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Dante (1265-1321)

The struggle for national independence required a mythical figure who could serve as paragon and inspiration for both the entire nation and the intellectuals and politicians who were leading the freedom movement. The myth of Dante was well-suited to this task. It played an important role in smoothing over the wide-spread factional strife among the Italian territories in favour of joint political action. Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) had given his country its language, its poetry and its culture. His poetic art became a symbol of Italian unity which found expression in a common language and culture.

The subject of »Dante’s Exile« was frequently treated in paintings. The dissension between Italian cities and Dante’s partisanship for the Ghibellines had led the opposing part of the Guelfs to banish the politically active poet from his native city of Florence in 1302. He spent the rest of his life in exile, travelling through Italy and France until he finally found refuge in Ravenna, where he died in 1321.

Domenico Petarlini’s painting depicts the lonely wanderer resting along the way. The poet is gazing with a melancholy expression at a book which probably represents his greatest work, the »Divine Comedy«.


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Rudolf of Habsburg (1218-1291) and Maria Theresa (1717-1780)

Austria, like Germany, France and Hungary, traced its origins back to two founding figures: Rudolf of Habsburg and Maria Theresa. Both are from the House of Habsburg, which the nation was to be bound to in the multinational state.

Rudolf of Habsburg was the progenitor of the ruling dynasty. With the defeat and death of his greatest adversary Ottokar II (Otakar) of Bohemia in the Battle of Dürnkrut (1278), Rudolf, who had been elected German king in 1273, did more than just secure himself the crown. Rather, his victory over Ottokar, who later in 19th century Bohemia was to be highly revered for his politics of expansion and his Christian mission to convert the pagan Prussians, also paved the way for the rise of his dynasty.

The veneration of Rudolf revolves around a legend that had been passed down since the 14th century. While riding through the countryside, the legend went, Rudolf, then Count of Swabia, met a priest who was carrying the Most Holy Sacrament. Rudolf jumped off his horse and gave it to the priest, out of reverence for the Host. Shortly thereafter he was crowned king. Embellished in the following years, the legend provided the divine justification not only for Rudolf’s reign, but also for that of his descendants.

Side by side with Rudolf as a kind of primeval mother of the nation stood Maria Theresa. As the monument in the Emperor’s Forum in Vienna indicates, she can doubtless be called the founder of the state that came to be known since 1804 as the »Austrian Empire«. Above and beyond that, she was acknowledged as the sovereign or »Mother of the Nation« (in the same sense as the absolutistic »Father of the Nation«), moreover as »mater castrorum« (»Mother of the Army«) and in particular a the mother of a whole swarm of children. Nineteenth century illustrations emphasise primarily this »bourgeois« aspect.



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The Death of Leonidas at Thermopylae in 480 BC

Alexander the Great (356-323 BC)

In the process of building the nation, no European country could look back to its history quite as far as could Greece. Antiquity, the flowering of culture and the territorial expansion of Greek hegemony were of extreme importance to Greek self-awareness. During the rule of the Ottoman Empire and on up through the 19th century, consolation was sought in the memory of Greece’s glorious past. Two heroes of antiquity enjoyed special veneration in 19th century Greece: Leonidas, king of the Spartans, who in 480 BC fought with his troops against the superior forces of the Persian king Xerxes and was killed in battle. The second was Alexander the Great, who was able to extend his empire from Macedonia to the Indus and annihilate the Persian Empire within a brief period of only thirteen years.

The veneration of Leonidas was inspired by the hero who sacrificed himself for his homeland. The pinnacle of his popularity was reached during the Greek struggle for independence from 1821 to 1830. Jean Evariste Fragonard’s picture shows an exhausted soldier kneeing before a memorial stone on which the inscription refers to the valiant Leonidas and his sacrifice.

The myth of Alexander had a twofold function. To begin with, the victorious general evoked the former greatness and importance of Greece. This fame was supposed to encourage the freedom fighters in the 19th century to win back at least part of the former empire. The German artist Karl Theodor von Piloty takes up this theme in his picture, which shows the death of Alexander the Great, who is mourned by his people, to whom he leaves his heritage as an obligation. As this example illustrates, it was especially the philhellenism that had emerged since the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century that popularised the image of Greece and Greek antiquity through the visual arts; in Greece itself the memory of Alexander was kept alive primarily through folk art.



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The Uprising of the Batavi in the Years 69/70 AD

Around 50 BC the Germanic tribe of the Batavi settled at the Rhine delta in the Roman province of Belgica. Under their chieftain Gaius Julius Civilis (known as Claudius Civilis in Germany), who had been a Roman army officer for many years, they revolted against Roman rule in the year 69 AD.

The rebellion, which was soon joined by a number of Germanic tribes across the Rhine to the East and finally gripped the whole of northeastern Gaul, was subdued a year later. But Civilis was able to negotiate a favourable truce.

After the humanist Cornelis Aurelius had declared the Batavi to be the direct ancestors of the Netherlanders in the 16th century, the Batavi myth served only a few decades later to justify the uprising of the young Netherlands republic against the Spanish king Philip II. At the same time the »freedom fighter« Civilis was compared with William of Orange. Nineteenth century historians also fell back on the Batavian chieftain in an attempt to prove that the Netherlanders had always been a freedom-loving people who fought for their liberty and had gone through a logical development from Civilis to the insurrection against Spain and on through the establishment of the nation-state in the 19th century.

Barend Wijnveld’s painting of 1854 shows the election of Civilis to chieftain of the Batavi. Upright and with an imperious gesture he stands at the centre of activity, dramatically highlighted by an invisible source of light. Wijnfeld’s painting was part of the collection of Jacob de Vos, who commissioned 263 works of art on the history of the Netherlands in the middle of the 19th century.



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The Battle of Teutoburg Forest in the Year 9 AD

The Death of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, 1190

In 19th century Germany two figures in particular were highly revered as national founders: Arminius (Hermann), the tribal leader of the Cherusci, and the Hohenstaufen emperor Frederick I Barbarossa. During the turbulent process of building the nation they exerted their marked influence on the self-image of the Germans at different moments in time.

In the year 9 AD the Cheruscian chieftain Arminius had joined with other allied Germanic tribes to defeat the legions of the Roman governor Varus. This brought an end to Roman expansion into the territories to the right of the Rhine. From the perspective of the 19th century Arminius was seen as the first German and a symbol of patriotic rebellion against foreign rule. The myth of Hermann took on great importance during the struggle against Napoleon. Artists like Caspar David Friedrich or Karl Friedrich Schinkel drew direct parallels between the Battle of Teutoburg Forest and the Battle of the Nations near Leipzig (1813).

The artists, like the schoolbook authors, loved the dramatic concentration of victory in battle. The bestknown representation, which was constantly reproduced in schoolbooks, is Friedrich Gunkel's "Battle of the Teutoburg Forest" ("Hermannsschlacht"). Hermann is shown in full command of the battlefield. By concentrating on the commander Gunkel anticipates the outcome of the struggle.

42.jpg (22910 Byte)In the person of Frederick I the Germans revered a mediaeval ruler who was praised even by his contemporaries as a paragon of chivalry and as the restorer of the empire. A legend grew up around his tragic death during a crusade in 1190. It was said that the emperor did not really die, but was only asleep in a grotto in the imperial castle of Kyffhäuser and waiting there to prepare for his return. This mythical transfiguration was connected in the 19th century with nationalist aspirations for the restoration of the lost glory of emperorship and empire. After the German Empire was founded in 1871 the Barbarossa myth became extremely popular. Emperor Wilhelm I was exalted as »Barbablanca« (White Beard), the successor to Barbarossa. Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld shows in his painting the salvaging of the body of the drowned emperor from the Saleph River in the Near East, depicted after the motif of the Descent from the Cross. With this Christian metaphor the artist gives expression to the hope that Barbarossa will rise again.



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The Defeat of Vercingetorix by Caesar in 52 BC

The Baptism of Clovis in the Year 496 AD

In 19th century France two very different personalities were venerated as founders of the nation, according to political orientation of the party concerned.

The choice of the liberal-republican camp fell on Vercingetorix, who as commander of the Gauls had rebelled again Caesar in the year 52 BC.

The insurrection was brutally subdued and the whole territory of Gaul was occupied by the Romans. Despite the crushing defeat, Vercingetorix was seen in the 19th century as the founding father of the French because he alone is said to have proved his courage in facing the superior force of the enemy: he could not save his homeland, but he saved the honour of the nation. This is why the Lionel-Noël Royer depicts Vercingetorix in the pose of a victorious general as he throws down his weapons at Caesar’s feet. Defeated but unbroken, he reins in his horse in order to ride through a path surrounded by high palisades on his way to the Roman imperator.

For its part the monarchist-Catholic party chose Clovis (Chlodwig), the Merovingian founder of the Frankish kingdom, as its candidate for founding father of the nation. In the year 496 AD, Clovis had fended off the threatened invasion of the Alemanni near Tolbiac (now Zülpich near Cologne). In the face of defeat he swore that he would convert to Christianity if he should achieve victory, and in fact it came about that his forces turned the tide and won a victory. The battle, followed by the baptism of Clovis, were seen as the founding events of French history. Before they were converted, the Franks were considered a brave but barbarian people. But now the baptised Clovis could lead France, under the guidance of divine providence, to its destiny. Civilization, the founding of the monarchy and obedience to the church were, it was felt, the characteristic elements of the glorious history of France, the »eldest daughter of the Church«.



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The Last Days of Numantia in the Year 133 BC

The Celtiberian city of Numantia (near the present Soria in Castile-León) was finally captured in the year 133 BC by the troops of the victorious Roman general Scipio Aemilianus. For fourteen years the inhabitants had been able to withstand Roman attempts to take the city. When the situation became unbearable after a long siege, the Numantians, after a final unsuccessful attempt to break through Scipio’s ring of ramparts surrounding the city, decided against capitulation and for collective suicide. They set fire to their houses, stabbed or poisoned themselves, and left nothing but smoking ruins to the victors.

Two thousand years later this act of desperation was interpreted in 19th century Spain as an expression of the noble pride, intrepid courage and unconditional love of freedom of their »ancestors«. The inhabitants of Numantia were seen as the »first Spanish«, since the characteristics described were considered typical traits of the Spanish national character. As of the 1830s historians construed a connection between the heroic death of the Numantians and the Spanish struggle for independence against Napoleon - not unlike Germany, where they drew parallels between the battle against Varus at the Teutoburg Forest and the Battle of the Nations near Leipzig.

Alejo Vera y Estaca’s picture »Numantia« took first prize at the national exhibition of the fine arts in Madrid, in 1880. He not only depicted death and destruction, but also the horror of the Romans (on the right in the picture), who stand aghast, unable to comprehend the sacrifice of their enemies.



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The Legend of Libuse and Premysl from the 7th Century

The legend of the princess and prophetess Libuse and the ploughman Premsyl, the mythical founder of the first Bohemian royal dynasty can be traced back to the 10th century. After she has been criticised by for making a wrong decision, the wise Princess Libuse sends for Premsyl to join her and rule the land. Her messengers find the farmer ploughing his fields and call him away from there to take the throne.

45.jpg (14793 Byte)The legend has been a component of the official state Premsylid ideology since the 12th century and thereafter a basic element of Bohemian patriotism and historical heritage. At first a symbol and prototype of the wise and just ruler, the saga was gradually transformed - around the middle of the 19th century under the influence of the historian and national leader Frantisek Palacky´ - into the Czech national myth. From this time on it stood for a proto-democratic, anti-feudalistic self-awareness of the Czech population, embodied by the ploughman on the throne. Moreover, the peasant origin of the Premsylid dynasty corresponded to the ideology of a national rebirth which saw the foundation of true »Czechdom« in the rural life of the peasants. In this interpretation Libuse and Premsyl have become symbols of the emancipatory Czech society.

Prague gained exceptional importance in this context as thousand-year-old centre of Bohemian Czech statehood; the legend relates that Libuse not only prophesied Prague’s fame, but also laid the cornerstone for the metropolis by building Vysehrad castle.



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The Magyar »Conquest of Hungary«,End of the 9th Century

The Foundation of the Hungarian Nation and the Coronation of St. Stephen in 1001

At the end of the 9th century the Magyar chieftain Árpád led his people, who had been driven out of the area between the Don and the Dnieper, to settle in a new territory between the Danube and the Tisza. As portrayed by Mihály Munkácsy in his history painting for the Hungarian parliament, this event, which was adorned over the years with legendary episodes, was gradually transfigured in the 19th century from the »conquest and settlement of Hungary« to the national myth of origin of the Hungarian state.

The actual founding of the Hungarian kingdom took place in the course of the 10th century. It is primarily seen in the context of Stephen I. He carried on the work of his father, Grand Duke Géza, christianised the country, established an organised Church based on the Carolingian model, eliminated rivalling chieftains and integrated the country into the spiritual community of the Western world. In agreement with the emperor and pope Stephen accepted the insignia of royalty and was crowned the first king of Hungary on Christmas Day in the year 1001, bearing the so-called Saint Stephen’s Crown, which had been sent by Pope Sylvester II and has been venerated in Hungary as a relic ever since.

Hungarian history painting in the 19th century, even more so than the historical writing of the time, focused attention on the Christianisation of the country in the person of Stephen, as can be seen for example in Gyula Benczúr' s portrayal of the baptism of Hungary's patron saint, who converted to Christianity around the year 973.



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The Legend of Piast from the 9th Century

With Piast, the legendary forefather of the Polish kings, the foundation of the so-called Piast dynasty was moved back around a hundred years before the mention of the first real Polish monarch, Mieszko, whose reign began around the year 963. At the same time, the legend expresses the virtues that the Poles expect of their king: they should be in close touch with the people, pious and wise. As the legend goes, Piast is said to have taken in two strangers who had been turned away by the king. It happens that the two strangers were angels who prophesied a great future for Piast. In the end Piast - or in other versions his son - was raised to the throne and ruled wisely and justly.

47.jpg (16400 Byte)The construction of a founding father going back to times of old and reigning in touch with the people can be found with almost identical make-up in the legendary Bohemian royal couple Premysl and Libuse. And the virtues that qualify Piast for his office were also ascribed to other monarchs. A special proximity to God was attributed to such rulers as the Habsburg count and emperor Rudolf, the Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus and the Frankish king Clovis. Famous for being close to the people were the Hungarian Mátyás Hunyadi, the German emperor Charles IV and the »empress« Maria Theresa.

Moving the foundation of the dynasty back to the time of around 860 accommodated the needs of 19th century Poland. It allowed the Poles to celebrate the thousandth jubilee at a time when the Polish state did not exist and national pride could be nourished by the memory of the glorious past.

The works of art that depict Piast usually show his encounter with the strangers, whom he invites in with a hospitable gesture. Witold Pruszkowski’s painting illustrates the coronation of Piast by the angels, a symbol of his divine mandate to rule, while the people acclaim the new monarch.



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The Rütli Oath of 1291

Shortly after the death of Rudolf of Habsburg (1291) the three valley communities of Uri, Schwyz and Nidwalden formed the »Everlasting League«. This alliance, which at first was enacted to prevent strife in the valleys, gradually developed into a defence pact against the Habsburg supremacy, from which the Swiss confederates finally liberated themselves in the 13th century in the course of numerous battles.

The union of the three valleys, which came to be known as the »Rütli Oath«50.jpg (11266 Byte), marked for 19th century Switzerland the inauguration of the nation, the fundamental legal act out of which arose the modern Swiss Confederation. This myth of a quasi-democratic foundation of the state based on reason instead of force has remained characteristic of Swiss self-identity until the present day. In his drama »William Tell« Friedrich Schiller condensed this view into the formula of the oath: »We want to be a single people of brothers.«

The numerous illustrations of the union in the 19th century usually concentrated on the three parties taking the oath, as can be seen for example in the painting by Jean Renggli or in any number of articles of daily use that were decorated with illustrations of the Rütli Oath. Characteristic for Renggli's painting is that the persons swearing the oath are representatives of the three periods of life and thus symbolise the entire Swiss people.



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Queen Thyre Danebod Builds the Danewerk in the 10th Century

Thyre Danebod lived in the first half of the 10th century. She was the wife of the Danish king Gorm. To protect her country from incursions by the German king Otto I, she is said to have ordered all the adult men of the kingdom, around the year 940, to build a protective rampart along its southern border. This more than thirty-kilometre-long defensive bulwark was called the »Danewerk« (with many variant spellings). We now know that the Danewerk cannot be attributed to Thyre, because it is much older. But in the 19th century they praised the farsightedness of the queen, who was believed to have provided lasting protection against foreign invasion and thus guaranteed the kingdom’s continued existence.

In his painting Lorens Frølich portrays her as a determined woman who directs the work on the wall with forward-looking mien. This myth of origin illustrates the disposition of the Danes, whose constant fear of being conquered by the Germans was further fed in the 19th century by two wars and finally confirmed by the loss of the duchies of Schleswig, Holstein and Lauenburg. In the war of 1864 against Germany and Austria, the Danish population felt disgraced when their own troops abandoned the Danewerk, although the bulwark had long since become obsolete and strategically useless.



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The Battle of Hastings, 1066

In the Battle of Hastings in the year 1066 the Norman cavalry under William the Conqueror defeated an army of Anglo-Saxons fighting on foot. The English king Harold II was killed in the battle and the crown was awarded to William. In British history the battle is seen as the last successful conquest of Britain.

In the 19th century the year 1066 (together with the Magna Charta) marks the beginning of British national history. The emphasis lay not primarily on the loss of Anglo-Saxon pre-eminence, but rather on a continuity in the historical development of England.

Alongside depictions of the Battle of Hastings, the coronation of William I was a popular motif in the history painting of the 19th century. Benjamin West shows the scene in which the citizens of London offered the crown to William. They were thus expressing their acceptance of a ruler who had conquered their country in war, but had nonetheless respected the institutions of the land.



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The Battle of Stiklestad, 1030

Olaf II Haraldsson, also known as Saint Olaf, is considered the unifier of the kingdom and the founder of the Norwegian Christian nation. Shortly after his death in 1030 the bishop of Trondheim declared him a saint and »Rex Perpertuus Norvegiae« - Norway’s eternal king.

When Olaf returned from Viking wars abroad in 1015, Norway consisted of many different little kingdoms. His greatest antagonist, the Danish king Canute, was involved in the crusades at this time, so that Olaf succeeded in gathering the other chieftains under his command and having himself declared king. He also began introducing Christianity in Norway at that time. However, the Christianisation - by force - also earned him many enemies, who joined forces with the Danish king and temporarily forced him to leave the country. In 1030 Olaf attempted to reconquer Norway, but he was killed in the Battle of Stiklestad when his army met the enemy. According to the saga, the king’s corpse had still not decomposed after a year. His death and this miracle turned the tide of public opinion and led to an intense veneration of Olaf, even by his former enemies.

This is the subject of a sketch by Olaf Isaachsen. Pictured here is the king, slain in battle, who is illuminated by the ray of God. Isaachsen's painting "The Shrouded Body of St. Olav" shows him once again in keeping with Christian iconography as the lifeless Saviour who will rise from the dead. In this way he takes the place of Thor. 

The greatness and significance that Olaf had for Norway was due according to 19th century historians not only to his achievement of the political unification of Norway, but above all to his introduction of Christianity. This gave the country an intellectual and cultural foundation which led to domestic peace and external power. In the eyes of the historians, this was why Olaf’s unification of the kingdom was able to last while all other attempts had been doomed to failure.



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The Battle of the Golden Spurs, 1302

In the Battle of the Golden Spurs in July 1302 a militia of guild workers from the Flemish cities fighting on foot prevailed over an army of knights of the French king near the town of Kortrijk (Courtrai) in western Flanders. The spurs that were taken off the dead French cavaliers gave the battle its name. With this stunning victory the Flemish succeeded in repulsing the attempt of Philip the Fair to conquer Flanders; the king had been seeking to gain a direct influence on the country principally because of the economic strength of the Flemish towns. At the same time the Flemish guilds were able to bolster their political power at the cost of the patricians, who had fought on the side of the French.

Soon after the Belgian state was founded (1830/31), a great interest in the Battle of the Spurs set in. It was now celebrated as the event in which the most outstanding characteristics of the Belgian national character first surfaced: patriotism and love of freedom. Many historians applied this Flemish episode to the whole of Belgium and found in it a model of the desire for freedom of the whole state (which did not yet exist in the 14th century). For their part, the members of the Flemish movement gave sole credit for the Kortrijk victory to their own people while at the same time insinuating that the Francophone Walloons were sympathetic to the cause of the French enemies.

The monumental and extremely popular painting by the Antwerp artist Nicaise de Keyser treats the decisive moment of the battle when a lay brother from the Ter Doest abbey in western Flanders, Guillaume Vansaeftingen, slays the French commander, the Duc d’Artois.



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Gustavus Vasa’s Struggle for Freedom, 1521-152

The union of the three crowns of Denmark, Norway and Sweden that was resolved in Kalmar in 1397 soon proved to be an explosive alliance. Uprisings against Danish supremacy came to nought for many years, however.

Gustavus Vasa was the first to succeed in liberating Sweden, having achieved autonomy through an insurrection in the year 1523. That year he was raised to the crown of Sweden. After freeing the country from external subjugation, he liberated it domestically by introducing extensive reforms. Since this time he has been venerated in Sweden as the founder who led the nation to independence and greatness. In this regard he can be compared with the Norwegian king Saint Olaf, whose mythical importance is also based on a combination of military success abroad and the establishment of domestic unity.

The oppositional Sture party, of which Gustavus Vasa was a member, had suffered a crushing defeat against the Danes in 1520. Gustavus fled under dramatic circumstances to the province of Dalarna, where he tried to convince the peasants to rise in resistance to the Danish king. But it was only after the Danes had carried out a massacre among the Swedish opposition group in 1523 that they followed his call.Many adventurous stories were told in 19th century Sweden celebrating Gustavus for his courage and farsightedness during these three years of flight and persecution. Numerous works of art showed Gustavus speaking to the crowds. Others pictured individual brave peasants who hid Gustavus from the Danish persecutors. In 1903 a memorial, designed by Anders Zorn, was erected to the memory of Gustavus Vasa in Mora, the town in the central Swedish province of Dalarna where he had addressed the peasants.



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