Saturday, 12 March 2016

Darkness and Light at Midsummer

Nikolai Astrup
St. Hansbål ved Jølstervatnet
Wikimedia Commons
In London on Norse and Viking business yesterday, I took a bit of time to go to the splendid Dulwich Picture Gallery and check out their Nikolai Astrup exhibition. Publicity for the exhibition has tended to stress how little known he is outside of his native Norway, but those of us who have lived in Norway couldn't possibly have escaped being fascinated by his paintings. Apart from a few short visits to the capital or abroad to study, Astrup spent most of his life in the same place, the farming communities in the district of Jølster in Sunnfjord, and his motifs all derive from the landscape and the people around him. The paintings and prints look pretty good on the page, or the screen, but there is nothing like seeing them in the flesh.  Seeing a large number of his works together really brings home how careful and subtle his use of paint is - there are so many different shades of blue and grey for the water and the sky, and of green for the foliage. Almost every painting has a little luminescent glimmer in it somewhere, be it the summer night's reflections on the lake, or a full moon, or the warm light of a house window shining through the trees. These effects can only be appreciated by seeing the actual paintings.

One of Astrup's best-known and -loved motifs is found in his several works (such as the one pictured above) on the theme of Sankthansaften, or Jonsok, the pan-Scandinavian custom of big midsummer bonfire parties, on the 23rd of June, the eve of the feast of St John the Baptist. Growing up in a country parsonage, Astrup wasn't allowed by his strict father to participate in such 'pagan' practices, and clearly made up for this by painting the scene many times later in life (often with a wistful figure looking on from the edge of the scene). Which raises the question of just how 'pagan' these celebrations were.

Well it does not stretch the imagination to accept that northern countries, with their great contrasts of darkness and light, would mark the time of year when the days were at their longest, but starting to get short again, just as they celebrated the time of year when the days were at their shortest and getting longer again. But actual evidence for such celebrations is hard to find. One of the labels at the Astrup exhibition suggested that the St John's Eve bonfires went back to pagan times and were a recreation of the funeral of the god Baldr. But I don't think this idea is much older than 1858 when it was suggested by the Norwegian language reformer Ivar Aasen, who grew up a little north of Astrup, in Sunnmøre. The basis for this suggestion is not clear, though it is true that Baldr is 'so bright that light shines from him' (according to Snorri), and it is easy to equate his death with the turning of the sun.

The main medieval evidence for the festival comes from ch. 19 of Ágrip, a historical work written in Norway in the late twelfth century, where it says of the missionary king Óláfr Tryggvason that he (edition and translation by Matthew Driscoll):
felldi blót ok blótdrykkjur, ok lét í stað koma í vild við lýðinn hátíðardrykkjur jól ok páskar, Jóansmessu mungát, ok haustöl at Mikjálsmessu.
abolished pagan feasts and sacrifices, in place of which, as a favour to the people, he ordained the holiday feasts Yule and Easter, St John's Mass ale, and an autumn-ale at Michaelmas.
This suggests, though not definitively, that these new Christian feasts took place more or less at the same time as the traditional celebrations, but it says nothing about the traditional midsummer feast being a celebration or recreation of Baldr's funeral. So that must remain a rather speculative hypothesis.

Nevertheless, it is quite likely that Astrup shared Aasen's romantic viewpoint, and the picture above does seem to echo the myth. Unlike most of Astrup's other Sankthans paintings, this one has no dancing couples and the mood seems to be quite sombre. According to Snorri, Baldr's funeral took place by the sea, on a ship which was launched and then burned. It is not I think too fanciful to see the bonfire, the boat on the shore, and the lone figure sitting by it, as echoes of this story, at least in Astrup's mind.

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