Kalvariestenen, Stockholm

21 Jun

Whilst the medieval city of Stockholm was centred on the low-lying islands of Riddarholmen and Stadsholmen, the city is overlooked by an impressive hill, known as Pelarbacken (or Pelarberget), now part of the fashionable and bohemian Södermalm area.


Calvary Stone, Stockholms Medeltidsmuseet/Museum of Medieval Stockholm

On this hill, in 1511, three monumental limestone carvings were erected, one of which can be seen today (photograph below) in Stockholm’s Medeltidsmuseet, the Museum of Medieval Stockholm. These stones were a Calvary installation; a picture here shows the stone in situ in 1896 and a drawing here suggests the state of the stone c. 1870. The weathered surviving stone, pictured here, shows Christ on the cross, with figures at either side: apparently the grieving Virgin Mary to his right and, according to the museum, John the Baptist to his left (although elsewhere this figure is said to be Mary Magdalene). The stones were reached as the culmination of a procession from Stockholm’s Old Town, from the city to the hill, mirroring Christ’s route to Golgotha. The distance from the Old Town to the Calvary Stones was said to be identical to that of Christ’s route from Pilate’s House to Calvary, reflecting an interest in late medieval religion in the empiric, measurable details of Christ’s Passion (the number of footsteps, the length of his sepulchre etc.). This procession was given added resonance because of two particular features of the hill of Pelarbacken: first, from the fourteenth century, the hill had been the site of a Chapel of the Holy Cross, at which pilgrims would ask for protection on their travels, and second, the hill was also where the city’s gallows were located – literally, a place of the skull – so Stockholm’s physical geography came to be understood as similar to that of Jerusalem. Such an arrangement had recently been built in the city of Lubeck (1493). On a map of Stockholm from 1733 the hill is still called ‘Gollgata’ – Golgotha, the place of the skull.

The two other stones showed a pair of episodes from Christ’s Passion: one showed Jesus carrying the cross, the other showed him falling under the cross. These other stones were damaged in the seventeenth century, but the surviving stone was in place until the end of the nineteenth century.

The Stockholm installation is interesting to me in part because it shows how this kind of holy landscape was far from being a southern European phenomenon, as it is often said to be. However, it may be the case that the Calvary Stones were influenced by the Passion devotion emanating from southern Europe – in particular, that of pseudo-Bonaventure’s Mediatationes Vitae Christi which urged one to imagine oneself as being at the Passion, within the Passion; such texts also had a considerable influence on St Birgitta of Sweden (d. 1373). In her meditations and visions on the Passion (in particular chapter 15 of the seventh book of her Revelations), Birgitta, who visited Jerusalem, does not describe the sites of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and she certainly does not give a pilgrimage guide, but rather she is transported across time and space into the Passion of Christ. The Calvary Stones in Stockholm would have fulfilled a similar role, transporting medieval Swedes to a Jerusalem of the mind.

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