Apr 202015


On this date in 1535 several sun dogs and other solar phenomena appeared over Stockholm for two hours in the morning (between approximately 07:00 and 09:00). the skies over the city were filled with white circles and arcs crossing the sky, while additional suns (i.e., sun dogs) appeared around the sun. The phenomenon quickly resulted in rumors of an omen of God’s forthcoming revenge on King Gustav Vasa (1496–1560) for having introduced Protestantism during the 1520s and for being heavy-handed with his enemies allied with the Danish king.

Hoping to end speculations, the Chancellor and Lutheran scholar Olaus Petri (1493–1552) ordered a painting to be produced, known as Vädersolstavlan (pictured), documenting the event. When confronted with the painting, the king, however, interpreted it as a conspiracy – the real sun of course being himself, threatened by competing fake suns, one being Olaus Petri and the other the clergyman and scholar Laurentius Andreae (1470–1552), both thus accused of treachery, but eventually escaping capital punishment. The original painting is lost, but a copy from the 1630s survives and can still be seen in the church Storkyrkan in central Stockholm.

Sun dogs (or sundogs), mock suns or phantom suns, scientific name parhelia (singular parhelion), are an atmospheric phenomenon that consists of a pair of bright spots on either side on the Sun, often co-occurring with a luminous ring known as a 22° halo. Sun dogs are a member of a large family of halos, created by light interacting with ice crystals in the upper atmosphere. Sun dogs typically appear as two subtly colored patches of light to the left and right of the Sun, approximately 22° distant and at the same elevation above the horizon as the Sun. They can be seen anywhere in the world during any season, but they are not always obvious or bright. Sun dogs are best seen and are most conspicuous when the Sun is close to the horizon.


Sun dogs are commonly caused by the refraction (bending) of light through flat ice crystals either in high and cold cirrus or cirrostratus clouds or, during very cold weather, drifting in the air at low levels, in which case they are called diamond dust. The crystals act as prisms, bending the light rays passing through them with a minimum deflection of 22°. As the crystals gently float downwards with their large hexagonal faces almost horizontal, sunlight is refracted horizontally, and sun dogs are seen to the left and right of the Sun. Larger crystals wobble more, and thus produce taller sundogs.

Sun dogs are red-colored at the side nearest the Sun; farther out the colors grade through oranges to blue. However, the colors overlap considerably and so are muted, never pure or saturated like rainbows. The colors of the sun dog finally merge into the white of the center circle. The same plate shaped ice crystals that cause sun dogs are also responsible for the colorful circumzenithal arc, that is, a circular indistinct “rainbow” appearing directly overhead. These two types of halo tend to occur, the latter often missed by viewers, however, since it is located more or less directly overhead. Another halo variety often seen together with sun dogs is the 22° halo, which forms a ring at roughly the same angular distance from the sun as the sun dogs, thus appearing to interconnect them.


Sun dogs have been recorded since ancient times. Aristotle notes that “two mock suns rose with the sun and followed it all through the day until sunset.” He says that “mock suns” are always to the side, never above or below, most commonly at sunrise or sunset, more rarely in the middle of the day. The poet Aratus mentions parhelia as part of his Catalogue of Weather Signs; according to him, they can indicate rain, wind, or an approaching storm. Artemidorus in his Oneirocritica (‘On the Interpretation of Dreams’) included mock suns amongst a list of celestial deities. A passage in Cicero’s On the Republic (54–51 BC) is one of many by Greek and Roman authors who refer to sun dogs and similar phenomena:

Be it so, said Tubero; and since you invite me to discussion, and present the opportunity, let us first examine, before any one else arrives, what can be the nature of the parhelion, or double sun, which was mentioned in the senate. Those that affirm they witnessed this prodigy are neither few nor unworthy of credit, so that there is more reason for investigation than incredulity.

The 2nd century Roman writer and philosopher Apuleius in his Apologia XV asks “What is the cause of the prismatic colors of the rainbow, or of the appearance in heaven of two rival images of the sun, with sundry other phenomena treated in a monumental volume by Archimedes of Syracuse.”

The prelude to the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross in Herefordshire, part of the Wars of the Roses in England, in 1461 is supposed to have involved the appearance of a complete parhelion with three “suns”. The Yorkist commander, later Edward IV of England, convinced his initially frightened troops that it represented the three sons of the Duke of York, and Edward’s troops won a decisive victory. The event was dramatized by William Shakespeare in King Henry VI, Part 3, and by Sharon Kay Penman in The Sunne In Splendour.

Possibly the earliest clear description of a sun dog is by Jacob Hutter, who wrote in his Brotherly Faithfulness: Epistles from a Time of Persecution:

My beloved children, I want to tell you that on the day after the departure of our brothers Kuntz and Michel, on a Friday, we saw three suns in the sky for a good long time, about an hour, as well as two rainbows. These had their backs turned toward each other, almost touching in the middle, and their ends pointed away from each other. And this I, Jakob, saw with my own eyes, and many brothers and sisters saw it with me. After a while the two suns and rainbows disappeared, and only the one sun remained. Even though the other two suns were not as bright as the one, they were clearly visible. I feel this was no small miracle.

The observation most likely occurred in Auspitz (Hustopeče) in Moravia on October 31, 1533.

This brings us back to Vädersolstavlan depicting Stockholm in 1535. The original painting, which was produced shortly after the event and traditionally attributed to Urban Målare (“Urban [the] Painter”), is lost, and virtually nothing is known about it. However, a copy from 1636 by Jacob Heinrich Elbfas held in Storkyrkan in Stockholm, is believed to be an accurate copy and was until recently erroneously thought to be the restored original. It was previously covered by layers of brownish varnish, and the image was hardly discernible until carefully restored and thoroughly documented in 1998–1999.

The painting was produced during an important time in Swedish history. The establishment of modern Sweden coincided with the introduction of Protestantism and the break-up with Denmark and the Kalmar Union. The painting was commissioned by the Swedish reformer Olaus Petri, and the resulting controversies between him and King Gustav Vasa and the historical context remained a well-kept secret for centuries. During the 20th century the painting became an icon for the history of Stockholm, and it is now frequently displayed whenever the history of the city is commemorated.

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.

The wooden panel measures 163 by 110 centimetres (64 by 43 inches) and is composed of five vertical deals (softwood planks) reinforced by two horizontal dovetail battens. The battens, together with the rough scrub planed back, have effectively reduced warping to a minimum and the artwork is well preserved, with only insignificant fissures and attacks by insects. A dendrochronological (tree ring) examination of the panel by doctor Peter Klein at the Institute für Holzbiologie in Hamburg determined that it is made of pine deals (Pinus silvestris), the annual rings of which date from various periods ranging from the 1480s to around 1618. The painting can therefore date no further back than around 1620. This is consistent with the year 1636 given on the frame and mentioned in the parish accounts.

The lost original painting is attributed to Urban Målare by tradition. However, historical sources and other works of art from the early Vasa Era are rare, and this attribution is apparently doubtful. Furthermore, as the extant painting has proven to be a 17th-century copy, and not as previously believed a restored original, a credible corroboration is unlikely to ever be produced.

In the parish accounts, the painting is first mentioned in 1636, at which time a “M. Jacob Conterfeyer” was recorded as having “renewed the painting hanging on the northern wall”. Modern scholarship has convincingly identified Jacob Heinrich Elbfas (1600–1664), guild master from 1628 and court painter of Queen Maria Eleonora from 1634, as the artist responsible. Based on the brief note referencing the painting’s “renewal” in 1636, it was long assumed that the extant painting was in fact the original from 1535, and that the work performed on it in the 17th century was little more than restoration of some kind. However, when the painting was taken down in mid-October 1998 to allow a group of experts from various fields to restore and document it, this notion had to be completely reassessed.

When the painting was thus copied in the 17th century from the 16thcentury original, the painting was furnished with a Baroque frame carrying a heart-shaped cartouche. This cartouche displayed the message:

The twentieth day in the month of April was seen in the sky over Stockholm such signs from almost seven to nine in the forenoon. . .

In 1523, as the newly elected King of Sweden, Gustav Vasa had to unify a kingdom which, unlike a modern nation-state, was composed of separate provinces not necessarily happy with his reign. He also had to prepare for a potential Danish attack, and resist the influence of German states and merchants with an interest in reintroducing the hegemony of the Hanseatic League over the Baltic lands. Facing these challenges, the king saw conspiracies everywhere — sometimes correctly — and started to thoroughly fortify his capital while purging it of potential enemies. Shortly after his coronation, Gustav Vasa heard of the reformatory (Lutheran) sermons delivered by Olaus Petri in Strängnäs and called him to Stockholm to have him appointed councilor in 1524.

When Petri announced his marriage the following year, the solemnity of the celebration infuriated Catholic prelates to the extent Petri was excommunicated, while the king, in contrast, gave his unreserved support. Although the king and the reformer collaborated initially, they started to pull in different directions within a few years. As the king carried out the Reformation from 1527, Catholic churches and monasteries were demolished or used for other purposes. Petri strongly opposed the king’s methods of depriving the church of its assets and in his sermons he began to criticize the king’s actions. While both the king and Petri were thus devoted to both establishing what was to become the Swedish state and the new religious doctrine, they were also involved in domestic struggle for power, a situation fuelled by various enemies and Counter Reformation propaganda.

The primary historical source describing the events following the celestial phenomenon is the minutes of the proceedings from the king’s legal process against the reformers Olaus Petri and Laurentius Andreae in 1539–1540. The process was originally described in the chronicle of Gustav Vasa written by the clerk and historian Erik Jöransson Tegel in the early 17th century.

Sun dogs are mentioned in the Swedish Old Farmer’s Almanac (Bondepraktikan) which states that the phenomenon forecasts strong winds, and also rain if the sun dogs are more pale than red. According to the passage in the Vasa Chronicle, however, both Petri and the master of the mint Anders Hansson were sincerely troubled by the appearance of these sun dogs. 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 main aim, and the appointment of bishops and other representatives of the church was placed under his jurisdiction.

When Tegel’s Vasa Chronicle was published in 1622, the section describing the king’s legal process and death sentences against the reformers was regarded as unfavorable to the Vasa dynasty and was subsequently left out. The original manuscript, finally published in 1909, was, however, not the only account of the events. The oldest report, dating from the 1590s, is a handwritten manuscript simply confirming the event, and a publication on meteorological phenomena published in 1608 described the halo in 1535 as “five suns surrounding the right one with its rings as still depicted in the painting hanging in the Great Church.”

Knowledge of the events faded: in 1622 when the Danish diplomat Peder Galt asked for the meaning of the signs in the painting, he could get no replies anywhere in the city. He translated the Swedish text then accompanying the painting to Latin — “Anno 1535 1 Aprilis hoc ordine sex cœlo soles in circulo visi Holmie a septima matutina usque ad mediam nonam antermeridianam” — and concluded that the real sun represented Gustav Vasa and the other suns his successors, an assumption he thought confirmed by contemporary Swedish history. Even this confused report was soon forgotten and in 1632 the halo display in the painting was described in a German leaflet as three beautiful rainbows, a ball, and an eel hanging in the sky over the Swedish capital day and night for four weeks in 1520, furthermore interpreted as a prophecy announcing the forthcoming liberation of Protestant Germany by “the Lion from the North” (i.e. King Gustavus Adolphus).

With the publishing of the first Swedish ecclesiastical history in 1642, the interpretation of the painting and the historical details surrounding it found a new path to follow. Relying on a publication from 1620, the sun dogs are said to have appeared first to King John III (1537–1592) on his deathbed – the painting subsequently being produced by the papist-friendly king in order to save the souls of the Protestant kingdom – and a second time before King Gustavus Adolphus shortly before his death at the Battle of Lützen in 1632.

The 1592 date remained the established one until the 19th century. In the 1870s, however, several publications corrected the dating and within a few decades 1535 became the generally accepted date. The painting’s correct historical context was finally laid bare with the publication of the censored manuscript from the Vasa Chronicle in 1909.


Over time, the painting has become emblematic of the history of Stockholm, and as such appears frequently in various contexts. The 1000 kronor banknote issued in 1989 shows a portrait of King Gustav Vasa, based on a painting from the 1620s, in front of details from Vädersolstavlan. In the arcs of the parhelion is the microtext SCRIPTURAM IN PROPRIA HABEANT LINGUA, which roughly translates to “Let them have the Holy Scripture in their own language”. This is a quote from a letter written by the king in which he ordered a translation of the Bible into the Swedish language.

Two stamps engraved by Lars Sjööblom were produced in March 2002 for the 750th anniversary of Stockholm. They were both printed in two colors, an inland postage depicts the entire old town, while the 10 kronor stamp focuses on the castle and the church.


For the restoration of the Gamla stan metro station in 1998 the artist Göran Dahl furnished the walls and floors with motifs from various medieval textiles and manuscripts, including the Överhogdal tapestries and the 14th-century Nobilis humilis (Magnushymnen) from the Orkney Islands. Vädersolstavlan is prominently featured on the eastern wall just south of the platform where the terrazzo wall depicts the emblematic sun dog arcs interwoven with enlarged fragments of textiles.[31]

The painting is also used on a variety of merchandise — such as puzzles, posters, notebooks, etc. — in museum shops and other cultural institutions in Stockholm, like the Museum of Medieval Stockholm and the Stockholm City Museum.


I’ve already given a general account of Swedish cuisine (https://www.bookofdaystales.com/torun/) which tends to be plain, but quite varied, with an emphasis on seafood and meat. The best known Swedish offering is smörgåsbord, an elaborate presentation of numerous dishes. Now I give you smörgåstårta. If you think the two are related terms, you are right. Smörgås means (open-faced) sandwich – so smörgåsbord means “sandwich table” and smörgåstårta means “sandwich cake.” It is not really a cake as such, but looks like one. It is really four layers of bread with creamy fillings between the layers and an elaborate decoration on top. Here’s a good video on the construction of one:


Toppings and fillings are cook’s choice, as ever. The toppings usually reflect the contents of the fillings which can be anything you like (including vegan ingredients) bound with a fresh mayonnaise or like binder. I enjoy prawns, salmon, and herring. Here’s a gallery for ideas.

sun6 sun5 sun4 sun3

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