Saturday, June 12, 2010

Stockholm's Franciscan Heart: Riddarholmen

Over the past several decades, a number of attempts have been made to ‘plant’ the Franciscan order in Sweden, but have met with only limited success. It is unfortunate, because up until the Protestant Reformation, the Franciscans flourished in this country and throughout Scandinavia. In a very special way, the Franciscan ‘footprint’ is still physically present in the form of Stockholm’s oldest building—and one of its’ most distinguished cultural landmarks-- the former friary now known as Riddarholmkyrkan (the Riddarholm Church).

In 1268, just forty years after the death of St. Francis, friars arrived in what is now present-day Sweden. Under the patronage of King Magnus Ladulås (1250-90), they settled on a tiny island in the center of the Stockholm archipelago and immediately adjacent to the Old City (Gamla Stan). Here, on Riddarholmen (the island of the Knights), a large brick sanctuary in the early Gothic style and adjacent friary were constructed, then dedicated in the year 1300. Returning the courtesy of royal patronage, the friars provided for a burial place at the foot of the main altar for King Magnus. He was to be accompanied two centuries later by another Swedish king, Karl Knutsson. Both tombs remain in the sanctuary to this day.

According to historian Henrik Roelvink, himself a Franciscan, the friars flourished on Riddarholmen for more than 200 years. It is believed that the community consisted of up to 20 men who in addition to their other responsibilities, also served as chaplains to the nuns at the nearby monastery of St. Clare. The friars continued to enjoy royal patronage during these centuries, and the convent became famous for its scriptorium. In fact, the very first book ever printed in Sweden was the Dialogus creaturarum moralizatus/ The Moral Dialogue of Creatures, printed at Riddarholm in 1483.

With deep roots in the culture and continuous royal support, one might reasonably assume that the friars would continue to thrive, unmolested and unencumbered in their communal life and ministry. But the arrival of Sweden’s King Gustav Vasa (1523-1560) changed all of that. Under the battle cry (and cover) of the Reformation, Vasa proceeded to break the power and influence of the medieval Church in Sweden. Not unlike Henry VIII of England, he confiscated church property, appropriated altar silver (later melted down and used for the royal treasury), and closed most religious houses and foundations. For the friars, this was a traumatic event; we really don’t know what happened to the friars themselves afterwards. Following the closure of their convents (c.1527), it is assumed that most of them dispersed into the general community, either returning to their families or going into exile abroad. Now banned by law, the Franciscans and other Catholic religious orders were not to return to Scandinavia for more than 300 years.

The departure of the friars, however, did not mean the end of Riddarholm Church. While other religious houses were sacked and destroyed, Riddarholm remained relatively unmolested—physically, that is. For one thing, it contained the remains of one of Sweden’s earliest and most revered kings, Magnus Ladulås, a vital connection to Sweden’s past that it was in the interest of Gustav Vasa to preserve. For another, it had never been a parish church, so its sanctuary could quite easily continue in its role as the burial chapel for Swedish royalty and nobility—a function it has served well into the twentieth century. In time, the early Gothic structure of the church would be modified to accommodate the construction of additional side chapels for burial vaults. A large bell tower was erected, replaced in the nineteenth century by the ornamental metal structure which survives to this day.

The appearance of present-day Riddarholmenskyrka continues to reflect its Franciscan roots. For all the glory and opulence of its royal residents, this (initially simple) brick structure remains a surprisingly spare, even spartan environment. Only a collection of heraldic shields covers the wall; otherwise, the space is barren of superfluous ornament. Fragments of various frescoes can be found throughout the sanctuary, though, hinting at more extensive decoration during the Franciscan era.

It’s remarkable that after 700 years, this important memorial to the Franciscan presence in Sweden should have survived. Of course, it is just a building. One hopes for the day when the Order itself may be return, flourish once more, and leave its distinctive mark on Swedish life in terms of our presence and ministry.//

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