Denmark’s flag, now burned by Muslims, has Christian past

Denmark’s flag, now burned by Muslims, has Christian past

Stacy Meichtry

In the heat of battle, a flag made of lambskin descended from the heavens and led the Danish army to victory over their heathen enemies. So goes the 13th-century legend of the “Dannebrog,” Denmark’s national banner depicting a white cross with a red background.

The banner that once stood as a symbol of Christian warfare has taken a precipitous fall from grace.

The flag has joined American and Israeli banners at widespread flag-burning demonstrations across the Muslim world. It has been plucked from Danish military uniforms and withdrawn from Danish embassies, lest it become an easy target in hostile territory.

Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen has declared himself “sad and incredulous” over the burnings–a widespread reaction to the lampooning of the Prophet Muhammad in Danish newspaper cartoons. But sympathy for the flag is relatively muted across Europe, where the Dannebrog’s sacred past is largely regarded as a historical footnote.

“These days [the flag] has nothing to do with spirituality,” said Michael Frijs, whose company Kobenhavns Fanefabrik supplies Dannebrogs to the Danish military. “The question is whether we can go abroad and show that we are Danes as we always have.”

Throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, however, the Dannebrog served a much higher cause. On the battlefield the Danish army considered it an unfailing barometer of God’s favor for their king.

In one of the earliest records of the Dannebrog’s exploits, the Franciscan monk Peder Olsen recounts how the flag aided the Danes in their campaign against “heathen” Estonian tribes in the 13th century Baltic Crusades.

Led by King Valdemar “the Victorious,” the Danish army was heading for defeat in the 1219 Battle of Lyndanisse when the lambskin banner depicting a white cross appeared in the sky and led them to victory.

Other accounts describe a Danish bishop on the scene who kept his arms raised to God, praying for the flag to remain miraculously suspended above the fray.

In one of the more humiliating episodes in Dannebrog history, King Hans carried the banner into battle in 1500 and saw it captured by the enemy during his failed attempt to conquer northern Germany.

The loss of the banner weighed on the Danish monarchy like a curse until 1559 when King Frederik II recaptured the flag in a similar campaign.

According to Denmark’s official Web site, the design of the Dannebrog–a white cross that extends to the edges of a crimson banner–dates back to the reign of Constantine, the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity.

Roman historian Eusebius of Caesarea recounts how Constantine was prompted to adopt the cross as his military symbol in 312 after a prophetic dream he had on the eve of battle. In the dream, he saw a vision of a cross in the sky and heard a voice instructing him in Latin: “In hoc signo vinces,” or “By this sign shalt thou conquer.”

During the Crusades, chivalric orders and European monarchies revived Constantine’s design, adding the cross pattern to their heraldic crests and banners. Denmark’s monarchy, believed to be one of the world’s oldest, influenced neighboring Scandinavian countries–Norway, Sweden, Finland and far-flung Iceland–whose flags also bear a prominent cross.

In more recent centuries, however, Danes have tended to emphasize the festive function of their flag over its bellicose past. Miniature Dannebrogs typically decorate birthday cakes, Christmas trees and local pubs.

The swell of anti-Dannebrog sentiment in the Muslim world has not led to patriotic flag-waving in Denmark, said Birthe Gregresen, who runs the Danish flag supplier Flagstangsfabrikken.

Although Gregresen considers the burnings “very, very sad,” she does not expect to see her sales to improve from a surge of Danish pride for the Dannebrog.

“Almost everyone I know keeps a flagpole in their garden,” she said, “but you raise it to mark an occasion. Like a wedding.”

By STACY MEICHTRY

Religion News Service

COPYRIGHT 2006 National Catholic Reporter

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