COPENHAGEN — When I reflect on the finest and most impressive European art I think about the Louvre in Paris, the famous Vatican Museum in Rome or the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. Maybe even the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam or the Museo Del Prado in Madrid. I've been to most of these, and yes, the works of Michael Angelo and Leonardo DaVinci are very impressive.
However, my wife and I found a surprising and, unknown to us, mecca of art just recently.
On a fine late summer afternoon, I found myself walking along a scenic canal in the city of Copenhagen, hand in hand with the one I love. We had already taken many charming pictures of the colorful area known as Nyhaven. A work of art in itself, the centuries-old, sherbet-colored buildings host restaurants and shops with a scenic view of the historical ships tied along the canal. We had just spent an enjoyable day at the modern Copenhagen Opera House on the island of Holmen and the architecturally unique library, affectionately known by locals as “The Black Diamond” just off the harbor. We found ourselves gazing into the green rippling water from the bridge at Hojbro Square in the city center when we noticed something just below the surface. Not something, but someone: in fact several people looking up from the depths below us beckoning for some unspoken help.
What we found was not a group of live people begging for someone to throw them a lifesaver, but the most uniquely placed work of art we've ever seen.
In 1992 Suste Bonnen created the statue known as "Merman and His Seven Sons" that we came across quite accidentally and its accompanying Danish folk legend we found later on a Google search.
Agnete was a young peasant girl who was walking by the shore when a merman emerged from the waves and offered her his hand. Agnete fell in love with him immediately and went to the bottom of the sea with him, where she gave birth to his seven sons. After eight years, however, as she was sitting by the crib of her youngest son, Agnete heard the sound of church bells ringing from her old village, and she felt homesick. She got permission from the merman to go to church, on the one condition that she would come back to him after mass. But of course, once on land again, Agnete found that she missed the church and her family too much, and she wouldn’t return. What we saw in the shadowy water is a pleading merman holding an infant surrounded by his other six sons in postures of supplication and sorrow.
Granted, Suste Bonnen is no Rembrandt or Rafael, but after straining to make out their faces for several minutes, we were pleasantly haunted by the merman and his offspring for the rest of our trip. We even returned to Hojbro Square several times to see if the position of the sun overhead would give us a better glimpse.
Perhaps a more significant find, especially for those who live in Salt Lake City or have visited Temple Square, was the original Christus statue by Bertel Thorvaldsen. Although the backdrop was gold leaf and marble instead of the planets and stars, there was no mistaking the familiar figure of Christ that stood at the head of the Church of Our Lady in central Copenhagen. I had somehow always believed that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had the original, and so I was astonished and happy to know a Danish sculptor had created his depiction of the Savior for the entire world to revere.
Even more astonishing was the experience we had at Frederiksborg Castle, just an hour or so from Copenhagen, in the unlit King's Oratory just off the main chapel. The small ornate room's walls were covered with paintings depicting the life of Christ from his birth to his resurrection by 19th century Danish painter Carl Bloch. Copies of many of these paintings hang in LDS chapels and temples all around the world. Incredibly, although only dim-filtered light was available in the room, the paintings seemed to glow from within and perceptibly warmed our hearts.
I was proud to have my maternal grandmother's Danish blood pumping through my veins after our discoveries in Denmark.
The rest of Frederiksborg Castle is a simply stunning piece of Dutch Renaissance architecture dating from the early 17th century. Now a museum, the castle houses centuries of art. The castle and the baroque gardens that surround it are well worth the trip north from Copenhagen. Of special mention is the expansive vaulted chapel, its impressive walls and ceiling adorned with gold and the coats-of-arms of Order of the Elephant recipients.
Kronborg Castle in the city of Helsingor, should not be missed. Immortalized as Elsinore in Shakespeare's Hamlet, the fortress sits right on the bank of the strait separating Denmark from Sweden. In fact, perimeter canons still face their one-time enemy. Should the canons fail, the hulking statue of Holger Dansk sits in the dungeon where he sleeps until the time Denmark should need its hero again.
Rosenborg Palace, in the heart of Copenhagen, is an intriguing visit for two reasons. One, it is where the crown jewels of Denmark are kept and two, if you go at the right time you can see the impressive, if informal, changing of the guard. The halls are packed with paintings of kings and queens as well as their furnishings from generations past. I was most impressed with an intricately carved amber chandelier.
Worth mentioning here is that photography is permitted when visiting Frederiksborg, Kronborg, and Rosenborg.
Another appealing attribute of Copenhagen is that no matter where you may be in the city, there is always a park close by to escape the hustle and bustle of city life. We found a charming park quite by accident and spent part of our last day enjoying nature and the statuary interspersed among the flowering trees and shrubs. The abundance of parks is no accident; the city was designed that way.
The Danes all speak flawless English, which they attribute to watching American television with subtitles. They were friendly and engaging people who appreciate their city and its many pleasures.
We loved our time in Scandinavia. The statues of the Little Mermaid and Hans Christian Anderson, the “free city” hippie commune, Christiania and actual Danish pastries (which put the American versions to shame) were just the icing on the cake of a wonderful country.
Perhaps though, I appreciated more than anything, visiting the ancestral home of my mother who passed away earlier this year. Somehow, everything we saw and experienced made me feel closer to her.
Chris Hale is an aviation maintenance technician for a major airline who has traveled extensively with his family. In his spare time he writes novels inspired by places he's been. Find out more about his books at www.Chrisahale.com