The Nobel Diplomas

Harald zur Hausen, The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2008, Photo: Hans Mehlin

The Nobel Diplomas

by Birgitta Lemmel

The festival day of the Nobel Foundation is on the 10th of December, the anniversary of the death of the testator. The Prize Award Ceremony for the Nobel Prizes in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine and Literature as well as for The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel – takes place at the Stockholm Concert Hall.

At this event, His Majesty the King of Sweden, hands each Laureate a diploma, a medal and a document confirming the Nobel Prize amount. The Nobel Peace Prize is presented on the same day at the Oslo City Hall by the Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee in the presence of the King of Norway.

The prize-awarding bodies decide the design of the diplomas. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences is responsible for the Physics and Chemistry diplomas, and since 1969 also for the Economics diploma. The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet is responsible for the Physiology or Medicine diploma, the Swedish Academy for the Literature diploma and the Norwegian Nobel Committee for the diploma presented to the winners of the Peace Prize. Nowadays, the “Swedish” diplomas have a uniform binding, provided by the bookbindery Fälth & Hässler (earlier Hässlers Bokbinderi). This was not the case initially, since the various prize committees decided the artistic design of the diplomas based on their own wishes and resources. The Refsum bookbinding firm was responsible for binding the “Norwegian” diplomas until 1986, when the bookbinding firm of Kjell-Roger Josefson took over.

The artistic design of the diplomas has varied over the years (see Register of artists and calligraphers), but the text has always followed the same pattern in the Swedish and Norwegian languages, respectively. The “Swedish” diplomas largely carry the same text, stating the person or persons to whom the prize-awarding body has decided to present the year’s Prize plus a citation explaining why. The Norwegian diploma, on the other hand, has never included a Prize citation.

Diploma of Amartya Sen, 1998 Laureate in Economics
Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1997 
Artist: Bengt Landin
Calligrapher: Annika Rücker

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences diplomas have been created by many artists since 1901: Sofia Gisberg (1901-1926); Ella Waldenström, Karin Ageman, Elsa Örtengren-Noréen, Björn Landström and Bertil Kumlien (1927-70); Gunnar Brusewitz (1970-1973); Karl-Axel Pehrson (1974); Tage Hedqvist (1975-1976); Sven Ljungberg (1977-1989); Philip von Schantz (1990-1993); Bengt Landin (1994-1998); and Nils G. Stenqvist (1999-2004). Very often, these diplomas are characterized by an annual theme – birds, flowers, vases etc. – rather than an individual design referring to the Laureates. In 1969, Reinhold Ljunggren created the diplomas for the first Economics Laureate, Ragnar Frisch and Jan Tinbergen. Between 1970 and 2004 the Physics, Chemistry and Economic Sciences diplomas were designed by the same artist. In 2004 there was a change. The Chemistry diploma was designed by Ingegerd Möller while Jordi Arkö did the diploma for the Economics Prize. In 2005 Ingegerd Möller did the Physics diplomas, while Jordi Arkö was responsible for Chemistry and Ulla Kraitz for Economics. In 2006 the same artists were engaged for the diplomas but Jordi Arkö was responsible for the Physics diplomas, Ulla Kraitz for Chemistry and Ingegerd Möller for Economics.

A Physiology/Medicine diploma, the general look since 1965

During the years 1901-1964, the Physiology or Medicine diplomas were decorated with art works. In the first six years, 1901-1906, these were created by artist and architect Agi Lindegren. During the years 1907-1963, the following artists were responsible for designing the Physiology or Medicine diplomas: Anna Berglund, Ellen Jolin, Brita Ellström, Eivor Fischer, Jerk Werkmäster and Bertha Svensson-Piehl. In 1965, calligrapher Karl-Erik Forsberg designed a new Nobel diploma that excluded art work. Since 1965 the artistic decoration of the Physiology or Medicine diplomas has consisted of a gold medal in relief and a handsome calligraphic text.

Diploma of Dario Fo, Nobel Laureate in Literature 1997
Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1997
Artist: Bo Larsson
Calligrapher: Annika Rücker

The Swedish Academy has always used individual designs related to each Laureate. The artists have tried to summarize something of the atmosphere and character of each author’s works. Because the Prize winners are not announced until mid-October and the diplomas must be ready before December 10, the diploma artist has only a few weeks to summarize the collected works or personal attributes of each author. Aside from creating the Physiology or Medicine diplomas, Agi Lindegren also created the Literature diplomas until 1911. During 1912-1918 the Literature diplomas were the work of Olle Hjortzberg, Nils Asplund and Josef Svanlund; and during 1919-1962 of Bertha Svensson (from 1938, Svensson-Piehl), with the exception of the years 1928-1930 when Olle Hjortzberg was the artist. From 1963 to 1988 Gunnar Brusewitz was responsible for the artistic design of the Literature diplomas, between 1989 and 2003 Bo Larsson, and since 2004 Karin Mamma Andersson.

Until 1990, the Norwegian diplomas were created according to the same principles: During 1901-1969, a lithograph by Gerhard Munthe and during 1970-1990 a lithograph by Ørnulf Ranheimsaeter. Since 1991, different Norwegian artists have been responsible for the artistic design each year: Karl Erik Harr, Håkon Bleken, Jacob Weidemann, Anne-Lise Knoff, Ørnulf Opdahl, Jens Johannessen, Eva Arnesen, Franz Widerberg, Håvard Vikhagen, Elling Reitan, Håkon Gullvåg, Ulf Valde Jensen, Kari Elisabeth Dahlmo, Halvdan Ljøsne, Trond Botnen and Jarle Rosseland.

For some years, well-known calligraphers have hand-lettered the various diplomas (see of artists and calligraphers). The diplomas from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the Swedish Academy have been hand-lettered by Annika Rücker since 1988 and 1989, respectively, and the Physiology or Medicine diplomas by Susan Duvnäs since 1990. Since 1992, the Norwegian diplomas have been hand-lettered by Inger Magnus.

Today each Nobel diploma is a unique work of art. The Literature diploma is written on parchment, i.e. specially treated leather, using largely the same technique as those of medieval book illustrators. The diplomas given to the other Laureates are produced on specially ordered handmade paper.

Literature Laureate for 1986 Wole Soyinka‘s diploma box.

The Nobel relief on the Physiology or Medicine diploma is made of leather, attached to the diploma. After extensive preparations, the bookbinder then mounts the diploma in a leather cover made of the highest quality goatskin. Nowadays the Physics diplomas are mounted in a blue leather cover, Chemistry and Physiology or Medicine in red, Economic Sciences in brown and Literature in the color that the artist has chosen. In addition, the calligraphers have designed special gold monograms for each of the Laureates on the outside of the diplomas, which are also found on the boxes in which the diplomas rest. These diploma boxes are all made of gray woven paperboard, lined inside with pigskin suede. The size of the Nobel diplomas is 23 x 35 cms.

In Birger Christofferson’s book Gunnar Brusewitz, the artist provides a description of the diploma he made for Isaac Bashevis Singer (1978): The diploma is dominated by a Star of David, whose six tips point toward characters and events in Singer’s books. The pictures in the upper left portion were inspired by “The Magician of Lublin”. A parrot appears there, but can also symbolize the bird that flies away with people’s sins. Beneath it, a couple of rabbis with a Torah roll and ritual ram’s horn. Next to it, Jacob in “The Slave”, living in captivity as a cowherd. The bottom portion of the diploma is based on “Satan in Goray”, with its wild ecstatic atmosphere in anticipation of Shabbetai Zvi – the false “Messiah.” The flower symbolizes the recovery of Goray from devastation. And above it, New York rises as the never-realized paradise for tormented Jews. To the right, the pogroms of the Nazi era.

The book provides further examples of Nobel diploma design work. In 1984 the beloved Czech national poet Jaroslav Seifert was awarded the Nobel Prize. At 83 years old, he had a rich production behind him. The picture on the diploma was dominated by symbols of love and peace, against the backdrop of beautiful, ravaged Prague, his adored home city. In the late autumn of 1985, Gunnar Brusewitz portrayed Claude Simon‘s fascinating imagery, with its sharp contrasts between the gray battlefields of Flanders and surrealistic dream interpretations. In 1986, the first African to win the Nobel Prize in Literature was Wole Soyinka of Nigeria. His diploma imparts a genuine feeling of throbbing rhythms, magic rites and the struggle for liberation.

Diploma of Camilo José Cela
Nobel Laureate in Literature 1989
Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1989
Artist: Bo Larsson
Calligrapher: Annika Rücker

Bo Larsson describes his art work for the 1989 Literature diploma awarded to Camilo José Cela as follows: “The black color seemed a given: the blackness of Goya and Picasso. So I painted the whole parchment black – or almost black. A few drops of white in this black, so that the completely black pupils I would later paint would stand out clearly and intensively. The eyes would belong to Cerberus, the three-headed watchdog of Hades. I made the whites of his eyes red; he holds people in the grip of his red claws and bites them with red teeth. I then exposed the scene by sprinkling sand between the dog and the people. The sand swirls around these figures, providing a vision of movement.”

The Nobel Diplomas


Register of artists and calligraphers

First published 29 May 1998

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 2012