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Norway’s lost royal monument

Today, an impressive large statue of King Karl Johan is present at the Palace Square in Oslo. It has been there since 1875 and has become a symbol, a landmark and an icon of the entire city. What is less known is that this was not the first statue there. Before the Karl-Johan monument another, larger, statue stood on the same place. It was “The Freedom Monument”.

The idea of ​​a Karl Johan statue in Christiania all began in the 1830s, while the king was still alive. It remained in the planning stages for the next few decades, and it was never dreamed that the statue would end up in front of the castle. Only in the 1860s, did the idea begin to take shape. The year 1864 was the 50th anniversary of the constitution and this had to be marked. The Norwegian Karl Johan Association raised money for a statue and many were very generous in their donations. Karl Johan’s grandchild, Karl XV, who was a monarch then, strongly supported the idea of a statue.

The only known photography of the lost statue. Photo: Norway`s National Archive / Oslo City Museum

King Karl wanted the statue to stand outside the parliament in order to remind the elected representatives of the monarch’s power. But time went by and as bureaucracy took over, there just wasn’t enough time to make a permanent statue of Karl Johan for the constitution anniversary.

Everyone agreed that one still had to have something to gather around, a monument to the anniversary itself. Karl XV realised he had to erect a monument at  the Palace Square in time. With big enough wallet, Karl could persuade Brynjulf ​​Bergslien to take on the work of the monument.

A more detailed illustration of the statue. Photo: Norway`s National Archive / Oslo City Museum

Brynjulf ​​Bergslien met Karl personally and together they made a sketch of the large monument that Karl believed the city might need. But the monument that Karl wanted and insisted on getting was far too large to complete in the time available. Bergslien and Karl therefore agreed to make as much of the monument as possible and when the time was too short, the rest of the monument should be completed temporarily.

The time went fast and, apart from the foundation, most of the statue was made of plaster. The actual statue at the top would bring to life the goddess of freedom. She stood at the top of a victory column, in one hand holding Norway’s constitution and in the other a laurel branch, the ancient symbol of victory. She was flanked by four smaller statues symbolizing female geniuses. They each hold a plate that is decorated with a crown, under the crown stands the name of the last four monarchs of Norway. This was then Christian Frederik who was king for a few months in 1814, as well as the three Bernadotte monarchs Karl Johan, Oscar I and Karl XV. Otherwise, the statue was decorated with garlands, coat of arms, flower arrangements and gas lamps.

From the May 17th celebration in 1864, you can see the statue in the back. Photo: Norway`s National Archive / Oslo City Museum

In two articles in the Oslo Museum’s journal “Byminner” it is stated that the upper statue at the top of the entire complex should have been about 3 meters high. If we assume that the upper statue is 3 meters and measures this on the illustrations that exist of the statue, the whole statue should have been about 9.3 meters from the bottom of the shelf to the top of the statue of liberty. Furthermore, the plateau complex should have been square and measured approximately 6 x 6 meters. The current Karl Johan statue is approximately 9 meters high, with a base of 9.7 x 7.3 meters.

“The Freedom Monument” had a central position in the 50th anniversary of the Norwegian constitution. It remained the centre of the capital’s celebration, and on May 17, the procession ended up at the Palace Square to view the impressive statue. This despite heavy rain that day. The same afternoon at the foot of the statue, Norway’s new national anthem was performed for the very first time.

King Karl XV unveils the statue of Karl Johan who is at the Palace Square in Oslo today. Photo: Norway`s National Archive / Oslo City Museum

In the evening fireworks were let off at the Palace Square with thousands of spectators cheering the spectacle. A band made the mood even more cheerful with music that lasted until 11 pm. The castle and the statue were also artificially illuminated on an otherwise dark night in the Norwegian capital.

It is uncertain what happened to the statue, probably the plaster went bad and  was disassembled. The debate continued and eventually, the consensus was that the statue of Karl Johan should stand outside the Palace and not parliament. So in 1875 the Karl Johan statue was then erected in the same place as the Freedom statue once stood. With that, the freedom statue was nothing but a distant memory of the May 17 celebration in 1864.

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