26 October 2012

A Church is Made of Many Assembled Parts

Twice in October conference invitations drew me to Norway and I can resist anything except temptation. One conference was in Bergen, where my cool Søs Jensen raincoat (bought quite cheaply in Nottingham) made a return visit to its birthplace and came in very handy indeed. Bergen is lovely, but I have been there quite a lot over the years. Bø i Telemark, on the other hand, is a place I hadn't been to for around twenty years, so it was a real pleasure to go there, and to think about Viking women, a topic I similarly hadn't thought much about in twenty or so years. Both trips were full of visual delights, despite the gloomy autumnal weather, and I saw so many lovely things, I might try to get more than one blog out of them. So today's blog is about churches, and its title is a quotation from the sermon In dedicatione tempeli, popularly known as the 'Stave Church Homily', and found in a manuscript written around 1200 in Bergen, no less.
Norwegian churches and church art are special, partly because of their very abundance. Stave churches are nowadays thought to be typically Norwegian, but there were probably many such elsewhere in the world (or in Northern Europe) which have not survived. Even in Norway, only 26 remain out of originally many hundreds. But the stone churches are wonderful too (more on this below), and the church furniture, altar frontals and statues from the 12th to 14th centuries combine spirituality and aesthetics in a most pleasing way. A good place to see a lot of this stuff is the Historical Museum in Bergen, very well worth a visit if you're ever there. Its medieval exhibition is beautifully presented and awash with painted altar frontals, statues of saints, including several wonderful St Óláfrs, carved portals and much else. But probably my favourite object is the model of a church pictured above - they don't know what its function or purpose was, though it might have been a reliquary. I like to think it had no real function except to be lovely.
The event in Bø  was one of those in which the organisers properly recognised that the key to a successful conference lies in some good excursions. So the very first item on the programme was a visit to Bø gamle kyrkje (follow the link for some nice pictures of it in winter), a stone church from the 12th century dedicated to our favourite St Óláfr. The church is lovely in itself, sitting on a very prominent hill with views all around, and was particularly atmospheric in the gloaming, illuminated inside only by candlelight. Most of the surviving furniture is 17th-century, but medieval pieces included a splendid candelabra, a crucifix, some fascinating runic inscriptions (more on this in a future blog), and a painted altar frontal just as good as those in the museum in Bergen. It's a bit damaged (see picture above), but it was wonderful to see this one in its original location rather than a museum.
The high point was the second day of the conference when we were all bussed to Heddal, one of Norway's largest surviving stave churches, though much rebuilt. We had some of the lectures in the church itself, then some in the nearby former parsonage barn, now transformed into a 'barn church' where most religious activity now takes place. Sitting in the church was very atmospheric again, even though illuminated by electric light rather than candles this time. I guess they can't risk candles in wooden churches (!), though they must have done in the Middle Ages. No doubt that's why 1000 got reduced to fewer than 30... The best thing in Heddal was not so much the church itself, fine though that is, nor its one measly runic inscription (more on this in future), but the amazing episcopal chair still kept in the church. There are several of these around the country, mostly in museums, so again it was good to see this one in its original location. It is beautifully carved all over, and includes a scene (pictured above) which has plausibly been related to the Sigurðr legend. The figure in the middle seems to be Brynhildr, welcoming either Sigurðr or Gunnar, depending on which one you think she thinks is riding the encircling flame to spend the night with her, and ignoring the other one.
What's fascinating is that the Sigurðr legend was so popular in this part of Norway (Agder and Telemark) in the 13th and 14th centuries. It is, as is well known, depicted on several of the famous carved stave church portals, as well as on various bits of church furniture, somewhat less well known. Although it is usual to link these objects with other depictions of this legend, such as the 10th-century carvings from the British Isles, or the 11th-century Swedish runestones, it was argued, recently and plausibly, by Gunnar Nordanskog that the Norwegian examples of this phenomenon served a rather different cultural purpose and came from rather a different cultural context than those earlier representations. By this time, of course, we are well within chronological reach of known written versions of the story. Thinking about Sigurðr brings me back to Bergen, and one of my favourite sights there, now a bit faded, this advertisement for Per O. Moe's machine-tool shop, wittily based on the Hylestad portal.


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