Lübeck's Dance of Death

The battle of Brunkeberg

The princess and the lamb have been placed in the castle instead of the beach
The princess and the lamb

There's a wide-spread myth that the St. George group is an allegory over the battle of Brunkeberg. This myth is almost as hard to kill as the dragon itself was.

King Karl Knutsson Bonde. Maybe this statue was originally placed in the castle?
Karl Knutsson Bonde

The Saint George group was ordered in 1489 by Sten Sture - the Swedish viceroy who defeated the Danish king Christian I in the battle of Brunkeberg in 1471. Thus the work is said to be an allegory over the battle of Brunkeberg (18 years ago) with Sten Sture playing the part of St. George defending the fair princess (Stockholm) against the ugly dragon (Denmark). The myth is a fairly young one — invented in 1885 by Swedish nationalists — but is repeated over and over to new generations of Swedes.

Part of the myth is easily disproved. The princess is placed upon the city (picture to the right), which gives the impression that the knight is defending both her and the city at the same time.

This placing however is illogical, since the princess, according to the legend, was waiting for the dragon at the rocky beach — far away from the city. Neither is it the original placing — it has been necessary to saw bits off her bridal veil and the bottom plate in order to fit the princess and the lamb inside the city. It is assumed that there used to be a figure of a king and (maybe) a queen at the top of the city — and there's an interesting theory, that the missing king is the oaktree figurine of King Karl Knutsson Bonde, which today is located at Gripsholm Castle.(1)

It should also be remembered that the battle of Brunkeberg was a struggle between two Danish-Swedish coalitions. There were Swedes on the side of Christian I — and Danes helping Sten Sture. As a regent it was Sten Sture's duty to reconcile the country and not to reopen 18-year old wounds.

Let us look at some other interpretations:

A popular motive

St. George has always been one of the most popular saints — so popular that he was still worshipped after the Reformation. Indeed, St. George is the patron saint of England and the large red St. George's cross on a white background is one of the elements of the Union Jack.

The worshipping of St. George was already introduced by Sten Sture's predecessor King Karl Knutsson(1) - and it took place on both sides of the Sound. Both parties in the battle of Brunkeberg called upon St. George before the fight.

There are St. George statues in many churches in many countries — most of them don't refer to any particular event.

The eternal life

The plinth was originally intended to contain Sten Sture's earthly remains. That's why it says 'Sten stur[e] ridd' (Swedish 'riddare' means knight).
Sten Sture
The reliefs on the plinth depict the martyrdom of St. George.
The martyrdom of St. George

St. George had been a saint for almost 1,000 years before the dragon-tale was added to his legend.

What made "the old" St. George special was his unusually brutal martyrdom — he actually died three times during the torments(!) but was resuscitated by the Lord and managed to convert thousands of heathens before finally expiring.

Later, in the 12th and 13th Century came the story of the dragon fight, which in its purest from is a tale of good vs. bad, light vs. darkness, life vs. death. The fact that St. George both represented the victory of life over Death (the dragon) and that he himself had risen from the dead 3 times, increased his popularity. It's no coincidence that many (leprosy) hospitals are named after St. George.

It is generally accepted (even by Swedish art historians) that Sten Sture meant for himself and his wife to be interred in the plinth under St. George (the original plinth was presumably bigger than the current one). The statue itself is really an reliquary and inside the knight's bosom there are real bones from the real St. George - making the statue the perfect guardian of Mr & Mrs Sture — until Judgement Day.

Crusade

February 1881 — 4 years before the Brunkeberg myth had been invented — August Strindberg(2) opened a little box with bones and notes that had fallen out from behind St. George's breastwork when the statue was moved to the Historical Museum in 1866.

The little box behind the breastwork
St George in Stockholm

The note had been written by the nuncio (papal delegate) who had consecrated the statue in 1489/90. The cause was the inauguration of a jubilee (Holy Year). The statue was really a reliquary and the bones that Strindberg held in his hand were nothing less than the earthly remains of St. George.

The ugly dragon - Denmark or Turkey?
The dragon in Stockholm

The note contained no references to neither Brunkeberg, the Brunkeberg year (1471) nor the Brunkeberg date (10th October).(3)

The papal delegate was in Stockholm in 1490 in order to launch a campaign of indulgence, which was meant to raise funds for a crusade against the "infidel" turks. Right after the consecration, Antonius Mast travelled around Sweden to sell letters of indulgence, although the crusade never became reality.

As part of the consecration, Antonius Mast has presumably held a speach where he hasn't forgotten to point out that St. Georg was the crusaders' saint of saints - partly because he was an officer.

The princess wears a bridal veil. The Church is often called the bride of Christ - e.g. Isaiah, chapter 62,5: "[...] as the bridegroom rejoiceth over the bride, so shall thy God rejoice over thee", Revelations 19,7; "[...] for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath made herself ready", Revelations 21,9; "[...] Come hither, I will shew thee the bride, the Lamb's wife" and the hymns: "Lord, we pray, this house adorn / Where Thy Bride, Thy Church redeemed...".

So St. George is the crusader, fighting the (Turkish) heathens in order to protect Christ's bride, the Christian Church.

External links:

Further information:

Footnotes: (1) (2) (3)

A small footnote to collect the threads about Karl Knutsson Bonde:
The author August Strindberg (famous for writing The Dance of Death) worked at The Royal Library in Stockholm between 1874 and 1882.

He described the note from St. George in Pċ vandring efter spċren till en svensk kulturhistoria (Swedish text).

The Latin text follows here. The gist of it is that in 1490 (Anno dominij millesimo quadringentesimo lxxxx) New Year (silvestri), a nuncio (nuntius = papal delegate) by name Antonius Mast had initiated a jubilee (Anno Jubilej) by placing the venerable relics (venerabiles reliquias) inside the image of St. George (imagine sancti georgj). Finally there's greetings to the stern master, Mr. Sten Sture and his wife, Mrs Ingeborg (domina domina Jnghelborgh).

Anno dominij millesimo (quadringentesimo) lxxxx die vero sancti silvestri pape Ego Antonius mast apostolice sedis protho notarius et in hoc regno swetie nuntius siue legatus cum Anno Jubilej missus et destinatus inclusi has venerabiles reliquias in ista imagine sancti georgj qui etiam eodem die erectus fuit in presenti loco. Strenuus autem miles et dominus dominus steno sture inclitj regni swetie gubernator ac eius contoralis Nobilis et generosa domina domina Jnghelborgh pro eorum sa lute posuerunt feliciter.


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