Much has been said of late about the romantic hyper-masculinity of the Vikings in popular culture. On a recent visit to Norway, I saw an example of how this is enshrined in public art.
Dyre Vaa‘s sculpture in the Norwegian city of Bergen – the Maritime Memorial – is a prominently situated nautical monument at the highest point and the northern end of Torgallmenningen. It comprises an artistic timeline of the city’s relationship with seafaring via exclusively male bronze statues, 12 in total. Together they afford a sculptural idealisation of the history of Bergen’s (and Norway’s?) maritime adventures and exploration, trading and commerce, through a millennium. Specifically given my interests, it is notable that this begins with the Viking Age but then skips the later Middle Ages to honour the modern era all at sea. The male-exclusive representation and this omission of the later Middle Ages is especially odd given the striking evidence from Bryggen of the town’s commercial activity at this time, but also of women’s roles in seafaring expeditions in both the Viking and medieval periods (see also Judith Jesch’s paper here).
The monument is cuboid, and the statues arranged into four triads, facing out in different cardinal directions. They are chronologically organised, with the Viking Age adventurers looking west, the early modern era seafarers (17th/18th centuries) looking north, the 19th-century seamen looking east, and the 20th-century sailors looking south. For each era, the tripartite division of society is alluded to: the poor and servile, the middle-classes and the elite. The Viking-period figures, all three bearing weapons, each has a realistic sword sheathed at his belt, but one holds an outlandishly scaled spear. Moreover, the figures to either side exhibit fantastical extensions to the front and rear of their helms. The right-hand figure looks particularly haughty with hands clasping belt and a shield slung over his back.
Above these statues, rectangular bronze panels are inset into each side of the cube. Each represents scenes over two levels, each linking the realities of seafaring with the imagination and the spiritual. Hence, the ideal and reality of the perils and adventures of seafarers starts with an imaginary portrayal of a Viking longship juxtaposed above encounters with native Americans, alluding to the farthest voyages which discovered ‘Vinland’. Next, we have a Christ’s crucifixion and tall ship being dragged below by a giant sea monster: a scene that somehow conflates Christian conversion through to the modern era. This is followed by a whaling scene for the 19th century, with a mighty humpback as the victim, combined with a ship-building scene below. Finally, for the 20th century, we see a naked body drowning in front of a modern merchant ship while further naked male figures are greeted by an angel below, presumably representing dead lost at sea and the angel has descended to guide their souls to Heaven.
This is a striking, nearly male-exclusive seaward-facing memorial for an urban settlement and a region which has long relied on maritime connections throughout its history. I do, however, feel very sad for the whale. I also note the omission of the later Middle Ages, and the striking perpetuation of the Viking era as a masculine, hierarchical and martial origin myth for Norway.