This painting, by the Norwegian artist Olaf Isaachsen (c. 1835-1893), was inspired by tales about the death of King Olaf II of Norway, also known as Saint Olaf. After an early career as a Viking and mercenary leader, Olaf came to power by force in 1015, wresting Norway out of Danish and Swedish influence. Although he maintained his power for over a decade, King Olaf II was eventually forced to flee from Norway in 1028 because of the influence of powerful Canute (or Knut) the Great—ruler of England since 1016 and king of Denmark since 1019. Not one to be kept down, King Olaf II invaded Norway with an army of supporters and allies in 1030, hoping to reclaim his kingdom, but he was confronted by an anti-Olaf coalition at the Battle of Stiklestad, where Olaf fell in battle against his foes. The painting shown above is set in the aftermath of that carnage, and it is the body of King Olaf, draped in red cloth, that can be seen in the center of the artwork. Standing above the body is Tore Hund (also known as Thorir the Hound), an important figure who lived on the Island of Bjarkey and was the most powerful chieftain from northern Norway during the time of King Olaf’s reign. Although he initially supported Olaf’s reign, Thorir the Hound had a falling out with the monarch and later became one of the leaders of the anti-Olaf army that defeated and killed the exiled Norwegian king at the Battle of Stiklestad. This particular interaction of Thorir the Hound viewing Olaf’s body after the battle was described by the prolific Icelandic scholar, Snorri Sturlusson (c. 1179-1241), in his Heimskringla (History of the Kings of Norway). Snorri Sturlusson wrote: “Thórir the Hound went to the spot where lay the corpse of King Oláf, and prepared it for burial, laying it flat on the ground, straightening it, and covering it with a garment. And when he wiped the blood from the king’s face, he related afterwards, his countenance was beautiful, in that his cheeks were ruddy as though he were asleep, and much more radiant that before when he was alive” (Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 230). It is this imagery of Thorir the Hound gazing upon the surprisingly graceful demeanor of the freshly slain king that Olaf Isaachsen strove to re-create in his painting.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.