The Golden Hall, Stockholm

When the Queen of the Mälaren was unveiled in 1923, the critic for Stockholm Dagblad, the conservative morning newspaper, described her as an unseemly joke,  like a Chinese-Indian-Byzantine Medusa,  of “grotesque wildness” and “snake-like locks of hair”.     Her eyes were a particular source of consternation.

Queen of the Mälaren, Golden Hall, Stockholm

Queen of the Mälaren, Stockholm, by Einar Forseth

The Queen of the Mälaren is an old name for Stockholm, which lies between Lake Mälaren and the Baltic.  She is the figure dominating the Golden Hall, a Byzantine-revival glowing mosaic hall for which 15 million tesserae or more were used, it is said, including  ten kilograms of gold.   The gold tiles were made then, as today, with gold leaf sandwiched between two sides of glass, the uppermost layer much thinner.

Puhl and Wagner, the German firm which carried out the work from sketches and cartoons by the young Swedish artist Einar Forseth,  counted between a thousand and twelve hundred shades of gold in stock.   That is according to the excellent book, Stockholm Town Hall and it’s architect Ragnar Östberg,  by Ann Katrin Pihl Atmer et al,  which itself weighs in at a mighty four kilograms,  with an entire chapter on the mosaics.

The Golden Hall is part of the Stockholm City Hall, sometimes translated as Town Hall, famous as the place where receptions and dinners are hosted for the Nobel Prize winners.    Approached along the waterside the building has the profile of a church, though from what era is anyone’s guess.   Architecturally, the grandest buildings that line Stockholm’s streets often feel – wrong.   They are mostly built since the 1880s in a Victorian kaleidoscope of styles.




According to a street sign, architect Ragnar Ostberg “worked to make the tower interact with the water and the surrounding city to become a centre of gravity in the cityscape without spoiling the whole impression.”

In 1922 he wrote: “It is nicest to look at the City Hall early on a sunny morning, especially when you come from the city and walk towards the front facade that is otherwise in shadow the whole day, standing as a dark cut-out against the bright expanse to the west. Stockholmers are late risers, but a routes might go there some morning around nine o’oclock.”

At 9am on a late January day the scene was resolutely grey.   The approach to the hall was now dominated a by multi-lane 1967 road bridge.   It cuts like a giant cement slash across the water.

There’s a 45-minute tour of the City Hall and the impression is that Ostberg took surprising liberties with the internal architecture as he went along – keeping the so-called Blue Hall, in red brick, because he liked the look of it;  deciding similarly to keep the open roof rafters of the council chamber, Viking style;  switching between square and rounded arches in the Golden Hall.

Einar Forseth, only 30 at the time, won the commission in stages, after Ostberg was impressed by his sketches and chose not to bring in older and more established artists for the finish.   Forseth was first taken on in 1919 to paint the “Outer Lunch Room’, the officials’ dining room in the cellars.

The Golden Hall sheds a particular light on the Byzantine inspirations behind it, and the way art critics and connoisseurs quarrelled over and changed their views of Byzantine art.    The committee on the commission included a prominent art historian known for his dislike of Byzantine art he considered   “ossified and mummy-like”.

Unlike the Byzantine originals, one can track the shifts from concept to fabrication, through Einar’s sketches and painted cartoons.

Forseth and his collaborators made  visits to Venice, Ravenna, Rome and Sicily to study the mosaics, citing in Palermo two Golden Halls, the Capella Palatina and the Duomo di Monreale.   They noted the simplified colour schemes, and settled on the same size of tessarae as on the island of Torcello in Venice.

Botticelli was also an inspiration, he said, for the Queen of the Mälaren, as Pihl Atmer notes in the book; the Queen appears bare-breasted in some early sketches.  His wife may have also been a model.

Botticelli and The Queen of the Mälaren

Another might have been the figure of Mary, Mother of God, in the last judgement in Torcello Cathedral.    You can find images in a nice blog on the church here and below is the particular image of Mary again suggested by Pihl Atmer.  Note the eyes.

The Byzantine connection persisted after the City Hall was built.   The poet WB Yeats visited Stockholm in 1923 to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.   While he had already seen some of the Byzantine glories of Ravenna, his experience of the Golden Hall was followed by a return visit to Italy and to the Cappella Palatina in Palermo, in 1924.  It was in 1926 that he wrote his famous “Sailing to Byzantium”,  followed by “Byzantium” in 1930.   While he went to Stockholm, he never went to Istanbul.

I came to the Golden Hall with two cameras, an iPhone and a lower-end Lumix with a good telephoto but a white balance that was greying out the gold, and not much time.

My friend was awestruck by the sight.   “The historical perspective has increased understanding and the criticism has been replaced by admiration for the magnificent effect of the mosaics in this wonderful room,” Pihl Atmer concludes in her chapter, a century after that opening critical barrage.

Admiration, certainly, but moving round the room there was a search for something missing.   For all the glory and gold it was hard to find aesthetic beauty.     In the 1920s the “schoolboy shortcomings” of the work even brought suggestions that the mosaicists rework the Queen’s face.

The Golden Hall (Wikipedia entry here) is 44 metres long, with decorated arches running down the two sides.  Facing the Queen, the southern wall shows images of Stockholm, along with St Eric, the Swedish king and saint, who is famously missing his head, due to a design flaw.  The makers used the indirect method of mosaics, laying them in reverse in sections on paper (or fabric?), which can stretch.

Golden Hall, mosaics, Stockholm

The South Wall

The landscape images on the sides of both North and South were the most endearing.  Who couldn’t be charmed by the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty, in the Occidental scenes to the left of the Queen, along with landscape colouring in  bold Expressionist hues.

Statue of Liberty, Eiffel Tower, mosaic, Stockholm, City Hall

Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty

There are  elephants and turbans in the Oriental to the right, but sadly blighted by  a couple of  ugly racist stereotypes, which I have cut.

Elephants and Turbans

Forseth was chosen for the project because of his mixture of craft skills, and experience in both large and small scale work.   He would go on to do the floor mosaic in the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral after the Second World War.  He sent the cartoons in series to the German firm over about 18 months.

According again to Pihl Atmer, the important German firm of mosaicists Puhl and Wagner (struggling with the collapse in business, and then the German mark, during and after World War I) stressed to Ostberg, the architect, the “regrettable tendency” to regard mosaic as a painting – and stressed that a “painterly” mosaic was much more difficult to execute,  that mosaic was a surface art not suitable for using perspective or chiaroscuro.

Forseth got the message, that mosaic was a decorative art.    On the right side facing the Queen the arches show a symbolised scenes from history, from the Vikings to the First World War, represented by a hydra; the other,  Swedish cultural, scientific  and literary figures.

The result, it appears, was modern images in a starkly severe, two-dimensional Byzantine style.    Interestingly the mosaics extend right to the floor; so the distance that gives the Byzantine work the benefit of the doubt is sometimes lacking.  One hundred years on, one might say, the jury is still out.

More images in the slider below;  I am waiting on permission from Pihl Atmer or the City Hall to use more than one or two poor images of the sketches, and amid a hasty tour (it is the only way for tourists to see what is a working building) missed taking photos of the historical mosaics.


  • Seen from outside through stained glass windows.