The Thorvaldsens Museum Archives

Bindesbøll's Museum

  • Knud Millech,, 1960
  • This is a summary of the Danish article: Knud Millech: ‘Bindesbølls Museum. Bygningens æstetiske funktion og idé samt udviklingen i forarbejderne’, in: Meddelelser fra Thorvaldsens Museum, 1960, p. 7-129.

The Thorvaldsen Museum, built by the architect Gottlieb Bindesbøll (1800-1856), stands on the site of a smaller building belonging to the palace of Christiansborg (see the frontispiece). This building is in parts incorporated in the museum. The centre part of the rear wing and the whole of the front, however, are new (fig. 2). The rebuilding took place between 1839 and 1847.

The front of the museum overlooks an open triangle between the canal, which continues along one side of the building, and the palace. At the back is the Christiansborg Chapel, while the fourth side is separated from the palace by a courtyard (fig.90). The four wings of the building surround a rectangular courtyard with the tomb of Thorvaldsen in the middle. The front wing of the museum contains the Great Hall, while the centre room in the rear wing houses the plaster model for Thorvaldsen’s statue of Christ. This is the only room of importance that faces the court (fig. 36). Otherwise the court is surrounded by corridors.

The verticality of the facade of the front wing and its very constructive character result from the pilaster decoration, quite different from the decoration of the side wings and partly from that of the rear (figs. 9-11, 39, 40, 43, 44). The heterogeneous parts are externally linked by the low roof, the cornice and the string-cornice as well as by some of the white and green bands let into the plaster surface of the walls, and at last by the lowest of the plinths. The upper line of this plinth is continued by a platform in front of the facade and is level with the surface of the court (figs. 10, 38). The surface of the ground floor is raised above this level by the height of one small plinth in order to prevent the influx of rain.

In this way the structure above is being carried by a basis common throughout the whole house.

The heterogeneous components of the exterior, however, are linked still more intimately by certain decorative features such as relief, colour and rhythm. The coloured surface of the wall continues behind the white – or almost white-mouldings of the sloping chambranles as a broad border (figs. 5-6, 9-11). Only the chambranle of the doorway leading to the room containing the statue of Christ (fig. 32) differs in this respect a little from the other chambranles, but without making a contrast to them.

The chambranles make the effect of the relief conspicuous in other ways. Excluding the one chambranle on the middle of the rear wall which frames the memorial tablet, the other chambranles i.e. exclusively window– and door-frames, spann from one principal horizontal unit to another. In this way the chambranles appear to hold the surface of the wall distended between the horizontal units.

Where, as on the side wings, or in the court, two rows of sloping chambranles exist, one beneath the other, the inner edges of one ground-floor chambranle are flush with the inner edges of the corresponding chambranle in the top floor in the same way as the upright crossbars are flush in the two storeys. This means that the chambranles are bound together two and two into vertical units at the same time as they preserve their function as part of a horizontal row. This has a unifying effect on the whole appearance of the wall.

The ’relievo’ and colouring of the surface of the wall show great variation in the given motifs, compare: the two ends of the front wing (figs. 39- 40); the windows on the side facing the palace and on the two other sides, and the height of the upper part of their chambranles (the same figs. and fig.44); the different height of the frieze on the same sides and the encounter of these different heights behind a downpipe (fig. 13). To the effect of relief and colour is added that of rhythm. Thus the white and green bands and the brown stripes on the walls of the ground floor and upper storey are rhythmically bound together (figs. 10, 11).

The most important facade is the monumental front towards the open triangle (fig. 9). In their disposition the side wings show subordination to the front by the way in which the chambranles come to a halt just behind the front wing as if they were fastened on to it (figs. 10, 39, 40). The movement running through the painted figure-frieze, both on the sides and on the rear, also leads towards the front, a part of the movement starting from the far-away corner of the wing alongside of the canal and another from the rear (fig. 14). The frieze is a work by the painter Jørgen Sonne but the influence of Bindesbøll on its composition is certain (compare fig. 78). Furthermore, the cornice on the front has been made stronger and richer, by comparison, allthough it continues the horizontal line of the cornices of the other wings (figs. 4, 39, 40).

This emphasis on the front in the exterior is to a certain degree being balanced by the accentuation of a supplementary transverse axis. On the side facing the canal the frieze reaches its greatest height in the centre panel (fig. 14) and the same is the case in the corresponding panel on the opposite side of the building, which shows Thorvaldsen’s statue of the pope giving his blessing (figs. 11, 15).

A corresponding accentuation can be found in the interior. A restraining effect on the exterior movement towards the front is also achieved by a repetition at the ends of the front wing and on the rear wing of the same type of ’rustica’ in a slightly varied form (figs. 39, 40, 44).

The exterior emphasis on the front is in the interior altered to an emphasis on the room with the statue of Christ. Yet at the same time some connection between the rooms of the interior and the exterior of the building is preserved (figs. 36, 37, 39, 40, 43, 44).

Apart from the corridors, which have segmental-circular vaults, an essential characteristic of the interior is the repetition of rectangular rooms with semi-circular barrel vaults, perhaps influenced by Roman architecture (figs. 38, 41, 42).

A decisive factor for the character of each room and for the interplay of rooms is the way in which light, moulding and colour are being used, as factors being considered in connection with the sizes of the rooms and their importance in relation to the interior movement from the Great Hall to the statue of Christ.

As regards lightning, colourscheem and mouldings the Great Hall, the corridors and the room with the statue of Christ form a unity. The glass panes in the doors were originally dull. Bright light was only admitted through the upper windows, which were being emphazised by the distribution of the wall beneath them (figs. 18, 20, 23). The most dominant colour used in these rooms is a dark violet. In the Great Hall it stretches down to the floor. In the other rooms a black painted skirting-board is inserted. In the corridors it is 18 ins high, in the room containing the statue of Christ 30 ins high, and in the rooms at the side the skirting-board is 24 ins high i.e. arithmetically the mean proportional between 30 and 18. The dark blue of the small, intersecting vaults in the Great Hall is continued in the starlit sky of the vaults of the corridors, while in the room with the statue of Christ the blue is a shade brighter like the sky in summer. The starstudded sky of the corridors is divided into compartments by twelve white bands with ornaments and a medallion with the image of one of the figures of the Zodiac, in the centre which corresponds in idea with the cosmic figures of the sun and the moon with their teams of horses on the capitals of the exterior pilasters – and were possibly considered as a counterpart to the statues of the twelve apostles.

A white band of this type is placed over each of the centre doorways leading from the corridors in the sidewings to the court thus introducing the transversal axis in the interior (fig. 23).

In the room containing the statue of Christ the projection of the wall cornice, of white and coloured stucco plaster, changes in accordance with the lightning and the decorative function of the cornice, varying from the side walls to the wall behind the statue and again on the back wall (fig. 25).

In order to create a harmonious relationship of proportions between the small area of the court and the height of its walls the roof has been lowered on the sides of the wings (figs. 38, 41, 42).

The court is given the same emphasis on a movement towards the room with Christ in accordance with what is found in other important parts of the interior, the especially decorated wall with a gigantic porch leading to this room having the same predominance over the other sides of the court as the front has over the other sides of the exterior (figs. 31-33). But to some extent the transverse axis is also being stressed in the court. The centre doorways of the sidewalls are on line with the tomb and the transverse axis is moreover strengthened by the painting of antique funeral urnes and tripods symmetrically placed on the pillars of the upper storey (fig. 33).

Some smaller details contribute to clarify the movement in the exterior towards the front and in the court towards the back wall outside the room with the statue of Christ. Only one of these details shall be mentioned here. The chambranles of the doorways on the facade of the building and of the porch leading to the room with Christ in it have the same breadth at the top and bottom (figs. 43, 41). The others are a little less wide at the bottom, which gives a lighter impression (figs. 7, 39, 40, 42, 44). In his preparatory designs Bindesbøll more than once mentions this relationship between the upper and lower width of the chambranles (figs. 45, 67).

The ceiling-decorations (figs. 62, 28, 29) are in general well preserved, but the floors have been so much restored that although the patterns are preserved the character of the material is lost. Small remains of the original floors are, however, to be found in several places. They are in character related to antique mosaics (fig. 89). The floors of the upper storey are not the original.

It is impossible to imagine Bindesbøll’s museum without the influence of Pompeian decoration and of Friedrich Schinkel. But the building ’out-Schinkels Schinkel’. (H. R. Hitchcock: Architecture, Nineteenth and Twentieth Century, 1958 p. 40. See also Vilhelm Wanscher: Gotlieb Bindesbøll (1800-1856), der Erbauer von Thorvaldsens Museum, in ’Artes’ I, 1932, pp. 53-185).

The most important factor in the spiritual background for the creation of this building is, however, the dissolution of the classical movement, which was then taking place, together with the emergence of a free individualism. The museum is, in spite of the various outside influences and because of its partly abstract character, quite unlike any other building in the history of architecture. Besides being a museum the building is triumphant sepulcral monument to the sculptor’s successfull artistic career with a final victory of the Christian over the pagan, as in the last part of the life of Thorvaldsen himself.


Besides many fantastic and on the average rather weak projects before 1839 the decisive development of the preliminary work falls into five sections. Section I consists of the so-called Project no. 1 (figs. 46-48) and the project approved by the King on Nov. 13th, 1839 (figs. 49-57), the first being a preparation for the second. Section II (figs. 60-69) was provoked by the demolition of the wing between the palace and the museum (see the illustration on the frontispiece) and of two walls between the church and the museum. Section III (figs. 71-72) brought some constructive improvements e. g. the lowered vaults and a better roof-construction over the Great Hall and shows, with some minor variations from section II, an improved artistic refinement. In Section IV (figs. 70, 73-75) the surface of the outside walls is covered with a linear rustication and probably yellow in colour. Section V (figs. 82-88 with figs. 76-77 as a transition) contains drawings showing the exterior walls covered by a rich colourfull decoration not unlike the present. – A general characteristic of Bindesbøll as an artist was his shakiness in many preparatory drawings in contrast to the visionary vehemence of his final conception such as emerges in Section V.

Last updated 11.05.2017