Discover the Women in Copenhagen Public Art

Discover the Women in Copenhagen Public Art

Mar 27, 2024
 min read

Copenhagen has quite a few public sculptures, you see them a bit all over the place: often with a patina of green over bronze. We have plenty of kings on horses, Greek and Norse gods, and mostly anonymous female figures, most famously a certain little mermaid. But where are the representations of real, named historical women?

I’m certainly not the first to remark on the low number of women/female identifying persons represented in the Danish capital - there was even an event back in September of 2022 taking place in Kongens Nytorv drawing attention to this fact. While that event was great, it was temporary. So, we are once again left with the question: where are the permanent representations of named women from Danish history? Well, there are a few in public/freely accessible spaces - 5 queens (including one represented twice), one princess, and a geophysicist - here is a suggestion for a walk, instructions of how to find them, and who they were. 

Starting from the Little Mermaid, if you hug the water, walking back towards town, you will first pass a bust of a princess: this is Princess Marie of Orléans, created by Carl Martin-Hansen, 1912.

Princess Marie Amélie Françoise Hélène (1865-1909)

Princess Marie Amélie Françoise Hélène (1865-1909), daughter of a the Duke of Chartres and Princess Françoise d’Orléans, was born during the rule of Napoléon III (of France), while her family was in exile in England, only moving to France after Napoleon's regime fell apart in 1871. Princess Marie would marry Prince Valdemar of Denmark, youngest son of Christian IX, in 1885. This, however, only after papal dispensation, as she remained catholic, while her husband was Danish Lutheran. The couple was installed in Bernstorff Slot, north of Copenhagen - the grounds of this palace can still be visited, and is a great opportunity if you are looking for a quiet, off-leash area for dogs.

Princess Marie appears to have been a forerunner of the way the Danish royals are perceived now: more laid back, out and about - performing their royal duties, but also interacting with people as normal human beings. She is depicted here as she was the patron of the fire brigade. What this bust does not show is that she was one of the first openly tattooed royals: having an anchor tattooed on her shoulder in support of her husband’s career as a marine. Princess Marie was quite popular in her time. She was active as an artist: participating three times in the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts (Charlottenborg) exhibitions, 1889-1902. She was also politically active: Valdemar and Marie declined the throne of Bulgaria in 1886, Princess Marie supports the left-leaning political reforms in 1901, and encouraged Denmark to decline to advances by the USA to buy the Danish West Indies in 1902 - well, that last one eventually happened anyway in 1917, but that was after she had died in 1909 - now the US Virgin Islands.

Let’s carry on - walking towards Rosenborg Slot within Kongens Have. Within the rose garden, right next to Rosenborg Castle, there is a full size rendering of the (Dowager) Queen Caroline Amalie rendered by Vilhelm Bissen (the younger Bissen), 1896.

Princess Caroline Amalie (1796-1881)

Princess Caroline Amalie (1796-1881) of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg - say that 3 times fast - is the daughter of the Duke of Schleswig (then part of Denmark, now part of Germany) and the half-sister of King Frederik VI, Princess Louise Auguste. That means her mother is somewhat interesting - she’s the only daughter of King Christian VII… well, she is probably actually the daughter of Christian VII’s Queen Caroline Matilda and the German doctor J.F. Struensee (executed for his treasonous affair). Anyway, back to Caroline Amalie. While she was still (only) princess of Schleswig, her father had a major falling out with King Frederik VI, with two of her brothers going into open rebellion against that Danish Crown - this is the first Schleswig War, that Denmark wins. 

Princess Caroline married the Danish heir, Christian (VIII), becoming his second wife in 1815, after he was exceedingly briefly the constitutional king of Norway (May-October 1814). The heir, and new wife, are initially the governor of Fynen, installed in Odense. Once the old king dies, new King Christian VIII becomes the last king anointed (and crowned) in Denmark - monarchs are no longer crowned, they are announced - in 1839. The new king and queen move into Frederiksborg Palace in Hillerød - definitely worth a visit. 

Queen Caroline was extremely active in charities, including the female Benevolent Society, the first asylum for children in Denmark, a school to train maids, refuges for vulnerable women, etc. The Queen was a friend and sponsor of the Bishop Grundtvig (writer of many hymns, sponsor of the folkeskole system, politician, orator, etc.). The two met in 1838: the Queen installed Grundtvig as priest in Vartov (next to City Hall) - one of her charitable works, she sponsored him for a tour of England, he spoke at the Queen’s reception for the death of her husband (1848), and dedicated two original songs to her. However, the (dowager) Queen needed to distance herself from Bishop Grundtvig after he suffered an “attack of insanity” while preaching at Vartov on Palm Sunday in 1867. Despite that, if you pop your head into the courtyard of Vartov, you will still see Bishop Grundtvig immortalized there.

Let’s leave Queen Caroline to her roses, and continue walking towards the Round Tower and then Cathedral of Copenhagen. In Vor Frue Plads, in front of the University of Copenhagen Library (now reopened to the public), there is a modern sculpture to the geophysicist Dr. Inge Lehmann, designed by Elisabeth Tubro, 2017.

Dr. Inge Lehmann (1888-1993)

Inge Lehmann (1888-1993) is a native of Copehagen, who was taught at a co-ed high school run by Hanna Alder, Niels Bohr’s aunt - and yes, the statue right next door to Inge Lehmann in Vor Frue Plads is Niels Bohr. Dr. Lehmann attended University of Copenhagen and Cambridge, studying geophysics and seismology (earthquake wave propagation). Noticing some interesting features related to P-wave propagation following a 1929 earthquake centered on New Zealand, she published a paper with a very succinct title: P’.  

She noticed some changes in the speed of P-wave propagation and some reflective behavior, leading her to theorize that the core of the Earth consists of two layers: solid inner core, and molten outer core. These findings were proven correct by computer simulation in 1971. The depth at which P-waves change speed within the core of the Earth is known as the Lehmann Discontinuity. Dr. Lehmann’s sculpture actually represents her scientific findings, as well as a portrait of her later in life - this is a nice contrast to all the other busts in Vor Frue Plads. The American Geophysical Union still awards a yearly medal named after Dr. Lehmann for contributions in understanding of the interior of our planet.

We continue to our last destination by turning towards Gammel Torv, and on to Christiansborg Palace where we will find 4 Queens of Denmark behind some doors. First head under the tower of Christiansborg, closer to the inner courtyard entrance-exit, there is a relief statue of a seated woman, this is Queen Margrete I, by Einar Ulzon-Frank - if that name sounds familiar, it’s because Jørn Ulzon’s (designer of the Sydney Opera House) grandfather was Einar’s maternal uncle.

Queen Margrete I (1353-1412)

Queen Margrete I (1353-1412) was the daughter of King Valdemar Atterdag (see the leftovers of his fortress in Vordingborg, south from Copenhagen). King Valdemar is known for his resistance activity against the Hanseatic League - although they do manage to destroy Absolon’s Keep (on the site we are now standing) in 1368… 

For some Scandinavian context, Norway and Sweden (including Finland) were united in 1319 under Magnus Eriksson, with his son Håkon becoming co-king in 1355. In an effort to obtain Skåne (part of modern Sweden) for Denmark, King Valdemar of Denmark betrothed his 6 year old daughter, Margrete to Håkon VI - she became queen of Norway-Sweden in 1363. The heir to the Norwegian throne, Queen Margrete’s son Olav, was born in 1370. By 1375, Margrete’s father, King Valdemar, died down in Denmark, without a male heir, as his only son had died in 1363. As Queen Margrete had sisters, with sons of their own, the brothers-in-law, the Mecklenburg Dukes, started making claims to the Danish throne. However, Margrete managed to get her son installed as King of Denmark, Olav II, in 1376. Her son was still a minor, so she ruled on his behalf. Her husband, King Håkon VI, died in 1380, making Olav king over all of Scandinavia, and Queen Margrete (still) ruling on his behalf. But then in 1387, at age 16, Olav fell over dead - cause unknown.

Well, without a male heir, a woman can certainly not have power in her own right - they said in the Medieval Ages. So, once again, the Mecklenberg Dukes started making claims on the Scandinavian thrones. Queen Margrete managed to fend them all off, adopted her grand-nephew Bugislav - renamed Erik of Pomerania - also a minor, and ruled on his behalf! As such, Margrete was queen-regent over: Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, the Orkney, Faroe and Shetland Islands, Iceland, and (technically) Greenland in 1388. This was codified in the Kalmar Union in 1396, with Erik as king. This is the approximately 120 year period in which all of Scandianavia was united. While Erik reached his majority in 1401, Queen Margrete continued to rule ‘on his behalf’ until her death in 1412 - from the Black Death! Queen Margrete was never the ruling queen of Denmark, she is given the “the First” moniker only posthumously - which is why Denmark’s first (ruling) queen was Queen Margrete II (the Second). Margrete the First is also the first of the royals to be buried in the Roskilde Cathedral (a UNESCO heritage site) - making it the longest continuous repository of royal remains in the world.

Exiting towards the interior courtyard of Christiansborg Palace, turn towards the left, and enter the doorway towards the Royal Receiving Rooms. Before going up the stairs towards the entrance to the museum, there are 4 statues of Danish queens completed by H.P. Pedersen-Dan - inspired by the work of H.W. Bissen (the older Bissen). These queens are Queens Thyra, Dagmar, Margrete I, and Philippa. As we’ve already cover Queen Margrete I, let’s look at the other three:

Queen Thyra Danebod (935-958)

Queen Thyra Danebod (935-958) was the wife of the man considered to be Denmark’s first king, King Gorm the Old - the beginning of the royal history in Denmark, making it the oldest continuous line of monarchy in the world. We don’t know that much about Queen Thyra, she may have been the daughter of King Aethelred of Wessex (modern day England). She may have contributed to the building of the Dannevirke - the wall that protected Denmark from invasion from the south - in Schleswig, modern-day Germany. These two pieces of information come to us from the historian Saxo Grammaticus, who was writing centuries later. Queen Thyra is most likely buried in Jelling, site of the UNESCO heritage Jelling Stones.

Queen Dagmar (1186-1213)

Queen Dagmar (1186-1213), shown here, was born Princess Markéta to King Ottokar I of Bohemia. She was engaged to King Valdemar Sejr in 1205, becoming queen of Denmark. She had one son, Valdemar the Young, who died being shot in the face, and then died during her second childbirth. During her short life, she helped get Bishop Valdemar Knudsen released - who had been excommunicated from the Catholic church by Pope Innocent III for daring to try to become king of Denmark. So why is Queen Dagmar represented here? Potentially, she seems to have become a cultural figure centuries after her death - entering folksongs in the late 1500s. There is an expression which bears her name: “Dagmar’s Sin” - which is to feel pangs of consciousness about an insignificant sin. 

Queen Philippa (1394-1430)

Queen Philippa (1394-1430), was the daughter of King Henry IV of England. She married King Erik (of Pomerania), technically becoming queen over Scandinavia in 1406 - although her mother-in-law (Queen Margrete I) was ruling until 1412. Queen Philippa was queen regent over Denmark and Norway in 1423-25 while Erik was off Crusading. Coins called ‘Philippa’s Sister’ were co-minted in Denmark with Hamburg, Lubeck and other cities, and were legal tender between Scandianavia and the Hanseatic League until 1426. Relationships fell apart, and Queen Philippa was part of the defense of Copenhagen against the Hanseatic League in 1428. The influence of the Hanseatic League over both Denmark, and Norway, do feel like an undertold part of Danish history.


And that’s it. Those are the permanent, public statues of named women in Copenhagen. If you would like to know more about more modern queens, check out either the Christiansborg Palace Royal Receiving Rooms (conveniently right here), or return to the Amalienborg Palace Museum, which focuses on the current Glücksberg dynasty - covering Princess Marie of Orléans, (dowager) Queen Margrete II, and Queen (consort) Marie (of Tasmania).