In the Vejle River Valley you will find wonderful nature as well as interesting sights. The church in Skibet is well worth a pilgrimage for anyone interested in Danish cultural history, whether it is a year long interest or a newly found one. Likewise if you believe that holidays should provide nourishment for our spiritual selves. Both requests are met in the perfect cohesion at Skibet Kirke, Skibet Church. The church contains important frescoes dating back to the 13th century, depicting some important stories from the middle ages, such as the one about the Holy Grail, Saint Catherine of Alexandria and the transfiguration of Christ. You gain the most from your visit if you do a proper research before going there. I can assist you with this post, based on my studies and I’ll add some information about Ravningbroen, the Ravning Bridge, which you can visit in the same area if you follow the river valley westwards.
You will find the Skibet church in Vejle Ådal, the Vejle River Valley, about 7 kilometres west of Vejle. It is a remarkable neighbor to the Haraldskær Estate. At the height of the Middle Ages the Haraldskær Manor belonged to the king as was within walking distance, only about 5 minutes from the church.
Famous Medieval Frescoes in Skibet Church
From the outside, Skibet Church appears to be rather small and humble which is only a disguise as it holds some remarkable frescoes. The frescoes are the ones that make Skibet Church remarkable not only in Denmark but internationally as well, as most historians consider medieval the frescos in Danish churches remarkable. It is quite rare in most protestant countries to be able to still see frescoes from the Middle Ages inside the churches as most of them have been destroyed. In Denmark the frescoes were most often whitewashed, which is what happened in the Skibet church. With the frescoes being whitewashed we can often recover them. You might say the angel of death passed by the frescoes at Skibet Church and did not enter.
Some of the Oldest Frescoes in Europe
Legend says the royal flag Dannebrog fell from the sky in 1219. Does this mean that it was actually falling while Skibet Church was being built? We don’t know of course and these days miracles a a rare occurence. What we do know is, that these frescoes date from back to this time. and you can see and sense this simply by looking at them. Experts claim that the paintings date from around the 1200s. If this is true they were painted during the reign of king Valdemar Sejr, king Valdemar the Victorious or his predecessor, king Knud den 4., Canute the 4th. Whoever was the reigning king, the frescoes are some of the oldest still to be found in Northern Europe.
Across Europe most churches were renovated, rebuilt and colors removed, roofs caught fire by lightning, war or accident or the plaster on the ceilings might be damaged by leaking roofs. Shortly after the Reformation the frescoes in Skibet Church were whitewashed and ever since they have been hidden from our eyes, kept and preserved for centuries until they were rediscovered in the middle of the 20th century. Time has not been very kind to the frescoes, after all they are more than 800 years old and the colors do not shine as bright as they once did but the motifs are extremely interesting. If you want detailed, colorful, intricate and modern frescoes, you can find them elsewhere in Denmark, e.g. at the Cathedral in Ribe 60 kilometres to the south-west.
You will learn the most from your visit in Skibet Church if you opt for a guided tour. A guide will know and show you where to look for details and can reveal the ineresting details and hidden gems to you. And the most important detail – he will know where to get a key for the church and can open the door.
Wild Stories – Frescoes Depicting Wild Stories
Though they are rather faded you can still see the frescoes on the walls. In Skibet Church you will not find the Devil but other stories are depicted on the walls such as:
- the story of the Holy Grail
- the transfiguration og Christ on the mountain
- Saint Catherine of Alexandria
- the legend of the Holy Cross
- the resurrection of Lazarus.
These stories may not be very credible – but they are an important part of our common European heritage, and even if you might not learn christian virtues from them, they are highly entertaining.
To Become a Saint – Not a Deal for Cowards
A rule of thumb was that only firm Believers could be canonized. Therefore they were often killed in extremely sadistic ways, or at least that is how most of the storie go. Often the martyr was not killed in the first attempt, due to the protection of G-D, the executioners had to put up a firm effort. Two to three attempts before they succeeded were quite normal. Catherine was one of these troublesome saints, and for her to be martyred took three attempts. This is how they succeeded:
Saint Catherine – a Wild Story
Catherine was a wise, young woman from Alexandria in Egypt, who grew up among heathens. It became clear how wise she was when she was rather young, when she converted and became a Christian. In the first act, the Roman Emperor Maxentius decided that all Christians had to renounce their faith or get killed. Catherine faced him and suggested that he should convert to Christianity instead. A suggestion that did not at all go down well with Maxentius. This is where he made his big mistake in the second act. Rather than killing Catherine right away, he asked the 50 most renowned of his philosophers to enter a debate with her on the matter. Did he not know not to argue with women!
Instead of renouncing her faith she convinced the philosophers with her wisdom and arguments and all 50 philosophers took to Christianity along with 200 knights who had watched the debate. Obviously Maxentius would not accept and tolerate this and had to cut short the process. Act three, the philosophers were burned at the stake, or maybe they were beheaded? Beheading did not suffice to become a saint – dying needed to demonstrate the streght of faith and the stregth og G-d both. So, it took 3 different and pretty fierce attempts.
Different Ways to Become a Martyr
First Catherine was severely whipped and afterwards put in a dark dungeon for 12 days with no food. While in the dungeon angels came to heal her wounds, a white dove brought her food and Jesus showed himself and prepared her for martyrdom. She was to become a martyr much later though. One up on Maxentius.
Method number two was to run her over with huge wheels spiked with nails. Again the angels interfered. They destroyed the torturous equipment. The wheels exploded and 4000 heathens perished in this incident. Catherine? She was unharemd. The morale could very well be that being a spectator can be dangerous if you are a heathen. Or is there a different morale?
Finally in the third attempt they succeeded – she was beheaded. Again angels interfered as she had endured her martyrdom. She now had to start work as a saint.
Catherine’s Job Being a Saint
The angels moved her remains to Mount Sinai where they hid them for 500 years. Later her remains were discovered and a monastery was built and from her sarcophagus oil still flows in a steady stream even today. Oil with healing powers for the infirm. The monastery still exists and monks have lived here continuously since the 6th century. It lies at the foot of Mount Sinai and according to the legend it lies in exact the same spot where Moses saw the burning bush.
Saint Catherine is your saint of choice and the one to consult if you suffer from headaches or tongue problems. We know about her discussion with the philosophers and how she died, so this area of expertise and responsibility makes sense, doesn’t it? Besides, Catherine is also the patron saint for crops and church buildings as well as gunsmiths, hauliers and street vendors.
We realize her picture on the wall must have worked for Skibet Church as it is still here 800 years later. When one sees how much effort the emperor had to put in get rid of just one Christian lady and the losses he had to accept in the process, it does not surprise me that the Roman Empire perished and the heathens had to convert.
An Abundance of Legends – The Holy Grail, the Holy Cross and Much More
Most people have heard of the Holy Grail and probably watched it as a theme in Indiana Jones. You can see an image of the story of the Holy Grail in Skibet Church. It is much more complicated and far more interesting than most people know. The legend of the Holy Cross has a stronger morale than the legend of Saint Catherine and not at all as fierce. But it is still not suitable for children as a bedtime story. The Legend of Lazarus is there as well. There is a huge stone in the church wall with the epitaph of Iver Friis and his 8 relatives, there are iron crosses on the graveyard and there are …… so many more stories to tell.
There are so many wonderful stories to reveal in Skibet Church, a lot more than I can enlighten here. If you want to know all the fabulous stories your best options are a guided tour of Skibet Church as the guide will unlock the door and give you the full tour. He can also tell you the stories of the Haraldskær Estate. We have no way to know for sure but it is fair to assume that the royal estate owned this church. Perhaps the frescoes in the church can be explained as being an honor to the royals. The painter of the frescoes definitely did not chose his motifs randomly.
The Ravning Bridge – a Relic From the Viking Age
Further up the river to the west we find the Ravning meadows. In the 1930s the remains of a remarkably well preserved long, wide and solid Viking bridge was discovered. At a first glance the present Ravning bridge looks very much like bland railway swells. But, but, but. Without comparison it holds its own mysterious and quite exciting story though most of the Ravning bridge does no longer exist.
We don’t really have any doubts that the bridge dates back to the 980s, to the time of King Harold Bluetooth. The bridge stood for as long as oak timber lasts which in this wet environment would have been 30-40 years. They then abandoned it, but why? Imagine what a huge effort it was to fell the hundreds of oak trees by hand using axes only. How to drag them through uneven terrain, hammer them deep into the soft, soggy ground. Afterwards to fix a horizontal layer of planks on top, several hundreds of metres – precisely 768 metres of oak planks.
No doubt it must have been a time consuming task. Furthermore it took all the best oaks in a large forest and required an incredible effort and a large number of workers. This task was so huge that it can only have been the king himself who set it in motion. But to be quite honest we have absolutely no clue as to why. What made it so important to be able to quickly cross the river and the swampy meadowlands? Why was it not important to maintain the bridge built with so much hassle?
A Wild Explanation – Or?
There are many suggestions. Perhaps the bridge was ordered and built by the German Emperor Otto II in an attempt to conquer and incorporate Denmark into the German-Roman Empire. If that is correct the Ravning bridge would of viking times would correspond to to the Autobahn of the Third Reich. If this interpretation is correct, the bridge is not a Viking bridge but a clear threat by the Emperor, demonstrating the strength to attack at pleasure and that the Bluetooth family in Jelling could not feel too safe and comfortable. The distance to Jelling is after all only about 10 kilometres. Perhaps the stone mason had just finished cutting the runes in the Jelling Stone when the bridge was completed?
Vejle river valley is an area filled with points of interest if you are interested in nature or cultural history. I’ve only just scratched the surface and mentioned a few highlights of Vejle river valley. There is so much more to be discovered in the region around Vejle, above ground or hidden in the ground. Sights and possibilities are numerous and varied. Hopefully you are now better prepared for exploring an area of Denmark that was once central for the royal family that has ruled Denmark for more than 1000 years.
Photo: Bococo, colors adjusted, License.