30th Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval Studies
Fordham University, Lincoln Center, New York City: March 27-28, 2010

Margrethe C. Stang, "The Politics of St. Olav's Burial: A Fresh Look at the Trondheim Altar Frontal"

31 medieval painted altar frontals have survived in Norway. One of these has sparked more art historical interest and debate than all others, namely the “Trondheim frontal”, dated to c. 1300. Drawing on the results from my very recent PhD-thesis, I will present new theories regarding the conception and patronage as well as provenance of this exceptional panel painting.

By combining a fresh look at the iconography of the frontal with new insights into the tensions within the clergy of late 13th century Trondheim, I show how the cult of St Olav was under constant renewal, and how the ownership of the cult was a source of conflict.

Scholars generally agree that the panel was painted in Trondheim around 1300. It is documented to have been incorporated in the Royal Collection of Antiquities in Copenhagen in 1694, where its provenance is described as “from Trondhjem’s church”, which has often been interpreted as Trondheim Cathedral, which also housed the shrine of St Olav. Previous scholarship has concentrated on the relationship between the narrative scenes of the Trondheim frontal and their literary parallels, particularly Snorri’s Saga of St Olav.

In my analysis of the frontal, I point to the anomalies of the Trondheim frontal in relation to other visual saints’ vitae, especially altar frontals. A striking feature of the Trondheim panel is that it is a saint’s altar frontal without a depiction of a miracle, and that all four narrative scenes focus on a few events around the martyrdom of the royal saint. This unconventional iconography needs to be interpreted in light of the bitter conflicts between the Archbishop, the cathedral Chapter and the Norwegian King in the 1290s. A key issue in the conflict between King and Church was the question of bequests, where the former tried to control the amount of property transferred to the Church in the form of pro anima gifts. The unique narrative scene of the frontal where the saint gives pro anima gifts for the souls of his enemies must be understood in light of this conflict. Furthermore, the final scene of the frontal, previously identified as a translatio of the saint’s body, a year after his martyrdom, is re-interpreted as his burial, a few days after his death. The iconographic re-interpretation suggests that the panel was commissioned for the parish church of St Olav, which it was claimed was built on the spot where St Olav’s body had been hidden prior to its burial. St Olav’s church was administered by the cathedral Chapter, and was refurbished by them in the 1290s.

 

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