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The Maiden of Finland - among the elite of national symbols

Written for Virtual Finland by Irmeli Tanttu Porkka

In the struggle to defend autonomy depictions of the lion of Finland, pictures of an anonymous maiden personifying Finland, as well as the colours blue and white, were important instruments of propaganda. Edvard Isto's painting of the maiden (1899), seen defending the book of Finnish law, became known throughout the country in spite of official attempts to prohibit its display. The two-headed eagle, emblem of the Russian imperial house, excellently symbolised the powers of darkness.

An ancestor of the Maiden of Finland: A medal from the 18th century. © National Board of Antiquities Click

Blonde hair, blue eyes, a fluttering dress and a figure as slender as a young birch tree. Who is she? The answer is familiar to all Finns, but not to foreigners. She is the Finnish Maiden, the visual symbol of the nation and a key to the heart of Finnishness.

Art historian Aimo Reitala, Ph.D., has studied the origins of the Finnish Maiden and her development from a monarchic character to a beauty in Finnish national costume (Suomi-neito, Otava 1983).

The metamorphosis did not happen overnight. The first version of the Finnish Maiden dates back to the 18th century, when Finland was still part of the Kingdom of Sweden. The second-oldest version of the maiden is found in medal designs of King Gustav III. In 1779 the king gave an order to mint a coin commemorating each of the significant events of his reign. The models for this order were corresponding coins of the French royal house. However, Gustav’s order was not carried out until 70 years later, as a belated visual souvenir of the king’s visit to Finland "to promote the country’s well-being".

In the first-ever symbol of Finland, the king, dressed like an ancient Roman, "embraces Finland, which is a woman reclining on the ground, wearing a turreted crown and supporting herself on a tilted coat of arms". This is how the the king’s secretary describes the medal.

First Came the Aura Maiden

Although this early character was left aside for many reasons, we know that everything started with a woman wearing a turreted crown. When Sweden lost Finland to Russia in 1809, Finland, as a more united nation than earlier, was able to develop its own visual message.

According to Reitala, it is interesting to note that Swedish encyclopedias still state that ‘Aura’ is the personification of Finland. This can be compared with for instance Svea in Sweden, Dana in Denmark, and Nore in Norway. In Aura’s background one can, however, only find the residents of the city of Turku and their Aura River. Through the mouth of the poetess Aura, learned men wrote to Mother Svea of how the maiden representing the whole of Finland had been separated from Sweden, her foster mother.

There is no doubt that Aura, the personification of Finland, comprises 19th-century misunderstandings. It is important to remember that the Finnish identity was then specifically anchored in Turku, the first capital. In the 1830s people be-gan to search for Finnishness elsewhere, namely in the inland and eastern parts of the country. And they found it.

Helsinki became the second oasis of Finnishness as the town succeeded Turku as the country’s capital in 1812. With all her limitations, Aura still remains in history as a verbal character and the first national personification of Finland.

Splendid National Symbol
Click After 1906 when the situation for Finland became somewhat better, the two-headed Russian eagle loosened its grip of the Finnish Maiden on this postcard.
Painting: © National Board of Antiquities

Click Click
Two popular postcards from 1906 showing the Finnish Maiden displaying the Finnish flag and the Finnish coat of arms.
Paintings: © NBA

After this the Maiden of Finland pops up in numerous images and words which finally become the common emblem of Finnishness. All illustrators of our era have their own versions of the maiden. But let’s see what happened to the symbol when it was to serve the Russian Czar and represent his autonomous region, the Grand Duchy of Finland.

We return to a medal, one which now dates back to the year 1818. It was a first-class creation from St. Petersburg. Its theme was the 300th anniversary of the Reformation in 1817. A monogram surrounded by rays is the symbol of Alexander I. The only character is a dignified woman wearing an antique costume, sitting with the Finnish coat of arms. This served for a long time as the only image of Finland.

A modern-day
Finnish Maiden.
Photo: Timo Ripatti,
The National Costume
Council of Finland

A homey landscape and blue-and-white colour symbols first appeared in literature. In 1857, sculpture joined written work in creating strong symbols of the Finnish Maiden. And five years later a beautiful maid decorated the 40-mark banknote. This rare currency image gave a crucial boost to the maiden. Our Finland figure has also been tied to landscape - particularly in photography and films - from 1910s onwards.

Today the Finnish Maiden, with her national costume and often braided hair, has left behind the battles of party politics through independent Finland’s 80-odd years of history. She is everybody’s good friend. The maiden is one of the most important characters in Finnish visual art. She is an excellent interpreter of Finnishness, but only in her own country. As a national symbol, she belongs to the élite of such figures worldwide.

Students from Suutarilan Yläasteen Koulu, Helsinki, Finland
Coordinator teacher: Tea Maria Byholm

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