‘I Felt like Jumping for Joy’: Smile and Laughter in Medieval Imagery

“I Felt like Jumping for Joy”: Smile and Laughter in Medieval Imagery

By Mia Åkestam

Tears, Sighs and Laughter: Expressions of Emotions in the Middle Ages, eds. Per Förnegård, Erika Kihlman, Mia Åkestam, and Gunnel Engwall (Vitterhets Historie och Antikvitets Akademien, 2017)

Introduction: By the end of the twelfth century the Folkungar family began their ascent in the realm of Sweden, on the periphery of the Christian world. Locally the domain was rather a core area, and it became increasingly important during the following centuries. An ambition was to reform the kingdom, and establish an aristocracy after a German-French model. By the mid-fourteenth century, the ambitions had extended to the religious realm. Preparations were undertaken to establish a new monastic order with Birgitta Birgersdotter, the future St. Birgitta, as primus motor and with a considerable royal donation as its economic basis.


The distance from Sweden to Germany, France and Europe’s central areas was considerable, from a geographic, a cultural and an economic point of view, but on the other hand travels were frequent. People visited places, and gained experience of cultures and languages in connection with ecclesiastical matters, politics, studies and pilgrimage. This era coincides with changes in the western society, manifested in the building of grand cathedrals, and the ideals of courtly culture. Gothic art visualized the new ideas, and took interest in the human face, body and nature.

With a starting point in “the gothic smiles” of the sculptures of the great cathedrals in the thirteenth century, my aim is to draw attention to the importance of international ideals in local affairs. How was information to be communicated when it came to imagery and more general ideas? Who could see? Accessibility to places and spaces, public or not, were crucial.


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Top Image: St. Olof, wooden sculpture, 1325–1350, Bunge, Gotland, Sweden – photo by Swedish National Heritage Board / Wikimedia Commons