...because you thought Sweden was Switzerland!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Lund, not London!

Students enjoying the spring sun, a shopping street
and the main building of Lund's University

During the past month, I've been kinda stressed out trying to juggle three PhD courses at the same time, one of which requires me to commute to Lund, which is three hours from here by express train (The Swedish express train X2000 doesn't even go 300 km/h though!). I Skyped with my parents one day to tell them I was off to Lund for two days, and they misheard that I was going to London. So I think a blog entry about Lund is in order, just to put things straight ;-)

Lund is a university city in the south of Sweden, reportedly founded around year 990 when this part of Sweden still belonged to the rival kingdom Denmark. "Lund" means "grove" in Swedish (and not field or valley as I first thought), and as with other nature words, it's also a common Swedish and Danish last name (Dad mentioned that one of the Danish detective series he watches has a protagonist named Lund). "-lunda" is also a common placename suffix, which derives from the word lund.

The city of Lund boasts of the second oldest Swedish university, Lund University, founded 1666 (The University of Bologna was founded year 1088, and Uppsala, Sweden's oldest, in 1477). Students usually say that the city seems built around the university: the oldest university buildings are scattered around the centrum, there are second hand textbook stores in many streets as well as cafés filled with students either studying or just having a fika.

As pompous as the main university building looks though, it is probably more accurate to say that the city is built around its next door neighbor, the Lund cathedral, rather than the university itself. The cathedral is much older, having been founded in 1103.

Of course, the cathedral didn't look then as it looks today. It is said that parts of the cathedral, like the crypt, could have belonged to an older church way back in 1080, but much of the cathedral was built in the 12th and 13th centuries in Romanesque style. I'm not usually the one to get curious about a church, but a classmate and I went sightseeing there after class one day and I must say, the architecture and the small details are just mind-boggling. Somewhere in Lund, sometime in the Middle Ages, real people – craftsmen – have been laboring to get those details. The details add to the mystique and awesomeness of this church. I can only imagine that Middle Age churchgoers, living in their wood shacks with hay floors, must have really felt humbled by the awful might and elaborate luxury of this cathedral as they listened to the priest's echoing voice (the echo lasts 6.7 seconds) that asks them to repent for their worldly sins.

But as I said, you can't help admiring the level of detail everywhere. One of the jewels within the church is its astronomical clock, built ca. 1424. I haven't actually heard it play, since I sat in class when it did (12 noon and 3PM), but I could just imagine that it is no less grand than what it looks like without it playing. It was filled with details from top to bottom – and the clock was huge, standing from church floor to ceiling. Here are two details: an old man pointing his stick at today's date and name day (it was Monday the 18th of April when I took the picture. I learned that April 17th is my dad's name day!), and two knights at the very top of the clock.

I read in Wikipedia that the knights are supposed to tell the hour. I didn't notice it though, but I did notice that the clock face itself showed a time one hour "earlier". They didn't have Daylight Savings in the Middle Ages, after all.

Here are some more details: a lion whose hands are bound (this is a giant detail from the bottom of the pulpit), and ram heads adorning the choir pews near the altar. My classmate and I couldn't help thinking that all details must have been symbolic – after all, not everyone was literate at that time. The choir pews in particular were all carved with biblical figures or real and imagined animals. Some pew ends seemed to portray horrific scenes like people crawling away from large beasts, and the underside of these pews were carved with miniature churches. Who knows if the common man of the 12th century could have walked so near the altar (the altar was literally half a storey higher than the nave). But I wonder what he would have thought of these detailed pews back then. Boy would I like to have crawled into his mind! The pews in the nave have been replaced by modern, simple chairs (because the sandstone floors were sinking beneath the pews' weight), so I don't know how those looked like.

A tour of the Lund cathedral would not be complete without a tour to the crypt, which is a kind of basement under the altar. This too seems to be ridden with all kinds of symbolic messages, yet less ornate. It consists of a forest of columns supporting vaulted ceilings – like a cross between a moorish palace and a mini-Mines of Moria. Small windows let shafts of light inside the otherwise dark crypt. It didn't feel creepy though – everything just felt kind of ancient.

I Photoshopped the top picture to correct the white balance – that's how the crypt looked like when I was there. Otherwise, the camera tends to give the the sunlight in the cold crypt a blue hue, as you can see in the bottom pictures.

Many of the columns look different from each other (notice the column at the back in the first picture). Some are carved as spirals, while some are carved with geometric patterns like waves or squares. They say that when the light hits the spiral patterns in the morning, the sunlight shifts as to make an illusion of the columns spiraling upwards.

The most attention-catching columns are, however, those with the human figures. These were to be found on either side of the crypt, nearest the doors. One shows a male and the other a female with a baby, both of whom are grabbing onto the columns. According to legend, the figures portray Finn the Giant and his wife. Disappointed that he didn't get paid for his help constructing the cathedral, Finn was supposed to have wanted to demolish the building and sneaked there at night. When morning came, sunlight streamed through the windows, turning Finn and his wife into stone. We asked one of the church curators about this since my classmate suspected it was probably early Christian occult, but the truth about the columns are apparently a mystery. Maybe it was supposed to portray Samson. There was also a theory that human statues were usually erected by the doors to protect the church, and that these figures might have been moved down into the crypt during the cathedral restoration in the Middle Ages.

Whatever the explanation was supposed to be, the meaning is lost to us today while the ancient symbols live on. Maybe I should make a Dan Brown-esque novel on the Lund cathedral. I'm told by the curator that I haven't seen nothing – the tunnels under the church reveal its even older parts, but it is off-limits to tourists. Who knows what was under our feet!


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