Sun Dog Phenomenon Scares Stockholm

On this day in 1535, for two early morning hours the skies over Stockholm, Sweden, shining white halos, arcs, and additional “mock” suns surrounded the Sun. Vadersolstavlan, or The Sun Dog Painting, the earliest depiction of the sun dog phenomenon, emerged shortly after the event.

When the residents of Stockholm awoke to the smattering of bright circles, arcs, and sunspots scarring the skies, they interpreted it as a bad omen, and quickly spread rumours of God’s forthcoming revenge on King Gustav Vasa. During the 1520s, the king had carried out a Reformation demolishing Catholic churches and monasteries and introduced Protestantism in Sweden. As the newly elected King of Sweden, he also ruthlessly purged his new kingdom of challengers–some real, some not–and prepared for enemy attacks from Danes and others. Thus, a rumour spread that the marks in the sky were a sign of God’s displeasure with the controversial acts of King Gustav.

In fact, the marks were a celestial phenomenon known as sun dogs. Also called parhelion, mock sun, or phantom sun, sun dogs are an atmospheric phenomenon that result in bright spots of light in the sky, often as luminous rings or halos on either side of the Sun. They are formed when the Sun’s light refracts through ice crystals high in the Earth’s atmosphere. Though they may be formed anywhere in the world during any season, sun dogs are usually formed in very cold climates and are most conspicuous when the Sun is low.

Both of these conditions were met when the spectacular sun dogs formed in the frigid early morning skies over Stockholm. In order to put an end to the rumours and foreboding speculation about the meaning of the celestial sketchings, Chancellor and Lutheran scholar Olaus Petri commissioned a painting to document the event. The resulting masterpiece was Vadersolstavlan, or The Sun Dog Painting, an oil-on-panel painting by artist Urban Malare, or “Urban the Painter.” Vadersolstavlan depicts a scattering of glowing circles and arcs shining against the moody blue skies over Stockholm. It is the oldest depiction of Stockholm in colour, the oldest Swedish landscape painting, and the oldest depiction of sun dogs.

Unfortunately, King Gustav interpreted the spectacular painting as a conspiracy, with the real Sun representing himself being threatened by the competing mock suns, representing Petri and clergyman Laurentius Andreae. Thanks to the painting–or the King’s interpretation of it–the two were accused of treachery but narrowly escaped capital punishment.

The original painting is now lost, but a copy from 1636 by Jacob Heinrich Elbfas now hangs in the central Stockholm church of Storkyrkan.