bavaria became King of the Union in 1441, Charles was granted several important fiefs, including that of Finland. After Christopher’s death, in 1448, he became Charles VII of Sweden.

He had a chequered reign, being twice overthrown by rival noble families, and twice restored to the throne. Despite his political troubles, however, he played a key role in the social development of the country, bringing to Swedish society many social and cultural practices learned during his lengthy sojourns in mainland Europe, both as a youth, and during his temporary exiles. He was well versed in the arts of chivalry, and during a lengthy stay in Danzig he was initiated into the devotional practices of the Brotherhood of St. George in the Artushof Guild centre, famed for its grand group of wood carvings of the rider-Saint, with the dragon and the princess, in the Artus Hall.

St George and the dragon, Artus Hall, Danzig

The medieval account of Charles’ life, entitled Karls Kronikan, contains several indications of the devotion to St. George which he acquired during his time abroad. In an entry for the year 1438 we find a jingle which he used on his military excursions.

sankte Orjan den riddare vard att hjalpa honom i den fard

St. George the rider cares for the need of him who fares

Another entry, relating to a winter campaign in Skanein 1452, contains an order that the vanguard of the army should carry a banner bearing the figure of St. George.

In civilian life also he actively promoted devotion to his adopted patron Saint. A Guild dedicated to St. George was set up in Stockholm in 1443, another in Uppsala in 1460. Others sprang up in places like Strangnas, Vasteras, Visby and Stora Kopparberg in Dalarna, where St. George became Patron Saint of the copper miners on the mountain. The Christian name Goran became very popular at this time, and images of the Saint were placed in churches throughout Sweden, some as mural paintings, and some as relief carvings on the altar reredos.

There is some evidence of devotion to St. George even before the time of Charles Knutsson, but it did not really emerge as an established cult until his regency and reign. Svanberg’s recently published book Sankt Goran och Draken [1] beautifully illustrated by photographer Ander Qwarnstrom, records that in 1126 an altar in Lund Cathedral was dedicated to the martyr St. George, among several other saints, and that a church calendar dated 1198, from Vallentuna Church in Uppland, gives the day of the martyr St. George as 23rd April, as in the rest of Christendom at this period. He also lists all extant Swedish icons of St. George from earliest times, but was able to find only four items dating from 1100 to 1250 (his romanic period).

The earliest of these, dating from the mid-12th century, is a stone carving in relief on a baptismal font now in the Swedish Historic Museum, originally in Vattlosa Church in Vastergotland, showing a small equestrian St. George fighting an enormous dragon whose head alone is as large as both rider and horse. Svanberg judges this to be an ‘ import’, in style at least, from England. Of somewhat later date, towards the end of the 12th century, there is another ‘import’, a mural painting in Kallunge Church in Gotland, of distinctive Byzantine character, probably the work of a painter from nearby Russia. The other two items, dated c. 1200, are pieces of ironwork from church doors, both showing the Saint standing over the defeated dragon: these are both judged to be indigenous works.

For the ‘high gothic’ period, 1250 to 1400, Svanberg lists just five items, three mural paintings in Uppland, Vastmanland and Gotland, one piece of metalwork and one piece of
embroidery. For the years of the ‘late gothic’ period which preceded Karl Knutsson, 1400 to 1436, he lists just three more items, all of them mural paintings. Then, suddenly, there is a veritable flood of finds, altogether 26 icons, mainly murals and wood carvings on altars, crowded into the few years of Charles Knutsson’s regency and reign from 1436 to 1470: more than double the number extant from the whole of the previous three centuries.

Nothing could more clearly indicate the nature and origins of the cult of St. George in Sweden. The few extant icons from earlier centuries suggest little more than a very slow diffusion of the cult across the borders of Christendom, from both East and West, through normal interchange of liturgical practice. Then suddenly there is this great surge of devotion to the Saint, clearly stemming from the personal enthusiasm of the young leader, Charles Knutsson, who had returned home inspired by his exciting discoveries about the cult of St. George in the pan-European world of Christian devotion and iconography.

Just before his death in 1470, Charles Knutsson nominated his sister’s son, Sten Gustavsson Sture, to be his successor. 
In so doing, he was not only bequeathing leadership of a powerful political movement towards Swedish independence, but also leadership of a popular social and religious movement which was an important element in Swedish national aspiration, namely the cult of St. George as National Patron and Protector. Sten Sture took full advantage of both of these bequests.

He was duly elected regent of Sweden by the council of Swedish Nobles, and there were hopes that he might formally be accepted as the King of Sweden. The Danish King Christian, head of the Kalmar Union, had other ideas. He immediately rejected Sten Sture’s appointment as Regent, and proceeded to invade Sweden. In early October 1471 his army approached the city of Stockholm, a city then largely confined to the small island on Lake Malaren on which the old city, Gamla Stan, now stands. Christian’s troops were faced by a motley assemblage of men; troops from the Sture and Tott families, men under Nils Bosson from the mining district of Stora Kopparberg in Dalarna; and 300 mounted troops from the city itself. These Swedish defenders were outnumbered, but it is recorded that as they went into battle they sang the Ballad of St. George, calling on him to assist them.

With his help they decisively defeated the invaders, and although this was not the end of Union intervention, it marked a critical step in the struggle for Swedish independence. The rival armies met at a small hill north of Lake Malaren, called Brunkeberg, a hill that is now completely overbuilt by the buildings of modern Stockholm, and which today is actually pierced by a somewhat claustrophobic road-tunnel. It lies about half a mile north of the lake, and held an important strategic position in relation to the city on the island which was then Stockholm. On the eve of the Battle of Brunkeberg, Sten Sture vowed that if his army were granted victory, he would erect a chapel and a great monument to the honour of St. George, as Protector of the Swedes. He was granted victory, and he was true to his word: eighteen years later, in 1489, the great group of statuary dedicated to St.Goran, or St.Orjan, as St. George is known in Swedish, was consecrated in the presence of the Papal Nuncio,in Storkyrkan, the Great Church of Stockholm.

Eighteen years may seem to have been a long time to fulfil such a vow, but when one sees the St. George group in Storkyrkan, one questions rather how such an extraordinary monument could have been produced in that time, in an era of limited resources. The scale of this magnificent polychrome group, which is centred on the combat between St. George and the Dragon, is rather more than life size: its quality is outstanding. The slim rider with uplifted sword, mounted on his massive dapple-grey steed, which itself stands on an elaborately decorated plinth, reaches more than twenty feet above floor level (Plate ). On another plinth, which is in fact a richly decorated model o f a castle, the Princess kneels with her hands in prayer. A lamb sits by her side (Plate ).

The main figures of the group, and also the relief-carved panels which adorn the plinths, are carved from oak. The enormous weight of the horse rearing upward with its rider is ingeniously supported by one of the rear legs of the dragon, which lies on its back writhing in agony. The coat of mail of the saint, and the trappings of the horse, glitter with gold and precious stones. The wings of the dragon are the great antlers of a long dead Swedish Elk, and even its bulging eyes are made from elkhorn. Dotted all over with spots and warts,with its formidable carapace of spiked plates and massive spiked horns, it is a grotesquely horrifying sight.

The expressions of both the Saint and the Princess are tender and withdrawn (Plates & ),in contrast to the vigour and vitality of the figures locked in battle. The gruesome reality of the scene is emphasised by the parts of human bodies and other debris littered on the ground around the combatants. In front of the main group there is placed a beautifully carved helm adorned with plumes of feathers (Plate ). Similar carved plumes adorn the heads of the Saint and his steed.

The richly carved and painted panels on the sides o f the two plinths show scenes from the life and martyrdom of St. George. The end panels of the main plinth show the arms of Sten Sture the Elder and his wife Ingeborg Tott, and it is clear that the monument was intended as a memorial to them, as well as a commemoration of St. George’s intercession. Even more importantly, the monument was also a reliquary, for there is a chamber in the breast of the figure of the Saint, divided into four compartments, designed to hold relics of saints which had been carried from Rome by the Papal Nuncio Antonius Masth, for the dedication ceremony of the new St. George’s Chapel.

The group, which now stands in the Cathedral, has been carefully pieced together after fragments had been mutilated and quite widely dispersed over the centuries. Some of the carved panels were returned from churches elsewhere in the country. Even today it is not complete. It is almost certain that originally figures of the King and Queen, parents of the kneeling Princess, stood on the battlements of the castle on which the Princess now kneels, while the princess herself would have knelt either at ground level, or on another plinth which has disappeared. The main figures of the group were the work of a celebrated Lubeck sculptor, Bernt Notke. He was assisted by Henning der Heide and Hinrich Wylsynck, who were probably responsible for the carved decorative panels on the plinths. 
The devotion to St. George demonstrated by the erection of St. George’s Chapel in Storkyrkan was not confined to the Cathedral itself. It is recorded[2] that on “St. George’s Day”, 10th October, the anniversary of the Battle of Brunkeberg, there took place a great feast-day procession through Stockholm and
the surrounding district. The whole population of Stockholm accompanied the nobles and priests with the holy relics as they wended their way from Storkyrkan to Brunkeberg, where another small chapel dedicated to the saint had been established. From there the procession followed a winding route back to Storkyrkan.

Sten Sture’s official registration of the Stockholm relics, dated 1492, as sent to the Pope and preserved at the Vatican, emphasises that all of the city’s relics were so carried, so it would appear that at least the figure of
St. George, which was a reliquary for small fragments of bones of St. George himself, and of Sts. Blasius, Germanus, Leo, Martinus, Donatus and Cyriacus, must have been carried in the procession[3]. Whether or not the whole Notke group with the horse and dragon was so transported is an open question. Roosval[4] has suggested that a special transport platform may have been provided for the horse and dragon. This view is supported by the fact that one of the smaller St. George groups now in Stockholm’s State Historic Museum has rings for fastening to a carrying grid. But it is possible that a special procession horse may have been provided for the Notke St. George reliquary in the great procession, to avoid the major engineering feat of lifting and carrying out the whole group from the Cathedral.

From the time of its dedication, profound religious and national significance was attributed to the new shrine of
St.George. It is even related in the chronicles that when, in accordance with established custom, the banner of St. Erik was taken in 1495 from Uppsala to be carried in a war-march against the Russians, the guardians of the banner first invoked the protection of St. George by a visit to Storkyrkan’s shrine. From that time on it was he whose intercession was besought by the Swedish soldiers in battle. St. Erik, long regarded as the Patron Saint of the nation, now took second place to the St. George as the Protector of Sweden. To quote (freely translated) from Samuel Hedlund’s 1936 study on “The St. George’s Group in Stockholm’s Storkyrka”

Thanks to an artistic work of genius, Saint George seems quite suddenly to have become a national hero, more widely invoked than either Erik or Olof, who had earlier shared this honour. That he so successfully competed with such a famous pair of holy men provides an understanding of the fact that the Storkyrkan Saint George group was a national victory monument, Sweden’s ‘Freedom-statue’.”[5]

This veneration of the Great Martyr as Protector of the nation persisted for more than half a century, and for this half-century England and Sweden both acknowledged the same saint as their national patron. But in England, by the middle of the 16th century, the Protestant boy-King Edward VI was starting to challenge old practices, and especially the established patronage of St. George. So also in Sweden, at around the same time, the forces of the Reformation were fiercely challenging the old practices of veneration of the saints, and inevitably the patronage of St. George came under attack.

The cult of the Saint as patron of the Swedish nation also came under attack for another reason. The political turmoil that still continued between the Swedes and the Danes, even after the Battle of Brunkeberg, was finally settled in 1523. In that year Gustav Vasa, a declared Protestant sympathiser, entered Stockholm in triumph to establish unchallenged Swedish independence from Danish rule, thus putting the final seal on Sten Sture’s great victory.

Gustav Vasa was related to the Stures, but there was nevertheless rivalry between the members of the family. This wily monarch had no wish to encourage continuance of the cult of Sten Sture the Elder as the saviour of Sweden. From the time of the Battle of Brunkeberg, Sten Sture’s promotion of the cult of St. George had gone hand in hand with the cult of his own personality, and his son Sten Sture the Younger, who succeeded him, continued the policies and practices of his father. The adornment of the plinth of the St. George group with the arms of the Stures promoted the idea that Sten Sture the Elder was virtually a personification of St. George’s attributes and virtues. The Dragon of the St. George group was identified with Denmark, and the Princess was identified with Sweden. It was even suggested that Ingeborg Tott, Sten Sture’s wife, was the model for the Princess. And “The young Sten” was the popular description of the stripling St. George on his dappled steed.

Perhaps this was the reason why in 1554 Gustav Vasa conceived the idea of demolishing Storkyrkan, though his ostensible reason for this proposal was that it limited the firing range of the cannon which he had installed to protect the adjacent Royal Castle. If this demolition had taken place, then the St. George shrine, with its reminders of the achievements of Sten Sture, would have been removed from the seat of power. Perhaps, who knows, the shrine would, with diplomatic reluctance, have been demolished, or at least moved to a location where it would have been at the mercy of the Protestant iconoclasts. But there was a widespread popular outcry at this proposal, and in the end Gustav Vasa contented himself with demolition of the spacious pentagonal apse at the east end of the church.[6]

Roosval believes that this apse was in fact the original site of the St. George group, which in his view was designed
with the intent that it should be open to clear view from all sides, thus requiring such a spacious location which could not readily be matched anywhere in the body of the church. With the demolition of the apse, the group was removed to a side-chapel of the Cathedral. Hedlund has recorded that at this period there was widespread destruction in Sweden of images and pictures of saints, by Protestant extremists. It is indeed surprising that this outstanding example of Catholic imagery managed to survive the fury of the iconoclasts. It could so readily have been put to the torch, but it was perhaps protected by its proximity to the Royal Castle, where the forces of law and order could more effectively cope with mob violence.

Despite the inevitable decline in the national status of St. George under Gustav Vasa,two of his illustrious 17th century descendants enthusiastically accepted royal invitations to become members of the English “Order of St. George named the Garter”.

In 1628 Gustav Adolphus, and in 1669 Charles XI, were both elected members and received their habits and insignia with great pomp and circumstance. Gustav Adolphus’s election was accompanied by a magnificent gift of jewelled insignia that is later described in some detail in Chapter 10. Charles XI’s election was not marked by similar munificence on the part of
the Order: indeed it is doubtful whether either the Order or the hard-pressed Charles II of England could have matched the generosity displayed during his father’s reign. Instead, in the case of Charles XI, the munificence came not from the donor, but from the recipient.

At his Investiture in Stockholm on 29th July 1669, the habit and insignia were conferred on Charles XI by Richmond Herald, the appropriately named Mr. Henry St. George. Three days after the Investiture there took place the extraordinary public fireworks display that has been immortalised in the famous engraving by Wenceslas Hollar, illustrating the event in Ashmole’s “Most Noble Order of the Garter”.[7] This engraving carries the title:

“In Magnificentissimum hoc supra Spectaculum nocturnorum Ignium, jactorum inter solemnia honoris Equestrus, Ordinis D. Georg ii, cum eundem SERENISSIMUS atque POTENTISIMUS PRINCEPS ac DOMINUS DN CAROLUS D.G. Suecorum, Gotharum, Vandalorumque Rex, et Princeps hereditarius Magnus Dux Finlandiae, Dux Scaniae, Esthoniae, Livoniae, Careliae ”

Freely translated as:

” In the greatest Magnificence this superb spectacle of nocturnal Fireworks was mounted in honour of the Knight of the Order of St. George, the MOST SERENE and POWERFUL PRINCE and LORD CHARLES (by the Grace of God) King and hereditary Prince of the Swedes, Goths, Vandals, Great Duke of the Finns, Duke of the Scands, Esthonians, Latvians, Karelians”

Mr.St.George’s “Relation of the Investiture” states that the Fireworks “had been preparing for about three months, an English mile from Stockholme (in honor of this Solemnity)”. Ashmole goes on to describe the setting for the fireworks:

” In the middle of the work was erected a great Pillar, 52 feet high, on top of which was placed a gilt Crown … upon each side of the Pillar, 40 ft distant from it, was placed St.George on Horseback having the Dragon under his Feet, of 24 ft in length, and 28 in heighth, and on each side of
St. George two Pyramids of 30 feet high ”

Applying Ashmole’s dimensions to the engraving of the scene, it is clear that each of the equestrian figures of
St. George was around 30 ft in height. The engraving shows massed ships on the lake in the foreground, and gives a vivid impression of the brilliant sparkling fireworks spouting upward into the sky.

Public displays of such figures o f St. George and the Dragon are by no means a normal feature of Garter celebrations. This Stockholm display was unique, and its significance is unmistakable. It was not merely a public recognition of
St. George as Patron Saint of the Order that had just been conferred on the Swedish Sovereign. Far more than that, it was for at least one glorious night a public reaffirmation, nearly two centuries after the Battle of Brunkeberg, of the status of St. George as Protector of the Swedish people.

The public munificence of that night’s glorious display of Georgian celebration was matched both in style and content by Charles XI’s generous private gifts to those associated with his new honour. Before Mr. St. George left Stockholm on 4th September, he was presented “with a Chain of Gold, and a Meddal set with diamonds, from his Majesty”. Subsequently, when Charles was installed into the Order at Windsor by proxy, In 1671, he caused special gold medals displaying figures of
St. George and the Dragon to be struck. These were bestowed on Knights Companions and “other persons of quality who were present”. Silver ones with the same design were bestowed on the officers.

Memories of such festal occasions fade fast, however. No more Swedish sovereigns were invited to membership of the Order for more than two centuries, and over that period public
devotion to the Saint in Sweden gradually waned and faded from public memory. By the time Oscar Gustav Adolf, Prince of Sweden and Norway, later King Gustav V of Sweden, accepted membership
of the Order in 1905, memories of St. George were fading even in England: the Order was by then known simply as “the Order of the Garter”, no longer as “The Order of St. George named the Garter”.

During those centuries the St. George group in Stockholm was moved literally from pillar t o post. It was moved around Storkyrkan from one location to another during the 17th and 18th centuries. It stood longest on a gallery in the south-west part of the church, and at this time several portions of the group disappeared, while others were damaged. In 1886, it was moved to the National Museum of Antiquities. It was returned to the church in 1906, and between 1913 and 1932 it was progressively restored and was eventually placed in its present position.

Not surprisingly, the relics originally contained within the St. George reliquary had vanished by the 19th century, just as those donated over many centuries to the Windsor St. George’s Chapel vanished during the Reformation. There is an astonishing sequel to this story, however, for in 1881 the Stockholm relics came to light once more, thanks to an historical study being carried out in Gamla Stan, the Old City of Stockholm, by a young librarian called August Strindberg. He was at that time 33 years old, and had already made his mark as an author, with his controversial novel “Red Room”; and as a playwright, with his equally controversial “Master Olof”, which dealt with the period of the Reformation in Sweden under Gustav Vasa, and which at that time had been rejected by the Swedish Royal Theatre.

He was working as an ‘amanuensis’ in the Royal Library in Stockholm, when he agreed to collaborate with Claes Lundin to write a book on “Gamla Stockholm”. On a bleak February morning in 1881, “wandering in search of a Swedish cultural history”, he took himself to Storkyrkan to meet the churchwarden. He recounted somewhat melodramatically the details of his visit, in an article in the issue of Nya Dagligt Allehanda on 15th October in that same year. Following the churchwarden, he clambered up

“the winding tube” of the spiral stairway of the church tower: Finally they reached the attic. “Its floor bulges like a swelling sea while a pale yellow moon or sun throws a weak light over the vaulted ceiling’s overhanging rafters”. They ended up in absolute darkness. He thought of the vast beams that were “stretched over my head in cross and scissor, as though they would nip and seize me”. But suddenly the churchwarden opened the tower’s shutters, and “inrushes the daylight that broods over the roof ridges below”.[8]

Strindberg looked around him to discover a mass of old objects scattered around the tower attic, and he proceeded to rummage through the accumulated material. Many of the items he describes are now among the treasured items now displayed in the church. He found a beautiful crucifix of the late 13th century; an old votive ship; and, apparently without recognising it, a 16th century lectern decorated with angel’s heads. But the most important discovery made by Strindberg on that bleak February morning, just over one hundred years ago, came when he found in a corner a small box marked ‘scraps’. When he opened it he found a bag of red brocade with a pomegranate pattern. Attached to this was a scrap of parchment with an inscription reading ‘Sto Georgio et Sancto Blasio et Sto Germano’. With growing excitement he opened it and examined the contents. What he saw — as he himself wrote later — was a piece of bone in a scrap of linen, and a parchment around it, on which could be read (in latin) :

‘Anno domini 1490 Antonius Masth, postolic Protonotary and Nuncio, delivers the Holy George’s relic for the welfare of the souls of the Noble Lord Governor of the State, Sten Sture, and his wife Ingeborg — and deposits it on this same day in the effigy of St. George’

He went on:

It was clear that what I was holding in my frozen hand was the bone of St. George, and that I was also reading a written message from the Papal Nuncio addressedto Sten Sture! … The bag also contained more bones with an inscription that these belonged t o Saints Cyriacus, Germanus and Blasius etc”[9]

Instead of announcing his find and delivering it to the vice pastor, high-predikant Ruus, Strindberg removed the box of precious relics and deposited it in the Royal Library, at the same time reporting his activities to his superior Chief Librarian Klemming. According to a note on a half sheet of writing paper, he recorded how he “rescued” the relics “from destruction in a lumber-room in Stockholm’s Storkyrka and deposited them in a wooden box in the Royal Library”.

At the Royal Library the wooden box was put away and was soon forgotten again. Klemming had a lot of other work to do, and soon after his discovery Strindberg had resigned from the library. Nearly forty years were to pass before the State Librarian Isak Collijn re-discovered the box with the relics when searching through the contents of a drawer enclosed in a cupboard in his office. It contained not only the precious relics, with Masth’s letter to the Stures, but also Strindberg’s hand-written account of his find in 1881. After Collijn had reported on the relics and the documents in a paper presented in Fornvannen in 1919, he arranged for their return to Storkyrkan.

At the restoration of Storkyrkan in 1954, when the
St. George group also was renovated, the 1489 relics were laid once more in their original shrine, in the chamber under the harness of the rider St. George, together with Antonius Masth’s parchment letter, and August Strindberg’s report on his discovery. There now rest once more the relics of St. George, St. Blasius, St. Germanus and the other saints, which Sten Sture received as a gift from Pope Innocent VIII. Even though today none may go on pilgrimage to Storkyrkan to seek indulgence and cure from the saints, it is entirely fitting that their relics should once again be housed in their rightful home.

For a long period the St. George group had been effectively shut away from general view: first while it was housed in the National Museum of Antiquities, and then while it was being restored after its return to Storkyrkan in 1906. Nearly half a century passed before it was again on full public view in Storkyrkan in 1932. It seems that a gentleman named Wiklander, a leading industrialist, who was concerned that the public should be able freely to see the group, conceived the idea of producing a bronze replica which could be set up out of doors, on a site near to Storkyrkan, in full sight of the citizens of Stockholm. This replica now stands in the small square off Kopmanbrinken (Shopkeepers’ Alley), a short walk from the Cathedral. Despite its outdoor location close to tall buildings, it is very impressive, for the main group stands on a much higher plinth than that in Storkyrkan, so that it reaches as high as the top of the third storey of the adjacent buildings, probably close on 30 feet above ground level.

The plinth is simply made of undecorated stone: evidently replication of the carved panels which adorn the original would have been an over-daunting task. The group also differs from the original in certain other details. For example, the plumed helm which lies on t h e plinth in front of the main group in Storkyrkan is omitted, and the rider himself wears a large unplumed helmet. The Princess is present however, kneeling on a smaller plinth nearby. Perhaps the greatest difference is tfe lack of the brilliant gold and other colours of the original polychrome statues, but the effect of the bronze casting is nevertheless impressive and attractive.

An inscription in Swedish runs round the plinth :

St. Gorans bild
hugfaste minnet af den svenska segern St. Gorans visa eldade svenska man i slaget pa Brunkeberg mcmxii – mcmxiii

Freely translated as:

The image of St. George
celebrates the memory of the Swedish victory The ballad of St. George fired Swedish men in the battle of Brunkeberg 1912 – 1913

The ballad of St. George is a recurring theme in the historical records, and also in folk-lore memories, and it has been immortalised in the melody which rings out every day at 12 noon and at 18 hours from the Chime of bells of Stadshuset, Stockholm’s City Hall; the 12 noon chiming is broadcast over the whole Swedish radio network. The broadcast is live, so that one can often hear the shriek of gulls and the noise of trains from the adjacent railway bridge, as well as voices of visitors carried away by the spectacle from the great tower of the City Hall.

Stadshuset’s bell chime, said to be the most loved and best-known chime in the whole of Sweden,[10] was cast in Holland. It consists of nine bells, of which the hour-bell, “St. Erik” is the largest, weighing a full 2 1/2 tons. The next in size is the “St. George”, weighing 1380 Kg, and the smallest in the chime, “Lilleklockan” weighs 176 Kg. The Bell-Chime was dedicated over 60 years ago, at the same time as Stadshuset itself, on midsummer-day 1923, the 400th anniversary of Gustav Vasa’s historic ride into Stockholm.

An official dedication book was issued at the opening ceremony for Stadshuset. In it Axel Blomberg, then music-director and organist, wrote about the melody chosen to be rung each day at 12 and 18 hours. He claims that this was
exactly the same as was sung by the Swedes after Sten Sure the Elder had addressed them, before the Battle of Brunkeberg in 1471. He also described how this melody had been handed down through the generations. He wrote (freely translated):

“According to the record of Richard Dybeck in the year 1849, in the parish of Kroken in Ostergotland, an 88 year old village singer called Magnus Westerberg reported that as a little boy he had heard it from a man born in the 17th century, an old ” bearded, poor man”, Jons Lure, then nearly 100 years old, called the ‘godly one’, because he used to delight everyone with ‘the godly song’ [11]

In summertime, from 1st May to 6th September, accompanying the 12-hour and 18 hour chimes, St. George also shows himself, with the Princess, his horse, and the defeated dragon led by a squire, in the form of wrought-metal figures which emerge from Stadshuset’s clock high up on the tower.

For full measure, Stadshuset’s tower also carries, on a gallery much higher than that of the clock, a large and impressive gilded equestrian statue of St. George with the Dragon, designed by Christian Eriksson, and cast by Ragnar Myrsmeden. This statue appears to be well over life size, so that its details are clearly visible even from the ground below. It is by no means a work of art of the calibre of Storkyrkan’s St. George statue, but it carries into the secular ambience of the modern City Hall the Georgian motif which for many centuries has so strongly influenced the iconography of the Swedish church.

This remark by no means overstates the importance of
St. George in Swedish church iconography. As earlier indicated, statues and other images of the Saint had proliferated in Swedish churches in the time of Charles Knutsson, well before the erection of Storkyrkan’s St. George group. They are to be found mainly in altar triptychs, in which St. George is normally in standing position with a small Dragon under his foot, which he is dispatching with either a sword or a spear. One such example is to be found in an altar triptych dated 1468, now in the State Historic Museum in Stockholm. This originally belonged to Storkyrkan before the Battle of Brunkeberg, but was transferred to a church at Osteraker before it was moved to its present location. [12]

Following the Battle of Brunkeberg, however, St. George the foot soldier gave way to St. George the horseman. There was an extraordinary proliferation of equestrian St. George groups at this time; some of these, though by no means all, were clearly based on the design of Notke’s figures. In his “Nya Sankt Gorans Studier”[13] Roosval lists, with illustrations, examples from churches all over Sweden. They include carved wooden groups from churches at Vika (Dalarne), Visby (Gotland), Vato (Uppland), Kroksmala (Smaland) Helsingtuna (Helsingland), and Bjuraker, with others whose origins are less certain. All are dated as 15th century, or as around 1500. Some, like those from Vato and Kraksmala, repeat the Notke device of using one of the legs of the Dragon as a support for the rearing horse.

Others, like those from Visby, Helsingtuna and Bjuraker, show the saint simply sitting astride a horse standing squarely on all four legs (Plate ) . According to Hedlund[14] many more such equestrian
St. Georges, which he calls Orjaners’, were earlier to be found in Uppland and Norrland churches, but quite a number had been destroyed over the years. He cites an example where one was saved in the nick of time when a research trip through Norrland parishes discovered in a private garden a splendid wooden horse that a child was using as a toy. It was none other than a horse belonging to a St. George group.

In his recent study Svanberg[15] has reported an exhaustive survey of the incidence of extant images of St. George during what might be called the ‘Sture period’, from 1470 to 1520. He lists no fewer than 133 items, most of them being wooden sculpture groups or mural paintings. This compares with the total of 26 dating from Charles Knutsson’s time, and a total of only 12 for the preceding three and a half centuries. The images are found throughout what were then the provinces of Sweden, Skane and Blekinge, which comprise the territory of modern Sweden, and also throughout Finland, which was then a fiefdom of the Swedish Kings.

In his”Art Treasure of Medieval Finland”,Racz[16] listsand illustrates many Finnish examples of equestrian St. George’s. They include carved wooden groups from churches at Sauvo, Finstrom, Hattula, Hollola and Koorpoo. The Sauvo, Finnstrom and Hattula groups are strikingly similar to the Notke group, including the use of the dragon’s leg as a support for the rearing horse. The Hollola and Koorpoo groups show St. George astride a horse standing four-square.

The group from Koorpoo (Plate ), is quite different from all others, whether from Finland or Sweden, in design and general type of workmanship. It is listed by Svanberg as being an import from Germany. In design it bears little resemblance to the Notke St. George group, and it also has a most unusual iconographical feature, totally unrelated to the established iconography of St. George: alongside the horse, facing forward toward the Princess and the defeated Dragon, there stands the figure o f a capped falcon. This is a quite enormous falcon, fully matching t h e height o f t h e kneeling figure o f t h e Princess.

One can put forward only one speculative idea to account for this unusual attribute in a St. George icon. The falcon, according to Reau[17] is used as a symbol of high birth, or of worldly dissipation. Neither high birth nor dissipation would seem to apply to St. George, but in his “Repertoiredes Attributs avec les Saints Correspondants” Reau does list a
St. Gorgon among saints carrying the falcon, presumably as an attribute of high birth. This saint was a Roman captain who was martyred under Diocletian, around the same time as St. George.

One German spelling for George is Gorg, and even the Swedish spelling of Goran for George shares its first three letters and its last letter with the name Gorgon. Given this similarity of name, and also the close similarity between the dates and manner of martyrdom of these two saints, it is quite possible that the 16th century German wood carver of the Koorpoo group confused the two, and gave to Sankt Goran the falcon attribute of St. Gorgon. This could be a replay of a similar possible confusion of these names over a thousand years earlier, already referred to in Chapter 1, where it was suggested that a reference to St.Gorgon in Eusebius’s list of early Christian martyrs may have been intended to refer to St. George.

The influence of Notke’s design for St. George group in Stockholm’s Storkyrkan, in which the dragon’s leg serves as a prop for the weight of the equestrian group, also spread beyond Sweden into Lubeck (Notke’s home town) and other North German cities. The best example is the group by Henning von der Heydes (dated 1504-5), now to be found in t h e museum at Lubeck. Another example of Swedish origin, though no longer located in Sweden,is the St.George group now to be found in the National Museum in Copenhagen. This was produced originally for the church at the Norrland town of Husum, by Hans Bruggeman, in 1525, right at the end of the Sture period. 
The carved wooden figures of many of the simpler St. George groups in Swedish and Finnish churches call to mind the carved wooden figures of horses and young women from Dalarna province, which are so popular in Swedish folk art. Every visitor to Sweden must have seen these displayed in the windows of stores in towns and villages throughout the country. The figures of the horses especially are world famous. They can be bought in all sizes, and in varying colours. The most common colour combination however is a bright orange for the horse’s body, the harness being golden-yellow with green edging, and studded with multi-coloured ornaments.

There is a striking similarity between these Dalarna horses and some of the horses in the 16th and 17th century
St. George groups, especially those from Visby, Helsingtuna and Bjuraker(Plate ).Enquiries as to the origin of the Dalarna figures provide no adequate reason for their specific designs, nor why they should be produced in this particular area. The usual response from Swedish friends is simply that in the 19th century local workers in Dalarna used to spend their spare time, during the long dark winter months, in carving these figures as toys for their own children. Then later, in the 20th century, the toys developed into items for sale to tourists. But this response completely begs the question as to the origins of these particular designs in this particular province. Why horses and Jungfru’s? Why not trees or elks or mining trolls ? Why Dalarna, and not Skane or Uppland ?

Patterns of folk-art do not simply emerge from nothing: almost invariably they are rooted deeply in old traditions of local folk-lore. Dalarna province, or Dalecarlia as it is commonly known, was the home province o f the Bergslag miners who played such a key role as a part of Sten Sture’s army, at the battle of Brunkeberg, and who already recognised St. George as their Patron Saint in the time of Charles Knutsson. Remembering this, and also recalling Hedlund’s account of the discovery of
an “Orjaner” horse which was being used as a child’s toy, does
it not seem possible that these famous Dalarna toy horses, today sold in their thousands to citizens and tourists alike, may have originated from St. George’s horse, which in the 16th and 17th centuries was so widely displayed in the Orjaner groups housed
in small provincial churches? And by the same token, is it not possible that the carved Jungfru figures from Dalarna also derive from the figure o f the Princess in these same Orjaners ?

If this speculation is true, then these Dalarna figures of horses and Jungfrus, like the chimes of St. George’s ballad which daily ring out across city and nation from Stockholm’s Stadshus, provide a fascinating link with the old devotion of the Swedish people to St. George. But even so, such links with old devotions mean only that half-forgotten memories of the Saint may linger on in these quaint local customs.

What is much more important to Swedish religious life is that similar elements of the St. George story also live on quite vigorously in the art and liturgy of the Swedish Lutheran Church.

Although it no longer seems to be able to reach the hearts and minds of most Swedish people, who generally seem to regard religious figures as belonging solely to the realm of myth and legend, this Church is by no means either dead or decadent. In this century it has produced some outstanding personalities, of whom the best known has been Nathan Soderblom, noted during his lifetime for his pioneer work for Christian Ecumenism. He was appointed Archbishop of Uppsala and Lutheran primate of Sweden in 1914. A high point in his ecumenical work was the historic meeting in 1925, in Storkyrkan in Stockholm, then called the “First Universal Conference on Life and Work”. The series of Conferences thus started merged with an earlier series of Conferences on Faith and Order, to form the World Council of Churches. Soderblom was given the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his work for the promotion of Peace in the Church.

Although Uppsala was his seat as Primate and Archbishop, it is clear that he must have had a special affection for Storkyrkan in Stockholm, and for the special status of St. George in this Cathedral. His chosen arms as Primate of the Church, shown with his portrait on Swedish postage stamps issued in 1966 on his birth centenary, show his birthplace in one quarter, St. George and the Dragon in another quarter, and the Cross of St. George in the other two quarters (Plate ) . The Notke St. George itself had earlier, in 1962, been the subject of a Swedish postage stamp issue (Plate ) .

At the beginning of this chapter there was mention of the use of the St. George motif on the shopping bags of the Cathedral Bookstore. This is not by any means the only use of the motif in Storkyrkan. The 1982 illustrated guide to the church[18]
shows three priests standing before the Silver Altar, with their backs turned to the congregation. One of the beautiful vestments thus revealed is in gold fabric with a large medallion depicting an equestrian St. George and the Dragon: the horse-cloth carries a large representation o f t h e Cross o f
St. George. As another example, Arne Forsberg’s “Seven centuries o f Storkvrka”, includes among its line drawings one of a bishop’s crook made for the Cathedral in 1942 under the direction of the silversmith Erik Fleming. It is a beautiful piece of silver work, in which the circle of the head of the crook carries within it a miniature St. George with dragon, obviously inspired by the Notke design.

So despite the general indifference, St. George seems still to be active in the minds and hearts of a small but dedicated group of the Swedish people. Sweden no longer needs protection from the Dragon of domination by its Scandinavian neighbours, but it does perhaps need some help to fight the Dragon of indifference, and to regain the pride its citizens once held in its spiritual standing. Perhaps one day Nathan Soderblom’s ecumenical dreams will really come true, and perhaps Sweden and Sweden’s one-time Protector, St. George, may yet play some greater part in that achievement.



















[1] Svanberg J               Sankt Gora nock Draken, Tidens Vorlag, Stockhom, 1993

[2] Hedlund S                Den Stora Sankt Gorans Gruppen I Stockhol’s Sttorkyrka.

Stockhom 1936

[3] Hedlund S                op cit

[4] Roosval J                  Nya Sankt Gorans Studier, Stockholm 1924

[5] Hedlund S                op cit

[6] Henrickson A           Storkyrkan: En svensk kronika, Stockholm 1979

[7] Ashmole E                The Most Noble Order of the Garter, London 1672

[8] Forsberg A               Sju Seklers Storkyrke, Stockholm 1979

[9] Forsberg A               op cit

[10] Olow A                    “Weekend “ supplement, Svenska Dagbladet,                                                       Stockholm, 12 August 1983

[11] Olow A                    op cit

[12] Hedlund S              op cit n 5

[13] Rooseval J               op cit n 4

[14] Hedlund S              op cit n 2

[15] Svenburg J             op cit n 1

[16] Racz J                      Suomen Keskiaian Taideaarteita (Art Treasures of Medieval                             Finland), Helsinki c 1955

[17] Reau L                     L’Iconographie de L’Art Chretien, Paris 1959

[18] Forsberg A              Storkyrkan: The Stockhokm Cathedral, Stockholm 1982