Storkyrkan – the Church, the Dragon and the Hero

The citizens of Silene lived in fear. Who was next to die?

They were harassed by a plague-bearing dragon that had poisoned the countryside and picked off the dwellers one by one. To appease the dragon, the offered two sheep daily to it. After they ran out of sheep the sent children out as offerings. The children were children by lottery. Then came the day when the king’s daughter was chosen. He offered all his gold and silver in exchange for her life but was met with stern refusal from his subjects. The princess wore a bridal gown and walked to the lake to meet her fate.

Saint George passed by and saw the princess. He approached the beautiful damsel in white.

“Leave” she said, a dignified look on her face, “I must give myself as an offering to the dragon to save the people.”

“No, I will not leave. I vow to stay to slay this demon”

Just then the dragon emerged, St George lanced the animal and seriously wounded it before dragging it to the city.

The dragon was brought into the city and George offered to kill the dragon on the condition that the village converted to Christianity. The whole city of 15,000 people converted and they built a church. Spring water flowed and the whole countryside was cured by the holy water from the church.

This story originated in the East and was brought back to Western Europe by crusaders and became part of the hagiography of Saint George. It is the classical knight saving the damsel story. Such hagiography of the early saints of Christianity are not uncommon, others with a similar story include St Patrick in Ireland and Saint Boniface in Germany.

So when Sten Sture the Elder defeated the Danish King Christian I and sent him packing from Sweden, he commissioned a statue of St George the Dragon to be placed in the Storkyrkan.

He was St George, the dragon was Christian I and the princess was Sweden. The battle he was commemorating was the Battle of Brukenberg.

The Storkyrkan is the oldest church in Stockholm’s Gamla Stan, built in the Swedish Brick Gothic style in the 13th century.

Storkyrkan in a distance

The church began as a Catholic one and served as the only church in old Stockholm for almost 400 years. Hence the very traditional Catholic structure.

With a beautiful stained glass and altar at the heart of the church, and a traditional pulpit for preaching by the pastor. The row in front of the pulpit (below) is reserved for the royal family.

Because of its proximity to the royal palace it is also the de facto royal church for all royal events (christenings, weddings etc).

The Storkyrkan is history lesson of its own, it contains the oldest known surviving image of Stockholm, the Vädersolstavlan. The original painting was completed in 1535 but was lost. The one hung in the cathedral is replica by Jacob Heinrich Elbfas made in 1636.

“The painting is divided into an upper part depicting the halo phenomenon viewed vertically and a lower part depicting the city as it must have appeared viewed from Södermalm in the late Middle Ages. The medieval urban conglomeration, today part of the old town Gamla stan, is rendered using a bird’s-eye view. The stone and brick buildings are densely packed below the church and castle, which are rendered in a descriptive perspective (i.e., their size relates to their social status, rather than their actual dimensions). Scattered wooden structures appear on the surrounding rural ridges, today part of central Stockholm. Though the phenomenon is said to have occurred in the morning, the city is depicted in the evening with shadows facing east.” (Source)

But what does the painting depict?

Thew newly elected King of Sweden, Gustav Vasa, had to unite the country and defend the country from Danish attack and German influence. The risks all around caused the king to be suspicious of his own shadow and he set about purging his political opponents. To unify the country, Gustav Vasa decided to join the reformation and recruited reform-minded Olaus Petri to his side to be a councilor for him.

Petri was a clergyman with reformatory leanings and was not supposed to get married. After he announced his marriage in1525 he was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. It was after that that the reformation in Sweden got underway officially beginning in 1527.

The allies soon became enemies. Gustav Vasa destroyed the Catholic Churches and deprived the church of its assets in a clear nationalisation drive. Petri disagreed with him and began to critisise the king in his sermons.

One day a sun dog appeared in the sky.

Petri interpreted the signs over Stockholm as a warning from God and had the Vädersolstavlan painting produced and hung in front of his congregation. Notwithstanding this devotion, he was far from certain on how to interpret these signs and in a sermon delivered in late summer 1535, he explained there are two kinds of omens: one produced by the Devil to allure mankind away from God, and another produced by God to attract mankind away from the Devil — one being hopelessly difficult to tell from the other. He therefore saw it as his duty to warn both his congregation, mostly composed of German burghers united by their conspiracy against the king, and the king himself.


However, on his return to Stockholm in 1535, the king had prominent Germans imprisoned and accused Petri of replacing the law with his own “act of faith”. In response, Petri warned his followers that the lords and princes interpreted his sermons as rebellious and complained about the ease with which punishment and subversion were carried through, while restoring “what rightly and true is” was much harder. In a sermon published in 1539, Petri criticized the misuse of the name of God “now commonly established”, a message clearly addressed to the king. Petri also explained to his congregation that the Devil ruled the world more obviously than ever, that God would punish the authorities and those who obeyed them, and that the world had become so wicked that it was irrevocably doomed.


The king’s interpretation of the phenomenon, however, was that no significant change was presaged, as the “six or eight sun dogs on a circle around the true sun, have apparently disappeared, and the true natural sun has remained itself”. He then concluded that nothing was “much different, since the unchristian treason that Anders Hansson and several of that party had brought against His Highness, was not long thereafter unveiled”. The king referred to the so-called “Gun Powder Conspiracy” uncovered in 1536, which aimed at murdering him by a blasting charge hidden under his chair in the church. This resulted in various death sentences and expatriations, including Mint Master Anders Hansson who was accused of being a counterfeiter.


Petri further excited royal disapproval by writing a chronicle describing contemporary events from a neutral point of view. Both Olaus Petri and Anders Hansson were eventually sentenced to death as a result of the trial in 1539/1540, but were later reprieved. In the end, the king achieved his aim and the appointment of bishops and other representatives of the church was placed under his jurisdiction.


The majority of Swedes continue to be members of the Church of Sweden, although this is more nominal than practiced as Sweden is also the least religious nation in the Western world.

The Storkyrkan is today the Cathedral Church of the Lutheran Diocese of Stockholm, led by Bishop Eva Brunne, the first openly lesbian bishop of a mainstream church anywhere in the world and the first bishop of the Church of Sweden to be registered in a same-sex marriage.

Beyond its religious functions it is a place that tells many fascinating tales about Stockholm and the history of the Swedish people.


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