Reflections at Olsok, 29th of July 2023

Today at Olsok or «Olaf’s Vigil», the Norwegian King Olaf II Haraldsson who died in the battle at Stiklestad Norway in 1030, is widely celebrated across the Nordic countries with church ceremonies and cultural festivals. It is remarkable that after almost one thousand years major official Olsok celebrations with roots in the middle ages continue thoughout the region. Foremost we have the Olavsvaka in Nidaros (Trondheim), honouring St. Olaf as Rex Perpetuus Norvegiae, and the Ólavsøka in the Faroe Islands celebrating their National Holyday, and in the far east of the Nordic continent, Savonlinna in Finland, where St. Olaf’s Day (Pyhän Olavin Päivä), marks the yearly celebration of the founding of the city.

St. Olaf was the first saint to be recognised in Scandinavia. His canonisation was performed in Nidaros by the English Bishop Grimketel only a year after his death, and in 1164 the canonisation was confirmed by Pope Alexander III. He is also a canonised saint in Orthodoxy and therefore one of the last famous Western saints before the Great Schism.

St. Olaf Altar Frontal, Nidaros Cathedral,
(Photo Eirik Irgens Johnsen CC BY-SA 4.0, © 2020 Kulturhistorisk museum, UiO)

In the Nordic region, the shrine of St. Olaf in Nidaros was the oldest known and most important destination for pilgrims. Churches were dedicated to his name from Greenland to Constantinople.

The oldest surviving painting of Saint Olaf dating to around 1160 AD, is found on a column in the Nativity Church in Bethlehem. The number of Olaf churches and chapels reminds us that the Saint Olaf tradition once flourished all over Northern Europe. Prior to the Reformation, we know of at least 340 Olaf churches and Olaf chapels of which 288 were outside Norway. In Sweden, more than 75 churches were dedicated to Saint Olaf, in Denmark around 20 and in Finland at least 13.

This saint was equally popular in England, with seven churches dedicated to him in London alone. It is interesting to note that the oldest liturgical texts about St. Olaf were written in England. Typologically, St. Olaf belongs to a group of Royal saints, such as Edward the Confessor.

St. Olaf honoured on his feast day at the West Front of the Nidaros Cathedral.

The complicated personality of the viking king is clearly expressed in the iconography of St. Olaf. His attributes are a crown, an axe and an allegorical creature underneath his feet. The crown places him among Christian kings like Constantine and Charlemagne. The axe expresses on the one hand his authority as lawmaker, but serves also as a reminder that the axe was the instrument of his martyrdom. The dragon under his feet carries a face like his own and is usually interpreted as an allegorical expression of his struggle for a better self. In short, St. Olaf was seen to be a soldier of God protecting laws of society, a royal martyr and a saint who triumphed over evil.

Ora pro nobis, Sancte Olave!
+Roald Nikolai

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