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EHL Seminar: “Saint Olav’s Axe: Driftwood, Power, and Artistic Invention on Medieval Iceland”

Robyn Barrow, University of Pennsylvania

Thu, 4/11 · 4:30 pm6:00 pm · 209 Sheide-Caldwell and Zoom

Environmental History Lab; Humanities Council; Program in Medieval Studies
Detail of upper roundel of carved door from Valþjófsstaður, National Museum of Iceland, Reykjavik, pine, 206.5 x 97.5 cm, c. 1200.

*Refreshments will be served after the talk.* 

For Zoom, register here.

Conceptions of Saint Olav, the perpetual king and patron saint of Norway, as a flowering tree were incorporated into the decorative program of Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, the most northerly archbishopric in the world. This figuration of church expansion through botanical imagery is intriguing when exported to Commonwealth Iceland, an island with a drastically different ecological context than medieval Norway. This paper will consider the ways that local prestige was constructed through imported or scavenged wood in works of art on Iceland. The status of wooden objects on Iceland, expressions of power that were also endlessly at risk of being torn down and recycled, highlight the contextual nature of “luxury” as well as its tenuous construction in landscapes of precarity. Iceland’s increasing dependence upon Norwegian ships carrying timber contributed to Iceland’s eventual concession to the Norwegian king in 1262, as well as, I suggest, the island’s own violent deforestation. Through my analysis of legal and environmental history, the archeological record, and the extant corpus of medieval Icelandic art objects, I argue that timber acquisition and works of art in wood enforced Norwegian political power and mediated nuanced economic and cultural relationships on Commonwealth-era Iceland.

The Environmental History Lab is supported by a David A. Gardner ‘69 Magic Grant from the Humanities Council and the Program in Medieval Studies. This event is co-sponsored by the Department of Art & Archaeology. 

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