Valdemar Atterdag, by Selma Lagerlof
The spring that Hellqvist's great picture "Valdemar Atterdag levies
a Contribution on Visby" was exhibited at the Art League, I went in
there one quiet morning not knowing that that work of art was
there. The big, richly colored canvas with its many figures made at
the first glance an extraordinary impression. I could not look at
any other picture, but went straight to that one, took a chair and
sank into silent contemplation. For half an hour I lived in the
Soon I was within the scene that was passing in the Visby market-place.
I saw the beer vats which began to be filled with the golden brew
that King Valdemar had ordered, and the groups which gathered
around them. I saw the rich merchant with his page bending under
his gold and silver dishes; the young burgher who shakes his fist
at the king; the monk with the sharp face who closely watches His
Majesty; the ragged beggar who offers his copper; the woman who has
sunk down beside one of the vats; the king on his throne; the
soldiers who some swarming out of the narrow streets; the high
gables, and the scattered groups of insolent guards and refractory
But suddenly I noticed that the chief figure of the picture is not
the king, nor any of the burghers, but one of the king's steel-clad
shield-bearers, the one with the closed vizor.
Into that figure the artist has put a strange force. There is not a
hair of him to be seen; he is steel and iron, the whole man, and
yet he gives the impression of being the rightful master of the
"I am Violence; I am Rapacity," he says. "It is I who am levying
contribution on Visby. I am not a human being; I am merely steel
and iron. My pleasure is in suffering and evil. Let them go on and
torture one another. To-day it is I who am lord of Visby."
"Look," he says to the beholder, "can you see that it is I who am
master? As far as your eye can reach, there is nothing here but
people who are torturing one another. Groaning the conquered come
and leave their gold. They hate and threaten, but they obey. And
the desires of the victors grow wilder the more gold they can
extort. What are Denmark's king and his soldiers but my servants,
at least for this one day? To-morrow they will go to church, or sit
in peaceful mirth in their inns, or also perhaps be good fathers in
their own homes, but to-day they serve me; to-day they are evil-doers
The longer one listens to him, the better one understands what the
picture is; nothing but an illustration of the old story of how
people can torture one another. There is not one redeeming feature,
only cruel violence and defiant hate and hopeless suffering.
Those three beer vats were to be filled that Visby should not be
plundered and burned. Why do they not come, those Hanseaters, with
glowing enthusiasm? Why do the women not hasten with their jewels;
the revellers with their cups, the priest with his relics, eager,
burning with enthusiasm for the sacrifice? "For thee, for thee, our
beloved town! It is needless to send soldiers for us when it
concerns thee! Oh, Visby, our mother, our honor! Take back what
thou hast given us!"
But the painter has not wished to see them so, and it was not so
either. No enthusiasm, only constraint, only suppressed defiance,
only bewailings. Gold is everything to them, women and men sigh
over that gold which they have to give.
"Look at them!" says the power that stands on the steps of the
throne. "It goes to their very hearts to offer it. May he who will
feel sympathy for them! They are mean, avaricious, arrogant. They
are no better than the covetous brigand whom I have sent against
A woman has sunk down on the ground by the vats. Does it cost her
so much pain to give her gold? Or is she perhaps the guilty one? Is
she the cause of the laments? Is it she who has betrayed the town?
Yes, it is she who has been King Valdemar's mistress. It is
She knows well that she need give no gold. Her father's house will
not be plundered, but she has collected what she possesses and
brings it. In the market-place she has been overcome by all the
misery she has seen and has sunk down in infinite despair.
He had been active and merry, the young goldsmith's apprentice who
served the year before in her father's house. It had been glorious
to stroll at his side through this same market-place, when the moon
rose from behind the gables and illumined the beauties of Visby.
She had been proud of him, proud of her father, proud of her town.
And now she is lying there, broken with grief. Innocent and yet
guilty! He who is sitting cold and cruel on the throne and who has
brought all this devastation on the town, is he the same as the one
who whispered sweet words to her? Was it to meet him that she
crept, when the night before she stole her father's keys and opened
the town-gate? And when she found her goldsmith's apprentice a
knight with sword in hand and a steel clad host behind him, what
did she think? Did she go mad at the sight of that stream of steel
surging in through the gate which she had opened? Too late to
bemoan, maiden! Why did you love the enemy of your town? Visby is
fallen, its glory shall pass away. Why did you not throw yourself
down before the gate and let the steel-shod heels trample you to
death? Did you wish to live in order to see heaven's thunder-bolts
strike the transgressor?
Oh maiden, at his side stands Violence and protects him. He has
violated holier things than a trusting maiden. He does not even
spare God's own temple. He breaks away the shining carbuncles from
the church walls to fill the last vat.
The bearing of all the figures in the picture changes. Blind terror
fills everything living. The wildest soldier grows pale; the
burghers turn their eyes towards heaven; all await God's
punishment; all tremble except Violence on the steps of the throne
and the king who is his servant.
I wish that the artist had lived long enough to take me down to the
harbor of Visby and let me see those same burghers, when they
followed the departing fleet with their eyes. They cry curses out
over the waves. "Destroy them!" they cry. "Destroy them! Oh sea,
our friend, take back our treasures! Open thy choking depths under
the ungodly, under the faithless!"
And the sea murmurs a faint assent, and Violence, who stands on the
royal ship, nods approvingly. "That is right," he says. "To
persecute and to be persecuted, that is my law. May storm and sea
destroy the pirate fleet and take to itself the treasures of my
royal servant! So much the sooner it will be our lot to set out on
new devastating expeditions."
The burghers on the shore turn and look up at their town. Fire has
raged there; plunder has passed through it; behind broken panes
gape pillaged dwellings. They see emptied streets, desecrated
churches; bloody corpses are lying in the narrow courts, and women
crazed by fright flee through the town. Shall they stand impotent
before such things? Is there no one whom their vengeance can reach,
no one whom they in their turn can torture and destroy?
God in Heaven, see! The goldsmith's house is not plundered nor
burned. What does it mean? Was he in league with the enemy? Had he
not the key to one of the town gates in his keeping? Oh, you
daughter of Ung-Hanse, answer, what does it mean?
Far away on the royal ship Violence stands and watches his royal
servant, smiling behind his vizor. "Listen to the storm, Sire,
listen to the storm! The gold that you have ravished will soon lie
on the bottom of the sea, inaccessible to you. And look back at
Visby, my noble lord! The woman whom you deceived is being led
between the clergy and the soldiers to the town-wall. Can you hear
the crowd following her, cursing, insulting? Look, the masons come
with mortar and trowel! Look, the women come with stones! They are
all bringing stones, all, all!
Oh king, if you cannot see what is passing in Visby, may you yet
hear and know what is happening there. You are not of steel and
iron, like Violence at your side. When the gloomy days of old age
come, and you live under the shadow of death, the image of
Ung-Hanse's daughter will rise in your memory.
You shall see her pale as death sink under the contempt and scorn
of her people. You shall see her dragged along between the priests
and the soldiers to the ringing of bells and the singing of hymns.
She is already dead in the eyes of the people. She feels herself
dead in her heart, killed by what she has loved. You shall see her
mount in the tower, see how the stones are inserted, hear the
scraping of the trowels and hear the people who hurry forward with
their stones. "Oh mason, take mine, take mine! Use my stone for the
work of vengeance! Let my stone help to shut Ung-Hanse's daughter
in from light and air! Visby is fallen, the glorious Visby! God
bless your hands, oh masons! Let me help to complete the vengeance!"
Hymns sound and bells ring as for a burial.
Oh Valdemar, King of Denmark, it will be your fate to meet death
also. Then you will lie on your bed, hear and see much and suffer
great pains. You shall hear that scraping of the trowels, those
cries for vengeance. Where are the consecrated bells that drown the
martyrdom of the soul? Where are they, with their wide, bronze
throats, whose tongues cry out to God for grace for you? Where is
that air trembling with harmony, which bears the soul up to God's
Oh help Esrom, help Sor? and you big bells of Lund!
What a .gloomy story that picture told! It seemed curious and
strange to come out into the park, in glowing sunshine, among
living human beings.