|“Valdemar Atterdag Holding Visby to Ransom, 1361.” Carl Gustaf Hellqvist. 1882. (Nationalmuseum, Stockholm)|
Copyright © Edward Riojas
Once in a while I run across a piece of art that really piques my interest. It’s impossible to be familiar with every period and genre of art throughout time and space, and I am certainly no smarty-pants when it comes to art history the world over. So it was that, while researching some unrelated topic, I ran across a piece by a nineteenth century Swedish historical painter. Carl Gustaf Hellqvist’s painting, “Valdemar Atterdag Holding Visby to Ransom, 1361,” stopped me in my tracks.
The 11 feet-wide painting is the sort of thing a child might pore over for hours. It is epic in scale, lavish in detail, and loaded with theatrical vignettes that give drama to the event.
Hellqvist was no hack. While unknown to most of us, the artist was one of the most popular painters in Sweden during his day. He showed one of his pieces in the Paris Salon, and received the gold medal in Vienna for this particular painting.
The subject of the painting is a key event in Sweden’s history, even though it essentially shows the agony of defeat. Valdemar, King of Denmark, sits on a royal throne and watches the proceedings of ransom being gathered by the vanquished citizens of Visby. The Swedish city was threatened with being burnt to the ground if three large beer vats could not be filled with gold and silver in three days.
Hellqvist divides the composition into three foreground vignettes that roughly follow the three vats, and subdivides the background into several more areas. Central to the piece is the family of Visby’s Mayor. The Mayor himself clenches his fist in anger and glares at the king. His wife looks to heaven for aid with tear-filled eyes.
To the left, a citizen bearing family heirlooms is manhandled to a beer vat by a foot soldier armed with a glaive and crossbow. The tension of the vignette is countered by a boy peering over the edge of a nearby vat to the treasures within.
On the right, a boy laden with heavy platters turns to look at the imperious Dane. A man follows the boy, bearing a compact, but heavy, money chest. The figure is most certainly a Jew, as he wears a distinctive, pointed hat required by medieval law.
As is true with many early historical painters, there are inaccuracies in the image. For instance, while the ridiculous helm ornamentation on several knights is true of Teutonic knights who may have aligned themselves with the Danish king, the presence of a Dachshund predates the dog’s emergence as a breed. And while the costuming is, indeed, close to being accurate, a woman – especially the Mayor’s wife – would not have her head uncovered. Even the city’s architecture is inaccurate for Sweden, and is instead more indicative of Germany, where the image was most-likely painted.
Still, the painting refuses to lose its grip on our imagination. The handling of paint, bearing a strong academic approach softened by hints of Impressionism, allows the viewer to be absorbed by the detail – however historically inaccurate it may be.
One might wonder why this painting – and, indeed, the subject itself – would be dear to a seemingly-vanquished nation. The ruthless King Valdemar might have been wishing to burn the city, and make off with a bit of treasure anyway. The citizens of Visby, however, didn’t need three days to scrounge for enough gold and silver to save their city. They did so in one day.