Location: University of Iceland campus
Ásmundur made his first version of Sæmundur on the Seal’s Back in Stockholm in December 1922. It differed somewhat from this sculpture, which was moulded in plaster of Paris in late 1927 in Paris. Enlarged and cast in bronze in 1970, it was installed in front of the main building of the University of Iceland in Reykjavík.
The sculpture draws on Icelandic folklore about the semi-legendary Sæmundur the Learned – a historical personage of the 12th century to whom supernatural powers are attributed in folktales. Many tales are told of how Sæmundur outwitted the Devil: “When Sæmundur, Kálfur and Hálfdan left the Black School [the Sorbonne in Paris], the benefice of Oddi in south Iceland was vacant, and all three bade the king appoint them. The King was well aware who he was dealing with, and said that the one of the three who reached Oddi first should receive the benefice. Sæmundur immediately summoned up the Devil and said to him: ‘Swim me to Iceland, and if you can get me ashore without wetting the tail of my robe in the sea, I will belong to you.’ The Devil agreed to the bargain, took on the shape of a seal, and took Sæmundur on his back. On the way across the ocean Sæmundur was reading his Psalter [book of psalms]. In a little while they found themselves off the Icelandic coast. Then Sæmundur struck the seal on the head with his Psalter, so he sank, and Sæmundur was plunged into the sea over his head, and swam ashore. In that way, the Devil was done out of his prize, while Sæmundur became pastor of Oddi.” (Sigurður Nordal: Book of Folktales).
The sculpture depicts Sæmundur as he raises up his Psalter to strike the Devil-seal; it thus shows a specific moment in Sæmundur’s dealings with the Devil. Everything in the piece serves to express the movement and power of the moment when the book crashes down on the Devil’s head. In terms of form, the piece comprises two opposing forces, which nonetheless come together in one consistent whole. On the one hand is the form of the seal, slanting and rounded; on the other the form of Sæmundur, embodying energy and tension. The two opposing forms are united by the seal’s tail-flippers, serving as an extension of the line of force in the figure of Sæmundur.
Owned by University of Iceland