Yggdrasil and northern Christian art
By G. Ronald Murphy, S.J.
A lot of things become clear when you realize that many of the puzzling and mysterious Christian artifacts and poetry of the North, those from England and Germany as well as those from the Scandinavian countries, are speaking in the language of Germanic myth—specifically in the language of the ancient evergreen tree, the savior of the last human beings, Yggdrasil. Below is a look at the curiously designed stave churches of Norway and the round churches of Denmark, all with connections to Yggdrasil, the heart and soul of much of northern Christian art.
A view of the Borgund church from the west southwest, showing the tiers of roofs as they decrease in size as the eye goes upward, suggesting the shape of a pine or spruce tree. The bell tower rides saddleback on the third roof and has sides that are carved with openwork to let the bells’s sound pass. The next two roofs constructed above the bell tower seem to have no structural function except that of giving to the building the shape and profile of an evergreen tree. Image courtesy of G. Ronald Murphy, S.J. All rights reserved.
Detail from the baldachin of the church at Ål. Christ carrying his cross. The exaggerated length of the stumps of sawn off branches serves to show the cross to be a tree. The artist even painted the stumps of the branches red to make them more obvious and perhaps also to bring the tree’s weeping from its wounds into association with the wounding and suffering of Chris. As in the Dream of the Rood, the painting associates Yggdrasil with the cross. From the Oldsaksammling of the University Museum in Oslo. Image courtesy of G. Ronald Murphy, S.J. All rights reserved.
The central pillar supporting the roof structure of the Uvdal Stave Church. The ceiling above it is an early modern modification which may contribute to better heat retention, but which prevents any sight of the branching of the rafters away from the “tree trunk.” The early-modern artist who decorated the church may have been aware of the Yggdrasil tradition, for he painted an enveloping and luxuriant spread of leaves and vines on the ceiling and walls of the church. The central wooden stave or tree trunk structure used in Norway was paralleled by the central stone pillar design of the round churches on Bornholm in Denmark. Image courtesy of G. Ronald Murphy, S.J. All rights reserved.
The baptismal font in the Aakirke on Bornholm. Above the three kings bring their gifts to the baby Jesus seated on his mother’s lap. Below, the vines and intertangled life forms of Yggdrasil. The cloth left on the top left of the font is from a baptism that had just been done. Image courtesy of G. Ronald Murphy, S.J. All rights reserved.
Olskirke, upper storey. The radially placed rafters suggest a tree-like building on the inside, as does the cone-shaped roof they support when viewed from the outside. Image courtesy of G. Ronald Murphy, S.J. All rights reserved.
More than any other, Olskirke’s central pillar with its overhanging circular vaulting, all painted in vines, stars, constellations, even with evergreen pine (spruce) cones, gives the observer the feeling of standing under the protection of the Yggdrasil as the World Tree. Image courtesy of G. Ronald Murphy, S.J. All rights reserved.
G. Ronald Murphy is Professor of German at Georgetown University and author of The Owl, The Raven, and the Dove: The Religious Meaning of the Grimms’ Magic Fairy Tales, Gemstone of Paradise: The Holy Grail in Wolfram’s Parzival, and Tree of Salvation: Yggdrasil and the Cross in the North.