Thursday, October 6, 2011
Before an all-male crowd impassively positioned in the granite loggia above, a white-bearded archpriest prepares to administer the solemn pagan midwinter rite of human sacrifice. Flanked by gold lions, weird, semi-hypnotized attendants, and a sacred tree, the facade of his temple sanctuary is sumptuously decorated with interlacing bas-relief traceries, and a polychrome sculpture depicting some terrifying Norse god with ruttish goat-headed supporters. Gloved trumpeters, horn-blowers, and frenzied blond dancing girls greet the victim, who, ecstatically discarding his wolf-skin cloak (though not his ceremonial gold diadem, armlets, and ring), enters, otherwise naked, on a massive gilded sacrificial sled. A detachment of four slaves drags this under heavily armed escort, attended by more temple prostitutes muttering over precious idols, while in the foreground, a flamen priest wearing a blood-red cloak reverently prepares to carry out the gruesome ritual with a single stroke of the gold-handled dagger he clasps in his right hand. Welcome to Sweden. This enormous mural by Carl Larsson is right at the top of the main staircase of the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, and contains much that is informative and useful for the first-time visitor, at least I found it so. Beautiful, arctic, nautical, Sweden carries her immensely long history with pride, certainly, but also with an air of burden, wearisome solemnity, almost resignation. There are more than seventy museums in Stockholm alone, and most if not all of them refer to the terrible things that routinely happened here before there was a Sweden—the dense pine forests that enclosed; gloomy seas that swallowed whole; ice floes that encased and engorged; bottomless lakes; sprites, trolls, wolves, and wicked magic; darkness that descends for months on end, and (as Fiona rightly points out) the sermons thundered by Pastor Bergman from his pulpit in the Hedvig Eleanora Kyrka, literally putting the fear of God into little Ingmar. In purely museological terms, lately in Stockholm I was again and again put in mind of P. G. Wodehouse, and observed by way of paraphrase that obviously there are few people in the world less elfin than a late nineteenth-century Swedish art collector.