Ragnar Lódbrok plundering Paris (1819)

Today a piece about an artwork that is no longer there. The mural Ragnar Lódbrok plundering Paris in Rosendal Palace, Stockholm, was consumed by a fire in 1819. We are left with the above sketch from the inheritance of the artist, Anders Hultgren (1763-1840). The sketch gives us some impression on how the mural most have looked like, but it admittedly leaves a lot to be desired.

Why bother at all then?

Well, the motif is an interesting one and, more importantly, a marvelous example of how Viking lore was used for the legitimization of the Swedish royal house, and especially of the new king, Charles XIV John.

 

Defeating Napoleon

Charles John had been born in the deep south of France – in Pau to be exactly – as Jean Bernadotte. In the turbulent revolutionary age, this ambitious son of a local attorney would make it to Marshal of France and Prince of Pontecorvo in Napoleon’s Empire. In 1810 he was somewhat surprisingly offered an even more prestigious position: that of crown prince of Sweden.

How did that happen?

By this time, Sweden was in dire need of a successor to the throne of the aging Charles XIII, who was childless and sickly. The first choice, a Danish prince, died of a heart attack within months after his appointment. The courtier Carl Otto Mörner then pulled Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte out of his hat.

(Note: this is one of the moments in history that a truly united Scandinavia was a real option, as Frederik VI, King of Denmark and Norway, was also seriously considered as heir to the Swedish crown).

No doubt some in Sweden had hoped that electing one of Napoleon’s strongmen would help elicit French support for wriggling Finland back from Russia’s clutches. Things, however, would turn out quite differently. Not only did the fresh crown prince have different geopolitical ambitions – setting his eyes on Norway rather than Finland – he also saw himself forced to betray his former employer: Charles John was one of the commanders of the army that defeated Napoleon in the Battle of Leipzig in 1813. Apropos, it was this victory that set the developments in motion that would lead to the transfer of Norway from Danish to Swedish rule.

 

Charles John as Ragnar Hairy-Breeches, and as Odin

As a Frenchman, as a stranger basically, Charles John probably felt that his accession needed some extra legitimizing. His attention turned to Norse mythology and Viking culture as possible resources of propagation and the crown prince became a fervent supporter of using this heritage as subjects for the visual arts – a practice which, as we know, was not without controversy. For one thing, it was in all likelihood his financial support that accommodated the first exhibition of Old Norse-inspired painting held in Stockholm in 1818.

One myth that had the king’s particular interest was Snorre’s rendition of Odin’s arrival in Sweden, in which the Asian immigrant Odin peacefully ascends to the throne of the natively Swedish king Gylfe. It is not hard to see why Charles John began to enthusiastically present himself as a modern-day Odin, who was after all a foreign but unquestionably legitimate and glorious ruler of Sweden (that is, if he has existed at all). When he bought Rosendal Palace, he had himself portrayed as the chief god on one of the murals, and this would not be the last time he would be depicted in this manner.

The murals in Rosendal Palace furthermore celebrated the former Marhshal’s victory over Napoleon. One is quite simply titled “Charles John defeating Napoleon” and is done – by Hultgren – in a classical-allegorical manner with the two Frenchmen fighting each other while riding charriots in the sky (not based on historical facts).  Another, of course, is the one with Ragnar Lódbrok – Ragnar Hairy-Breeches in English, some of you may know him as the hero of the History Channel series Vikings. According to the sagas, this legendary Viking warlord (and legendary he is, in the sense that he quite probably is not an historical figure) pillaged Paris in 845, in the act hanging 111 Frankish prisoners in honour of Odin. Charles John did not exactly plunder Paris himself, but again the parallel is obvious between, in this case, the legendary Viking king sacking the French capital and Charles John – now also a Scandinavian king – dealing a fatal blow to the French Empire.

O, the wondrous ways of cultural appropriation: a France-born king of Sweden representing himself as a blood-thirsty Viking, who in his day killed hundreds of Franks and plundered Paris, in order to solidify his new position and underline his military achievements… The simple sketch that inspired me to write this article forms a wonderful example of why studying the use of history is such an interesting endeavour.

 

Further Reading

Lennart Pettersson, ‘Johan Niklas Byström och Bengt Erland Fogelberg ‐ Samtidiga svenska skulptörer i Rom‘, Journal of Art History 67:2 (1998), pp. 93-114.

Per Widén, ‘Odin and the Charleses – A Royalist Monument That Never Came to Pass‘, Journal of Art History 82:4 (2013), pp. 322-338.

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