Aarhus University Seal / Aarhus Universitets segl

Do you not know that staring is considered rude! Two dutiful nobles in a Danish parish church

After the Reformation, the Danish nobility began producing memorials featuring nobles staring directly at the congregation. In this blog entry, I will argue that these staring nobles do not just tell us about a new painting style, because the pictures can also be studied as an image of the elite’s incorporation of Lutheran confessional culture in the second half of the 16th century.

27.09.2018 | Rasmus Skovgaard Jakobsen

The altar-like memorial of Jørgen Rosenkrantz and Dorte Lange with their children in Hornslet Church. Photo by Rasmus Skovgaard Jakobsen.

A family church

At the root of the Djursland peninsula lies Hornslet Church. For four centuries starting in 1560, the church belonged to the powerful Rosenkrantz family. On the southern wall of the choir, the first owner Jørgen Rosenkrantz (1523-1596) and his wife Dorte Lange (1541-1613) built a small chapel, and here we find their memorial. The three-meter tall memorial shows the resurrection of Christ, flanked by Rosenkrantz, Lange and their children on each side. The family is praying on their knees, but they do not look towards Christ. Instead, they are staring at the spectators – at us.

Previous studies have underlined that this motif, which is a very common one in churches owned by the Danish nobility, tells a story of the nobility as self-elevated egos. Egos that only cared about the church and the new religion if they could make money out of it. In this blog entry I will try to look at the memorials in another way, mainly by looking for what the memorial wanted to represent, instead of what I think it is representing. By using such a methodological twist I hope to see how power holders in 16th-century Denmark manufactured a sustainable position of power after the Reformation.


The Danish nobility as Larva Dei

To understand what the memorials symbolized, I began studying the many noble death sermons that were held at funerals in the period. These were often published and later read as devotional literature, which was also the case with the death sermons for Rosenkrantz and Lange. After reading all the noble sermons from the Danish peerage in a period of about 50 years, I was able to see that these sermons branded the nobility in a certain pattern. In the sermons the nobility were always branded as being chosen directly by God, as images of God on earth – Larva Dei. As a result, commoners had to obey and honor the nobility. If they did not, the sermons emphasized, this was tantamount to not obeying and honoring the Lord himself. This image of the nobility was communicated to the parishioners not only in death sermons, but also in the weekly Sunday sermon, in law materials, devotional literature and in schools.

At the same time, I could also see that the death sermons did not only stress the power and privileges of the nobility, but also emphasized that these privileges were always grounded in the same five duties. If the nobility did not fulfill these duties, they would lose their position as authorities sanctioned by God in Danish society. Their duties, which I will return to below, were not only emphasized in the death sermons, but also underlined (alongside the related privileges) in the Danish Reformation Code of 1536 and in the coronation charters from 1536, 1559 and 1596. The authority of the nobility went hand-in-hand with their duties.


Fear the peasants!

In the sermons I noticed that the nobility were afraid to be perceived as an illegitimate authority and thus risk a rebellion like that of the Reformation itself. In 1534 the nobility had lost a major battle during the peasant revolt. The peasants had rebelled for many reasons, but in particular the peasants in Jutland had revolted against the nobility, because they did not perceive the local authorities as legitimate. After having joined king Christian 3., the nobility won the revolt and the Danish Reformation was completed. But in the sermons I can see that these uprisings had taught the nobility that they could not remain in power unless they were perceived as legitimate authorities. According to the Reformation Code of 1536 and the death sermons for the nobility, a legitimate authority was one that protected a state of order in society. According to the source material, this could be done in five ways. First and foremost the authorities had to be pious and believe in the Lutheran confession. They had to be just and righteous judges. They had to support the poor. They had to consolidate the new Lutheran school system. And finally, they had to support the church and its ministers.


Back to Hornslet

The aim of the memorial to Rosenkrantz and Lange was to confirm that the noble couple had fulfilled all the duties mentioned above. In Rosenkrantz’s death sermon the purpose of the memorial is described as a tool for the nobility to show the parishioners that their lord and lady had fulfilled their duties. For instance, the couple established a poorhouse in the old church barn; they made preparations for a school that their son later established; they created an educational program for the local ministers so they could become better theologians; they worked for a fairer legal community, etc.

And to communicate that Rosenkrantz and Lange had been true and just Christian authorities who had done their duties in the earthly community, they ordered an memorial that did not look at Christ and heaven, as memorials did before the Reformation. Instead, their memorial stared out at the world, at the people who Rosenkrantz and Lange wanted to convince that the nobility had been chosen by God and were therefore rightful authorities.

In other words, this memorial was not just a way for Rosenkrantz and Lange to display their ownership and rights over the local church. It was just as much a way to prove that the nobility fulfilled the duties and obligations of Lutheran society and hence were legal power holders in 16th-century Denmark. What I am now trying to work out is how much of this was branding, and how much was actually true.