Early last year, the board of the Reykjanes Museum decided to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Icelandic sovereignity with a special exhibition. Art historian and ideologist of the project, Aðalsteinn Ingólfsson, immedially began working on it, and we´d like to extend our thanks to him for his contribution. The focus of the exhibition was to be Thingvellir, the site of the old Althing, as it is a place that has a particular emotional resonance for all Icelanders. Through the exhibition we wanted to examine the importance that Thingvellir has assumed in the national consciousness, and in the work of Icelandic artists in particular. Collector Sverrir Kristinsson kindly agreed to lend a choice selection of Thingvellir landscapes in his possession to the Reykjanes Museum, for which we are deeply grateful.
Among the landscapes are paintings by many of Iceland´s most significant 20th century artists, f.i. Thorarinn B. Thorláksson, Jóhannes Kjarval, Ásgrímur Jónsson and Jóhann Briem. Historian Birgir Hermannsson at the University of Iceland contributed an incisive essay on the historical and ideological connection between Icelandic national consciousness and the Thingvellir site to the catalogue. We would also like to thank him for his contribution.
The museum will be organizing a number of events in connection with the exhibition through a collaboration with other Suðurnes institutions, f.i. the Folk Museum of Reykjanes, the Keflavík Theatre, the Suðurnes Historical Asociation and the Suðurnes Womenˋs Choir. These events will focus mostly on historical and artistic aspects of the Sovereignity celebrations; in addition there will be a number of musical and literary presentations.
As a whole, the exhibition and the concomitant events are aimed at the general public, at schools and family audiences in particular. Together they are the contribution of the Reykjaness community to the Sovereignity celebrations of 2018.
Finally I would like to thank those who contributed financially to the project, the Regional structural Fund and the Sovereignity Fund of Iceland.
A century before Icelandic artists began setting up their easels in and around Thingvellir, the site of Althingi, the first Icelandic parliament, the area had come to the attention of several foreign artists who had come to Iceland in search of adventure or as documentary artists working for itinerant explorers. Their attitude to the place is considerably less reverential than their Icelandic successors, one reason being that they were rarely aware of Thingvellir´sˋhistorical importance, let alone its reputation as „hallow ground“ for the local populace. Which is not surprising because, as historian Birgir Hermannsson recounts in a following essay, it took Icelanders themselves a long time to work out what Thingvellir meant to them, both individually as well as to the nation at large.
Foreign artists were first and foremost transfixed by the unusual natural features of the place. A fine draughtsman and painter from Denmark, Emanuel Larsen (1823-59), visiting Thingvellir around the middle of the 19th century, was much taken with the quickly changing light and its fantastic effect on the moss and lava all around. The same goes for two of his compatriots, August Schiøtt (1823-95) and Carl Frederik Sørensen (1818-79), who busy themselves with the accurate rendering of the harsh and brittle landscape. An intrepid lady painter from Britain, Mary C.J. Leith (1840-1926), passes through Thingvellir late in the century, exhibiting considerably more interest in the people, animals and primitive houses she encounters on the Thingvellir famsteads than in the dramatic nature surrounding them. Then there are the photojournalists of their time, artists sent to Thingvellir to document the arrival of foreign dignitaries. The abovementioned Sørensen produced prints of the visit of Danish King Christian IX, as he graciously receives his Icelandic subjects in the Thingvellir basin on August 7th, 1874. In these prints, the landscape becomes an insignificant backdrop to the supremely important visit of His Majesty.
Undoubtedly the grandest of these early Thingvellir pictures by foreign visitors is the panoramic view painted by German artist Heinrich Hasselhorst (1825-1904) in 1862, a painting some two and a half metre long and sixty centimetres in height. It was discovered in a small German museum by art historian Frank Ponzi, as he researched his book on 19th century views of Iceland (AB, 1986). In spite if its size, the painting is typical of the way outsiders generally render the landscape of Thingvellir, in that the historically important landmarks are not emphasized; they all seem to have equal significance within the scene depicted. For Hasselhorst, the attraction of the Thingvellir basin as a whole lies in the endless vistas and the limpid light enveloping the place.
The first Icelandic artist to paint in the Thingvellir area was a woman, Þóra Pétursdóttir Thoroddsen (1847-1917), not the more famous Þórarinn B. Thorláksson (1867-1924). Her painting, dated 1883, does not center on the natural, historical or „sacred“ aspect of the area, but rather on the old Thingvellir farm buildings. To be fair, Thoroddsen was not a trained landscape artist, but rather a painter of still-lives and urban views.
If anyone could be said to be the „author“ of the archetypical Thingvellir view, espoused by Icelandic artists from Thorláksson in the 19th century, to a 21st century painter such as Georg Guðni (1961-2011), it would surely be photographer Sigfús Eymundsson (1837-1911), Eymundsson had no sooner set up shop as a photographer in 1867, than he began producing views of the great Icelandic outdoors, the first local photographer to do so. In 1886 he applied for a grant from the Icelandic Parliament, in order to produce a „book of pictures featuring the countryˋs most beautiful places“. Eymundsson got his grant, but the book in question did not come out until much later. In the meantime he used his collection of photographs of Icelandic landscapes for publicity purposes, as well as selling copies of them to foreign visitors and foreign media interested in the „exotic North“.
In a statement which Eymundsson prepared for the book project as early as 1872, he explains the reasons behind it. For him Iceland was „particularly rich in strange and wondrous natural places, and as everyone knows, many of these places also happen to be hallowed by our history.“ In his book he includes the Thingvellir nature motifs that he finds particularly significant, motifs that are either „strange“, historically important or both. Eymundsson is the first to point his camera specifically at the Almanna-ravine, the central site of the old Althing, and to go up close to Öxará-waterfall, scene of numerous Saga events, also to focus on the Hakið, now the main viewing platform at Thingvellir. He also seems to have started the trend of depicting individual ravines in the area.
We know of the interest of the early Icelandic painters in Eymundssonˋs photographs. There are, for instance, landscapes by Thorláksson and Jóhannes Kjarval (1885-1972) that are obvious copies of Eymundsson´s photographs. His close-up and heavily cropped photographs of the Almanna-ravine, seen from the high ground of the Hakið, clearly inspire his painter-friends. We see a repetition of this motif in many of Kjarvalˋs most significant Thingvellir landscapes, in the works of Kristín Jónsdóttir (1888-1959), as well as in the Thingvellir landscapes of their successors.
During the first two decades of the 20th century, Thorláksson´s many accomplished paintings of Thingvellir became so emblematic of the area, that other painters were loath to trespass on what might be called his „artistic domain“. However, at the beginning of the 1920s, Thingvellir suddenly assumed new national importance, affecting both artists and the general population. New national celebrations, commemorating the 1000th anniversary of the Althing, were planned at itsˋ birthplace at Thingvellir in 1930. The preparations lasted for most of the 1920s, and during that time and well into the 1930s, two generations of Icelandic artists visited the site to pay their tributes and to paint sites consecrated by Sagas, history and poetry. From around 1922 and until the 1960s, the making of Thingvellir-landscapes becomes a rite of passage of sorts for many an Icelandic artist. Today, there are so many Thingvellir pictures in existence, that they could easily be used to chart the course of Icelandic art for most of the 20th century, not excluding abstract art.
But there are two Icelandic painters who may be said to contributed more than most to the artistic celebration of Thingvellir; Jóhannes Kjarval on the one hand, Ásgrímur Jónsson (1876-1958) on the other. Kjarval is a supreme painter of the fantastic kingdom of the Thingvellir lava fields, while Jónsson takes on the visual miracles that occur where brittle earth, bright water and big sky come together before our eyes.
Looking at the depictions of Thingvellir in more recent Icelandic art, we find a greater emphasis on the idea of the place than on its actual physical appearance. Whenever Icelandic artists wish to make a point about the ideology of nationalism or to challenge it in some way, they tend to use Thingvellir as a reference, as a a theatre for artistic performances or as raw material for complex visual poetry. The fact that former avant-garde firebrand, Magnús Tómasson (1943) chooses to situate his absurdist philosophical study of the concepts of „near“ and „far“ in Thingvellir („Burt“, 1982-83) is surely a testament to the enduring appeal of the place to Icelanders of all ages.
The Beating Heart: Þingvellir and Icelandic Nationalism
Under the Þingvellir Conservation Act of 1928 Þingvellir is declared “a protected sacred site for all Icelanders.” A note to the Bill as submitted to parliament explains that the “objective of patriotic men” in declaring Þingvellir a conservation area is “to provide the best possible protection to the revered historical sites and natural beauty of the Þingvellir area.” During the parliamentary debate Minister of Justice Jónas Jónsson of Hrifla, who had introduced the Bill, referred to Þingvellir as “a work of art wrought by nature,” and a “treasure” which must be conserved. And such views of the status of Þingvellir have been widespread ever since. During World War II Iceland was occupied by British and then US troops; in the summer of 1941 when “foreign occupying forces” set up camp at Þingvellir, an editorial in daily Morgunblaðið stressed that Þingvellir “must belong to Icelanders alone.” Þingvellir, writes the editor, is “the most sacred temple in Icelandic national life in past and present,” and has a special place in national consciousness for two reasons: firstly that “Þingvellir is closely identified with many of the historical memories that Icelanders cherish,” and secondly that Þingvellir “unites more than other places the most beautiful and magnificent in Icelandic nature.” Dramatic history and spectacular nature coalesce into one, integral to “the Icelander’s heart,” as former president of Iceland Vigdís Finnbogadóttir once put it. Guðmundur Davíðsson, who first proposed in 1913 that Þingvellir be made a national park, referred to it as “the most beautiful and renowned historical place in Iceland – the beating heart.”
This synthesis of history and nature into “Þingvellir as sacred ground” is largely unchallenged. But on closer scrutiny there is nothing inevitable about Þingvellir’s exalted status; and in fact the advent of “Þingvellir as sacred ground” and the emergence of Iceland as a nation state are intimately connected. The most important factor is Icelandic nationalism, without which Þingvellir would not be sacred ground, and Iceland would not be a nation state today. The nationalistic discourse that developed during the Icelanders’ campaign for self-determination provides a link between Þingvellir and the nation state, and explains the place that the history and nature of Þingvellir enjoy in “Icelandic hearts.” Þingvellir is, essentially, sacred ground because it is part of a myth – a political perspective on the past which is informed by Icelandic nationalism, the campaign for self-determination, and the legitimation of Iceland’s existence as a nation state.
In 1878 Sigurður Guðmundsson “the Painter,” a champion of Icelandic culture and self-determination, published a small but important book on Þingvellir, in which he interestingly addresses the relationship between preconceptions and real-life experience of Þingvellir. Sigurður points out that “most Icelanders make a Þingvellir for themselves in their mind, even though they may never have seen Þingvellir.” But in his view it would be hard to imagine an Icelander “however uneducated or simple” who does not have some conception of Þingvellir, due to its splendid history in ancient times, or to “events and atrocities” in more recent centuries. For the majority of Icelanders in Sigurður’s day, Þingvellir was thus the site of historical events, or a concept in political discourse – a grand setting for ancient heroic feats and political institutions. But few Icelanders had seen the place for themselves. Thus people’s knowledge of Þingvellir can not be unmediated in Sigurður’s view: the significance of Þingvellir is not only a function of people’s own experience of the place, but also of their ideas of the importance of the place and its role in the nation’s history. But the image of Þingvellir is less clear-cut than Sigurður implies. In the late 18th century, for instance, neither “preconceptions” nor aesthetic perceptions favoured Þingvellir, which was even described as one of the ugliest places in Iceland! Attitudes changed in subsequent decades, and hence we may say that the Þingvellir of the 18th century and the Þingvellir of the 19th are not the same place.
Around 1800 the ancient Alþingi (founded in 930) was finally abolished after centuries of decline under Danish rule. By that time Reykjavík was developing as Iceland’s administrative centre, and Þingvellir was no longer a convenient site. When the Alþingi was re-established in 1845, its assembly place was in Reykjavík and not at Þingvellir, on the same practical grounds. Clearly the ideological force behind demands for the re-establishment of the Alþingi had little to do with the body which had been abolished in 1800. The campaigners for self-determination looked farther back, reflecting romantic historical ideas of the early 19th century about the “Golden Age” of the Old Commonwealth which had been followed by decline. The re-established Alþingi thus clearly sought legitimation and inspiration in the Alþingi of the Old Commonwealth (930-1262), and not the Alþingi of later centuries.
Between 1848 and 1907, 25 meetings were held at Þingvellir as part of the campaign for Icelandic self-determination. The question arises: why were these meetings not held in Reykjavík? It must be borne in mind that travel was difficult, and facilities for gatherings at Þingvellir were poor – while such facilities were readily available in Reykjavík. The obvious location would thus have been Reykjavík, so the choice of Þingvellir requires scrutiny. Holding a political gathering at Þingvellir had symbolic significance per se, which a meeting in Reykjavík could not offer. The ideology of the campaign for self-determination glorified the Old Commonwealth and Þingvellir as symbols of Iceland’s ancient freedoms, and both pointed the way out of the degradation of colonial rule. So it is tempting to see the Þingvellir meetings as a sort of pilgrimage. Nationalist ideas extolled Þingvellir as sacred ground; and repeated meetings reinforced the place of Þingvellir in nationalist discourse, paving the way for the idea of a national sacred site. Þingvellir thus became, not a destination of a handful of idealists, but a place where the future welfare of the nation was planned.
Just as the Þingvellir meetings became an indispensable element of the campaign for self-determination, national festivals at Þingvellir would be part of the symbolic celebrations of the nation state; such festivals have been held at Þingvellir to mark the millennium of the settlement of Iceland in 1874, the millennium of the Alþingi in 1930, the foundation of the modern Republic of Iceland in 1944, the 1100th anniversary of the settlement in 1974, the 50th anniversary of the Republic in 1994, and the millennium of Iceland’s adoption of Christianity in 2000. Since the 1930 event, the festivals have comprised on the one hand political elements, with participation by the Alþingi, speeches by politicians and a religious service, and on the other hand a programme of entertainment. This dichotomy reflects the ideological basis on which the festivals are founded: on the one hand the Alþingi of the Old Commonwealth age as the manifestation of a free nation; on the other the idea that the Alþingi of the Old Commonwealth was more than just a locale for passing legislation and settling disputes – that it was a festive occasion, a centre of culture, entertainment and commerce for the two weeks of the session each summer. Professor of Icelandic Sigurður Nordal called the ancient Alþingi a festival and a school for the nation – the place where the Icelandic nation came into being. At the national festival of 1974, president of the Alþingi Gylfi Þ. Gíslason said that at Þingvellir the foreigners who had settled in Iceland “became Icelanders,” as during the ancient Alþingi “a national festival was always held here […] We can truly say of the Icelandic nation that it was born at Þingvellir.” If the nation was born at Þingvellir, celebrations at Þingvellir may be said to signify symbolic rebirth, or to confirm its continuing existence.
In the 19th century Þingvellir thus became a symbol for the Icelanders’ splendid autonomy in olden times; and at the same time new ideas about nature were gradually winning support. In the verse of romantic poet Jónas Hallgrímsson history and nature coalesced under divine providence: Iceland’s spectacular and beautiful nature complemented the glorious history and heroism of the nation’s past. In his famous poem Ísland (Iceland) Jónas makes a connection between the Old Commonwealth and Þingvellir; the place becomes a symbol for ancient freedom and glory, and for their loss: Snorrabúð (residence of the chieftain Snorri during the assembly), he laments, “is now but a sheep-pen” – signifying the decline of the nation. In Fjallið Skjaldbreiður (Mt. Skjaldbreiður) Jónas describes “God and fire” providing a “rock fortress for a free nation.” At the Alþingi celebrations of 1930 Ásgeir Ásgeirsson, later president of Iceland, spoke of Þingvellir as a “parliamentary palace,” and a “parliamentary chamber made by God.” In 1944 Bishop Sigurgeir Sigurðsson referred to Þingvellir as a “temple that the hand of God himself has made,” and likened the place to a “divine church of rock.” The way that Þingvellir is consistently described in terms of a fortress, palace or temple is interesting in view of the fact that the ancient glories of Þingvellir have left few visible traces. It is obvious that the relationship between visible traces of human habitation at Þingvellir and the Alþingi during the Old Commonwealth period is unclear – and it is hard to establish links between narratives of the 13th century, referring to even older events, and the visible traces left at Þingvellir, most of which probably date from the 18th century. Discussion on ancient structures at Þingvellir has thus been largely a matter of guesswork – and sometimes pure invention. Lögberg, the Law Rock, the most venerated place at Þingvellir, is a good example. The Law Rock, where in the days before Icelandic was a written language the Law Speaker recited the laws of the Commonwealth from memory, was probably not used after 1272, and its location was gradually forgotten. The uncertainty regarding the true location of the Law Rock did not, however, prevent the modern Republic being founded there in 1944.
Jónas Hallgrímsson’s imagery of the rock fortress and other similar analogies made of the landscape a visible symbol, which “speaks to the eyes.” The importance of such visible symbols may be traced back to the Renaissance period; and they received a boost in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, due to revolutionary advances in travel and communications, and new technologies such as photography and film. These new conditions gave rise to visual national symbols in the form of buildings – even city districts – which had a shared and visible resonance for different classes of society. And Þingvellir must be placed in that context: the visual experience of Þingvellir is powerful, and it is easy to make a visible symbol of the landscape of Þingvellir, whether in the medium of photography, drawing or painting. Þingvellir is an ideal national sacred site, not only because of its history of the Alþingi and the Golden Age – but no less because in visual terms the spectacular landscape of Þingvellir can compensate for the Icelanders’ lack of ancient buildings and impressive ruins.
Þingvellir, like other comparable places, remains open to different interpretations. Nobel-prizewinning author Halldór Laxness, for instance, differed from the largely unanimous veneration of Þingvellir. For Laxness Þingvellir was sacred ground not only due to its natural beauty and splendid past, but also because the place was a symbol of the degradation and oppression of the people of Iceland over the centuries. Hence he sought to redefine the concept of the “sacredness” of the place to encompass the bad as well as the good. In his Íslandsklukkan (Bell of Iceland) he writes of “this sacred place Þingvellir by the Öxará river, where poor men were tortured so much that finally the rock began to speak.” Evocative placenames at Þingvellir such as Drekkingarhylur (Drowning Pool, where women were executed for fornication) and Gálgaklettur (Gallows Rock) show that our “preconceptions” about Þingvellir could have been quite different ones. Instead of focussing on glories of ancient days, we could have given prominence to the centuries of oppression and foreign rule that followed.
Þingvellir is not only the sacred site of the people of Iceland. It is also a national park. Ideas about what that means have changed since the park was founded in 1930. In the early years, for instance, trees were planted in quantity – mostly imported species. Today such afforestation is seen as incompatible with the conservation objectives of national parks. The “beating heart” that belongs to Icelanders alone is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and that entails that it must meet certain standards for conservation and management. Our attitudes to Þingvellir have thus evolved, and will continue to evolve in the years ahead.
Translation Anna Yates
This article is an abridged version of the article Hjartastaðurinn: Þingvellir og íslensk þjóðernishyggja (The Beating Heart: Þingvellir and Icelandic Nationalism) published in Bifröst Journal of Social Science — 5-6 (2011-2012). The full article is accessible (in Icelandic) on skemman.is