Renæssanceforum 12 • 2017
Two Poems for the Virgin Mary
Being a part of the Danish Realm for centuries, Iceland was at times confronted with international challenges through Copenhagen and the Government of Denmark. This was the case with the Lutheran Reformation which King Christian III of Denmark imposed on his subjects partly against their will. In Iceland, opinions differed and the Reformation was not fully effected until 1550, when the last Catholic bishop, Jón Arason, was beheaded with two of his sons. That did not mean that some Catholic traditions did not live on, sometimes secretly. Thus, a much beloved poem of the 14th century, Lilja, composed in the Old Norse language and dedicated to the Holy Virgin, was so deeply rooted in the religious life of the Icelanders that when a collection of Icelandic poetry was published by leading Icelandic Lutherans in 1612 this poem was included after some expurgations, which shows that there was at least a limited acceptance in Iceland of the role of Mary in the Lutheran Church. The idiosyncratic position of the Icelandic Church in the 17th century was rooted in the fact that many of its leaders were descendants of Jón Arason, whom they revered as a respected and important ancestor although they officially had to condemn his religious beliefs. Jón Arason was a devotee of the Holy Virgin but nobody knows the degree to which this may have influenced the worship of Mary among his descendants. Two learned great-great-grandsons nevertheless ventured to write important poetical works in Latin on the Holy Virgin despite the possible consequences they might have had to suffer at the hands of church authorities in Copenhagen. About the same time, shortly after the middle of the 17th century, a young scholar called Pááll Hallsson translated the original Old Norse text of Lilja into Latin, while Brynjólfur Sveinsson, a most learned bishop, composed an original and personal poem dedicated to the Holy Virgin, also in Latin. For decades these works were shrouded in silence until publicly discussed in the late 18th century, thus leaving to posterity a valuable testimony to the intricate question of the limits of free speech in religious matters and to the importance of the use of Latin as a medium in the learned world and as a preserver of literary values originally expressed in a vernacular language.