The painting is divided into an upper part depicting the halo phenomenon viewed vertically and a lower part depicting the city as it must have appeared viewed from Södermalm in the late Middle Ages. The medieval urban conglomeration, today part of the old town Gamla stan, is rendered using a bird's-eye view. The stone and brick buildings are densely packed below the church and castle, which are rendered in a descriptive perspective (i.e., their size relates to their social status, rather than their actual dimensions). Scattered wooden structures appear on the surrounding rural ridges, today part of central Stockholm. Though the phenomenon is said to have occurred in the morning, the city is depicted in the evening with shadows facing east.
The wooden panel measures 163 by 110 centimetres (64 by 43 inches) and is composed of five vertical deals (softwood planks) reinforced by two horizontal dovetail battens. The battens, together with the rough scrub planed back, have effectively reduced warping to a minimum and the artwork is well preserved, with only insignificant fissures and attacks by insects. A dendrochronological examination of the panel by doctor Peter Klein at the Institute für Holzbiologie in Hamburg determined that it is made of pine deals (Pinus silvestris), the annual rings of which date from various periods ranging from the 1480s to around 1618. The painting can therefore date no further back than around 1620. This is consistent with the year 1636 given on the frame and mentioned in the parish accounts.
The dye, covering a semi-transparent red-brownish bottom layer, is emulsion paint containing linseed oil. The painting was apparently painted detail by detail as no under-painting or preparatory sketches have been discovered, except for marks at the centres of the biggest circles indicating that compasses were used. As a result of this, the horizon tilts to the right; an x-ray analysis has shown that the painter tried to compensate for this tilt by altering various elements in the painting, including mountains added along the horizon and the gently leaning spires of the church and the castle. A narrow unpainted border has been left around the image.
No prototypes for the painting are known in Sweden, and while the painting is occasionally associated with the Danube school, much about its stylistic and iconographic history remains to be investigated. A possible stylistic prototype is the illustrated Bible of Erhard Altdorfer (brother of the more famous Albrecht Altdorfer). Begun in 1530, it was inspired by the works of Cranach and Dürer, but also renewed the genre by combining commonplace details with an undertone of approaching disaster. In particular, Altdorfer's apocalyptic illustrations for the Revelation to John deliver an evangelic message similar to that of the Vädersolstavlan. Historical documents show that Olaus Petri, who commissioned the painting, combined biblical quotations related to the Apocalypse with the painting hanging in the church. Copies of Erhard Altdorfer's apocalyptic woodcuts may have been available in Stockholm through the German merchant Gorius Holste who lived by Järntorget square and who was a friend of both Petri and Martin Luther.
Landscape with a realistic sky by Albrecht Altdorfer 1528. (Alte Pinakothek
In Albrecht Altdorfer's The Battle of Alexander at Issus, one of the most famous paintings produced by the Danube School, a composition similar to Vädersolstavlan renders the battle scene in a detailed landscape under a sky crowded with celestial symbols and messages. Just as in Vädersolstavlan, the view is not depicted as it would really appear, but is rather a composite of factual elements as known by the artist. In The Battle of Alexander at Issus the eastern Mediterranean Sea, Africa, and the Nile River are represented as known from contemporary maps, while the knights and soldiers are dressed in 16th century armours and the battle is depicted as retold in sources from Antiquity. The frame suspended over the scene, a device which appears in many other German Renaissance battle scenes, is mirrored by the 17th century inscription in Vädersolstavlan. In both paintings, Apocalyptic symbols in the sky are given a contemporary political significance. The realistically rendered sky, light, and clouds, in both paintings, are emblematic of the Danube School.
17th-century copy and modern restorations
Above: The painting before (left) and after restoration (right).
Below: The 1632 inscription.
ANNO DM 1535
VICESIMA DIE APRILIS VISUM EST IN CIVITATE STOC
HOLMENSI TALE SIGNUM IN COELO A SEPTIMA FERME
HORA ANE MERIDIEM AD NONAM VSQVE HORAM
TIVGHVNDE DAGHEN I APRLIS MÅNA SIJNTES I STOCHOLM
PÅ HIMMELN SÅDANA TEKN SÅ NÆR I FRÅN SIV IN TIL NIO FÖRMIDDA
DEN ZWANZIGSTEN TAGH APRILIJ SACH MAN ZU STOCKHOLM
SOLCHE ZEICHEN AM HIMMEL VON SIBEN BIS ANN NEGEN
WHR VORMITTAGH RENOVERAT
The lost original painting is attributed to Urban Målare by tradition. However, historical sources and other works of art from the early Vasa Era are rare, and this attribution is apparently doubtful. Furthermore, as the extant painting has proven to be a 17th-century copy, and not as previously believed a restored original, a credible corroboration is unlikely to ever be produced.
In the parish accounts, the painting is first mentioned in 1636, at which time a "M. Jacob Conterfeyer" was recorded as having "renewed the painting hanging on the northern wall". Modern scholarship has convincingly identified Jacob Heinrich Elbfas (1600–1664), guild master from 1628 and court painter of Queen Maria Eleonora from 1634, as the artist responsible. Based on the brief note referencing the painting's "renewal" in 1636, it was long assumed that the extant painting was in fact the original from 1535, and that the work performed on it in the 17th century was little more than restoration of some kind. However, when the painting was taken down in mid-October 1998 to allow a group of experts from various fields to restore and document it, this notion had to be completely reassessed. A dendrochronological investigation showed that the wood used for the panel came from trees cut down in the early 17th century: the painting in question must therefore be a copy and not the restored original.
Notwithstanding the excellent state of the wooden panel prior to its 1998 restoration, the painting was unevenly covered with layers of dust and yellowed varnish. This was particularly pronounced in the area of the sky, obscuring many fine details and altering this area's colouring. Once these layers were removed, it was discovered that the original grey-blue sky had been repainted with broad strokes of a deep blue dye mixed with a fixing agent. An analysis of the blue pigments in the painting showed that the original blue colour, still discernible as a bright line above the horizon, was composed of azurite, while the blue pigment in more superficial layers was true ultramarine or lapis lazuli. The ultramarine layer has been identified as prussian blue, a pigment which was favoured from the early 18th century onwards. Additional alteration of the painting is well attested in parish accounts; the painting was "varnished and somewhat restored" by the painter Aline Bernard (1841–1910) in 1885, and a second time in 1907 by a Nils Janzon. The latter restoration was probably limited to the addition of a thick layer of varnish.
When the painting was thus copied in the 17th century from the 16th-century original, the painting was furnished with a Baroque frame carrying a heart-shaped cartouche. This cartouche displayed the message:
||The twentieth day in the month of April was seen in the sky over Stockholm such signs from almost seven to nine in the forenoon"
in Latin, repeated in Swedish and German. In 1885, the frame was repainted in brown by Leonard Lindh, who also modernized the Swedish and German texts and added his signature at the lower right. During the 1907 restoration the frame was repainted yet again, only to be repainted in its original colour twenty years later, at which time the original text was also uncovered.