Traditions differ from place to place and what is common in one country may be unheard of in another. Sometimes, what we take for granted today might have been a complete utopia some time ago. I am not talking about modern technology or medicine now. What I am talking about in this guide is the statues and sculptures that give the environment around us a somewhat more sophisticated, elaborate, and human touch.
Monumental statues have been around forever, right? We can admire representations of antique Greek philosophers, Roman war heroes and statesmen. You see, while in some parts of the world statues were commonplace even millennia before our time, in Sweden, for instance, this was not the case.
It is not only that the country as we know it today was born much later, the tradition did not catch on in the Scandinavian nation before the end of the 18th century. In fact, the first publicly displayed statue in Sweden can still be found standing near one of the most prominent buildings in Stockholm, the House of Nobility, near its original location.
In this first part of our extensive guide to the most interesting of statues and sculptures in Stockholm, I introduce 16 statues representing kings, statesmen, scientists, and other respected figures who once formed a part of the Swedish society.
We begin at Tegnérlunden, formerly the smallest park in Stockholm, located in the Norrmalm borough. Here, you will find a bronze statue of the well-known Swedish author August Strindberg revealed in 1942. A Stockholm local, Strindberg was internationally known best as a playwright for some of his best works include ‘The Father,’ ‘A Dream Play,’ and ‘The Ghost Sonata.’ A model of this statue was completed for what turned out to be Strindberg’s last birthday in 1912 when he turned 63.
From a renowned writer of fiction to a man who literally wrote chapters in the history of Sweden. Axel Oxenstierna, whose statue you will find on the northern side of the House of Nobility (Riddarhuset), was the longest serving Lord High Chancellor of Sweden ever. During his 42 years in office, whose importance can be compared to that of the present-day office of the Prime Minister, Oxenstierna took many important steps that guided the country in the beginning of its most prosperous era.
Even after his death, some initiatives he had strongly supported came to fruition. He was, for instance, a big promoter of the idea of founding a central bank which later resulted in the establishment of the world’s first central bank, the Bank of the Estates of the Realms (Riksens Ständers Bank), now known as the Swedish National Bank (Sveriges Riksbank) which celebrates its 350th anniversary in 2018.
Speaking of important historical figures, not far at all from the House of Nobility, there is a statue of Birger Jarl standing on a tall pillar in the middle of Birger Jarl’s Square (Birger Jarls torg). Birger Jarl is considered to be the founder of Stockholm which means no other person has been connected to the history of the city for longer than him. Apart from founding the city itself, Birger Jarl is said to have invited German merchants to Sweden, which set up the country for its economic success and shaped the city of Stockholm for a long time.
Now we return back to the Old Town (Gamla stan) and to more recent times. Just in front of one of the Swedish government buildings at Riddarhustorget, you can see a statue of an elegant man in his coat. The man depicted by this statue is the 19th-century Swedish publisher and politician Lars Johan Hierta. He is best known as the founder of the popular newspaper ‘Aftonbladet’ which has been published since 1830 and has made Hierta one of Sweden’s richest people of his time.
The first representative of the world of science in this guide and one of the founders of modern science as we know it, Carl von Linné, received a statue which forms the centre of a larger monument known as the ‘Linné Monument’ (Linnémonumentet). Carl von Linné, also known as Carolus Linnæus, was a renowned botanist and biologist who got to work at Drottningholm Palace among other places. He is one of the six original founders of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (Kungliga Vetenskapsakademien) established as early as 1739.
Just like Carl von Linné, Elsa Borg, known for her work at the White Mountains (Vita Bergen) borough, was a well-educated person who intended to spread her knowledge further. Elsa Borg was a teacher who arrived in Stockholm in 1875 and dedicated her life to improving the level of education and standard of living of those living in the then desperately poor neighbourhood. A bronze statue of the ‘Queen of the White Mountains’ was later unveiled in the park stretching below the monumental Sofia Church.
Not less important to our well-being than teachers and scientists are artists and Sweden has produced a plenty of those, too. The songwriter, musician, and member of the Swedish Music Hall of Fame, Evert Taube, deserved more than one statue in Stockholm, though he was born in Gothenburg. Apart from the one located at Evert Taube’s Terrace (Evert Taubes terrass) on Riddarholmen, you will find a statue of Taube at Järntorget, as well as a bust by his grave at the churchyard surrounding Maria Magdalena Church (Maria Magdalena kyrka).
A different kind of sculpture can be found at the end of the oldest street in Stockholm, Köpmangatan. The bronze sculpture of ‘Saint George and the Dragon’ (Sankt Göran och draken) standing on Köpmantorget since 1912 is, in fact, a replica of a much older wooden sculpture which stands in the Great Church (Storkyrkan) and was made after the Battle of Brunkeberg in 1471. The sculpture depicts motifs from the Christian legend about Saint George.
Right at the geographical centre of Stockholm, at Gustav Adolf’s Square (Gustav Adolf torg), you will find a statue of the man who gave the square its name. King Gustav II Adolf led Sweden at the very beginning of the Era of the Swedish Empire. His military and economic successes helped him become regarded as one of the greatest military commanders of all time and the man who established his country as a European superpower through his ingenious reforms.
Following the king’s dramatic death in the Battle of Lützen in 1632, the predecessor of the present-day Swedish Parliament (Sveriges Riksdag), the Riksdag of the Estates, decided to posthumously give him the name Gustavus Adolphus the Great or Gustavus Adolphus Magnus in the fully Latinised version.
His remains rest in one of the most impressive sarcophagi in Riddarholm Church (Riddarholmskyrkan) and his burial there established the church as the official resting place of Swedish monarchs for over 300 years.
Highlighting that Sweden has had more than its fair share of outstanding leaders, it is time to look at the oldest publicly displayed statue in Sweden. Crafted by the French artist Pierre Hubert L’Archevêque from the metal from cannons collected as war trophies by Swedish troops, the statue of Gustav Vasa proudly standing in front of the main entrance to the House of Nobility was unveiled in 1773.
Originally, it stood in the middle of the square in front of the palace, but it was moved closer to the building in the early 20th century. In connection with the relocation, the original marble pedestal was replaced by a new one made of granite.
Another master of the word is remembered by a statue standing in proximity of the National Library of Sweden (Kungliga Biblioteket). By some considered equally appreciated as his fellow Swedish author August Strindberg, whose statue we have seen earlier in the guide, Hjalmar Söderberg became known for his rich portrayals of contemporary Stockholm. Although he was born in the Swedish capital, he spent a significant portion of his life in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Next, we look at a pair of statues which form a part of an intriguing story that has been unveiling for centuries. At Blasieholmstorg square, on the Blasieholmen peninsula facing the Royal Palace, you will find a couple of horse statues, one on each side of the square. While these were placed in the location in 1989, the horses that were used as models have a much longer story to tell.
When exactly this story began is not known. However, we do know that the four gilded statues of horses were brought to Europe from Constantinople in 1204 after the Fourth Crusade. They were prominently placed on the balcony above the main portal of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy in the mid-1200s.
That was not the end of their journey, though. It was the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, who is as often hated as he is loved, who brought the horses to Paris at the end of the 18th century. Not many years later, when Napoleon’s successful run of military operations came to its end, the statues were returned to Venice where they remain to this day.
The originals are, however, kept in the museum inside the basilica while the ones displayed on the balcony are contemporary replicas created in the 1970s.
Only a few dozen metres from the above-mentioned square, where Blasieholmen meets Nybroplan, you will find a small park dedicated to the Swedish scientist Jöns Jacob Berzelius whose statue sits in the middle.
The statue of Berzelius was particularly important as a symbol of the changing society in the mid-1800s. It was the first public statue of a ‘commoner’ in Sweden, which, according to some, symbolised that countries in this modern age were no longer represented by its monarchs and aristocracy, but by its citizens.
Representing the old times in the same neighbourhood are statues of two consecutive kings whose reigns could hardly look any more distinct.
Although Karl XII was born a son of the Royal Couple and a potential successor to the Swedish throne, his situation was rather unenviable. He became the head of the Swedish Empire at the age of fourteen and formally assumed power the year after. His enemies trying to take advantage of his age and inexperience did not make leading an empire as a fifteen-year-old any easier.
However, the story of the king whose almost entire reign took place during one of the toughest wars Sweden has ever had to face is impressive. Facing Denmark, Norway, Saxony, Poland, Lithuania, and Russia all at the same time, Karl XII initially did very well. Eventually though, the king was killed at a siege and Sweden lost the Great Northern War, an event which marks the end of the Era of the Swedish Empire.
In a strong contrast with the previous historical figure I presented you, Karl XIII whose statue stands in the middle of Kungsträdgården assumed the throne at the age of 60. His health condition was poor and only getting worse which turned the king into more of a formal head of the country than anything else.
In addition to that, he had no successor, which is how the current Bernadotte dynasty, celebrating 200 years on the Swedish throne in 2018, came to rule the country. In fact, it was the elected Crown Prince Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, a former Napoleon general, who took over the government while Karl XIII was still formally the king but unable to perform his duties.
The French-born king, who stopped using his proper name after his arrival in Sweden and adopted the name Karl, instead, also later received a statue of his own. The statue of Karl XIV Johan was unveiled at Slussen in 1854 on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Sweden-Norway union. As Slussen is currently undergoing a fundamental reconstruction, the statue found its temporary new home on Slottsbacken, just south of the Royal Palace.