The Birkebeiner

An awesome painting depicts a unique historic event

Photo: Mary Jo Thorsheim / Norway Art
Bergslien’s famous 1869 Norwegian painting of “Birch legs” ski rescue, “The Birkebeiner.”

Mary Jo Thorsheim
Norway Art

This vibrant Norwegian painting records an important event in the history of Norway. It shows Birkebeiner skiers carrying infant Prince Haakon to safety during the winter of 1206. He was in danger of being kidnapped and killed by an opposing faction in the rampant civil wars of that time. The prince grew up to be King Haakon IV, who reigned from 1217 to 1263, his entire adult life.

Knud Larsen Bergslien (1827-1908) created this painting in 1869. The original oil painting is owned by the Holmenkollen Ski Museum in Oslo.

Bergslien was a Norwegian painter, teacher, and master artist, born in Voss, Norway. His art portrayed the lives of the Norwegian people, their history, and heroes of the past.

This is the “backstory” of the painting:

Long ago, in the year 1206, two men with a noble purpose completed a legendary cross-country ski trip. This is a true story. After wrapping their lower legs in birch bark, they skied 22 miles from Rena to Lillehammer, Norway, and beyond, over rough terrain. In itself, this would not have been an unusual Norwegian ski trip. Norwegians have used skis for travel since ancient times. The remarkable reason for their daring venture is that they were carrying an infant to safety. Moreover, ensuring the life of this child was critical at that time, and he would become a central figure in future history. He was a very special human being due to his royal birth and what that lineage meant to Norway.

The image of this event as portrayed in Bergslien’s famous painting likely has been a significant factor in perpetuating interest in the history.

Bergslien was able to capture the skiers’ tense, determined expressions and forward-leaning posture to contrast their strength with the innocent face of the vulnerable infant they carried. The landscape shows the wintry scene of the drama. The painting has become an important symbol of Norway.

The skiers depicted in the painting were part of the faction called “The Birkebeiners” that was active in the civil wars during that period of time. What was the origin of this name?

“Birke” means “birch” in Norwegian, and “bein” means legs. The two actors in this drama wrapped their legs in the bark of birch trees before embarking on their dangerous journey to rescue the 2-year old boy, thus they were the “Birkebeiner.” There are various theories about why they wrapped their legs in the bark of birch trees. One theory is that the birchbark provided warmth, protection from snow and ice, and support for their legs. Another theory that is advanced has them being so poor that they could not afford proper foot protection. Whatever the reason for using leg wraps of birch bark, the name “Birkebeiner” has found its place in history.

We know that the Birkebeiner heroes successfully completed the rescue, but what could they have been thinking as they made that dangerous trip on what was probably an obscure route to avoid detection? And it is likely that they traveled in the dark of the Norwegian night. As they traversed mountains and forests in deep snow, they would have been keenly aware of the tragic consequences of being discovered. Doubts and fears must have been enormous. It seems that their 22-mile ski trek carrying the infant would have been both physically and emotionally exhausting.

Image courtesy of Norway Art
Even Joan Blaeu’s first map of Norway from 1639 lacked the detail the first Birkebeiner skiers would have needed to find their way.

At that time, maps were crude and incomplete, if they existed at all. Even as late as 1638, Joan Blaeu’s first map of Norway lacked details for areas such as for the Rena to Lillehammer region. (Norway Art owns this 19” x 20” one-of-a- kind treasure, created by famous Dutch mapmaker Blaeu and included in his original atlas of maps.)

From the 1638 date of the Blaeu map, we see that the challenge of mapping Norway was extremely difficult, even 432 years after the Birkebeiner event. Without detailed maps to guide them, the Birkebeiner were either entirely familiar with their route or skied under the increased risk of not having a map.

Races that commemorate the event draw thousands of people to annual competitions. Norway’s race was established first, in 1932. Birkebeiner races are held in America, Canada, and other locations around the world. Those in Norway are held in March.

The Birkebeiner race in Cable, Wis., is the oldest in America. Tony Wise built the Telemark Ski Area at Cable Wisconsin in 1947, and he founded the first Birkebeiner race in 1973. This year’s race will be held on Feb. 20.

The Birkebeiner race from Cable to Hayward, Wis. is the oldest “Birkie” in America. Wise established the Telemark Ski Area in 1947. In 1973, he founded the American Birkebeiner race there. It is not only the oldest cross-country ski race in North America but the largest, drawing some 10,000 participants each February.

Beginning in 1206, to 1638, 1869, 1932, 1947, 1973 to the early 1980s and the present, the article above touches on many points in time that are part of the fascinating Birkebeiner history. And the continuing interest in the painting, the history and the races appears to predict a long life for the story.

This article originally appeared in the February 7, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Mary Jo Thorsheim

Mary Jo Thorsheim (1937-2023) was the owner of the Norway Art® importing business for 40 years and a regular contributor to The Norwegian American.