lørdag 29. august 2020
In my continuing project of translating poetry for improving my Spanish, I have recently attempted to render the poem "El burlón mirar de las estrellas" by Raquel Lanseros into Norwegian. As usual, an English rendition of my Norwegian translation will be provided also. The original Spanish text can be found here.
Narren ser på stjernene
Gleda ved å kome attende
har mykje å gjere med sorga
for alt som vender tilbake høyrer fortida til.
Gatelykter, torg, fontener, avenyar,
skilt-averterte kroer, søvngjengaraktig lys.
Alt dette som eg elska og heldt for å vere mitt
ser eg på no med likesæle.
Kanskje dette ikkje har vore di siste tilbakereise...
kviskrar ein skugge til meg med mannsrøyst.
Eg ser etter den. Den er der ikkje lenger. Den heiter Nietzsche.
Plutseleg har eg blitt åleine med livet mitt.
The joker looks at the stars
The joy of coming back
has much to do with sadness
for everything that returns pertains to the past.
Streetlamps, squares, fountains, avenues,
taverns advertising by signs, somnambulent light.
All this which I have loved and considered my own
I now consider with indifference.
Perhaps this has not been your final return...
a shadow whispers to me with a male voice.
I look for it. It is no longer there. Its name is Nietzsche.
Suddenly I have become alone with my life.
torsdag 27. august 2020
Earlier this month, I explored one of the churches of my native municipality, Gloppen, in the Western fjords, and in this way I am slowly reaching my goal of exploring all the churches in the district. The trip was made possible thanks to a friend of mine who works as a sexton, and who showed me around the many nooks and crannies of the building. The church in question is referred to as "nye Gimmestad", or New Gimmestad. It was built in 1910 as a kind of successor to a seventeenth-century church which is still standing, and still in use. Moreover, in the Middle Ages there was also a church here, which we know from fourteenth-century letters from the bishop of Bergen, but the location of this medieval church is not known to us. What is clear, however, is that Gimmestad - meaning "old place" in Norse - was one of the main centres of local power in the Middle Ages. A stone cross situated close to the shoreline is believed to have been erected during the christianisation of the late tenth and early eleventh century, suggesting that there was an early collaboration between the head farmer/chieftain of the area and the priests.
I mention this early history of Gimmestad because when I explored the new church, I noticed that those who had been responsible for the decoration of the church throughout the decades had emphasised the historical continuity between the old and the new, and highlighted the historical continuity of Christian ritual at Gimmestad, which is the focus of this blogpost.
As a medievalist working on institutional identity, examining how ecclesiastical centres formulate their own place in history through texts and art, I was struck by the degree to which Gimmestad church also employed similar strategies of identity-construction as we often find in the case of medieval ecclesiastical institution. The decor invoked a sort of spiritual bond, a kind of transposing of religious authority, that was supposed to exist between the various remnants of historical religious practice, namely the stone cross and the old church from 1692. Some of this historico-spiritual continuity was formulated through what appeared to be coincidences, not revealing much intent but nonetheless some concern, suggesting that although past caretakers of the church might not have expressly wanted to showcase a spiritual continuity, they nonetheless ended up doing so. This will hopefully be clearer as we go along.
View from the nave
The first example of a formulation of historical continuity could be found in the church porch (a part of the building called "våpenhus", weapon house, in Norwegian, as it was said that those who went to church had to deposit their weapons here before entering the nave). In the porch stands a magnificent painting showing both the old and the new Gimmestad church in the greater landscape, invoking the moving of the religious centre of Gimmestad from the old to the new, and in this way describing the historical bond between them in an elegant and simple way. The effect is unmistakable. However, this painting, I was informed, was originally placed in another religious building, in Norwegian called "bedehus", literally prayer house. Such houses were common in the Norwegian religious landscape, and they were a kind of folk churches, or low-church arenas, in which itinerant preachers would often perform, and where the daily run of things was left to the laity. This does not mean that these prayer houses were divorced from the high church. After all, it was through the effort of the leaders of the prayer house that the new church at Gimmestad was erected in 1910, and also that the old church was saved from being torn down, as had been the original plan of the ministry of religious affairs at the time. As can be seen in the painting, the leaders of the prayer house cared about historical continuity, but the painting was not made for the church but rather ended up in the church once the prayer house became defunct.
The same process of moving items from the defunct prayer house to the new church is the explanation for the two examples below, a photograph of the old church and a painting of the medieval stone cross. These emphasise the long history of Christianity at Gimmestad, and they also express a sense of continuity between the religious sites, from the cross to the church to the prayer house to the new church. That they ended up in the new church was not planned, but the original purpose for when they were placed in the prayer house was exactly the purpose they serve now in the new church: Highlighting the spiritual bond between these locations.
Moving on from these unintentional markers of historico-spiritual continuity, we also see that part of the decor in the church is deliberately fashioned to emphasise the spiritual bond between the old and the new church, and with the stone cross. This can be seen in three paintings from the Danish artist Kjeld Heltoft, finished in 2000 and commissioned by the church. The first painting is the altar painting, located on the right-hand side of the choir. Here we see the new church, the statue of Christ in the choir - presumably invoking Matthew 18:20 - and the holy spirit descends to the congregation. And in the foreground, we see a fish in a twisted shape, and this is the clue to the historical continuity.
The fish represented in the painting is a cod that was suspended from the ceiling in Old Gimmestad sometime in the eighteenth century. One version of the story states that it was caught by a farmer on a Sunday, a day when it was prohibited to work, and as penance the farmer gave the fish to the priest. The fish has become iconic, and serves in the painting above to be a pars pro toto invocation of the old church, showing the continuity of spiritual history that binds the two buildings together.
The same emphasis of historical continuity is seen in two paintings that hang either side of the door from the porch and into the nave, also by Kjeld Heltoft, and commissioned for the church. One shows the medieval cross, the second shows the old church, with the iconic fish visible in its original location hanging from the beams of the ceiling.
I was also struck by another piece of art displayed in the church, located just behind the first row of benches as you enter the nave from the porch. The picture, whose artist I do not know, is one of several children's artworks to be found in the church, but this one has, whether intentionally or not, latched on to the iconographic theme of historical continuity that permeates the new church Gimmestad. While I cannot say with certitude that the family fishing in a boat is meant to invoke, or inspired by, the story of the cod in Old Gimmestad, it is very tempting to make that association, and it is at least very apposite.
Even the smallest or poorest of churches tend to have some sort of comprehension and care for its place in history - be it the universal history of Christendom, or a more elaborate historical vision whose geographical framework is marked by more details. This historical identity can be expressed as simply as having the year of the church's founding written somewhere in the church space, or memorabilia of other religious sites in the area. But rarely have I seen such a comprehensive iconographic programme of historical and religious continuity in such a relatively small church as I have in New Gimmestad. And as a historian specialising in such forms of identity-construction, I was thrilled to see it.
A view towards the old church
lørdag 22. august 2020
In my continuous effort to improve my Spanish, I keep translating poems I enjoy into Norwegian, and I have already posted two of these translations already (here and here), both being of the Spanish poet Raquel Lanseros, one of my favourite poets. I have also translated one of my favourite poems from Norwegian into Spanish and English here.
In the present blogpost, I give you my translation of the poem "Beatriz Orieta", which was published in the poetry collection Los ojos de la niebla in 2008. A reading of this poem by Raquel Lanseros herself can be found here. The Norwegian translation is followed by an English version, but please not that the English text is a rendition of my Norwegian translation rather than a translation of the Spanish.
Borna spring og hoppar tau.
Beatriz Orieta spaserer saman med Dante,
medan dei unngår skrivepultane
[midt på vegen gjennom livet…].
Litervis med kulde renn gjennom ryggen hennar.
Dei kan knapt gjere noko med den,
dei stakkarslege vedstykka i den rustne glopanna.
Inn i klasserommet kjem småbarnskrika,
luktande av hoste og svolt.
gjev Beatriz Orieta nesten etter
for lysta til å gråte
og sjå dei små skitne ansikta anstrenge seg
med å hugse trykka i dei enkle orda.
Heile dagen held Dante fram med å mumle
så Beatriz Orieta høyrer det
[…kjærleiken som set sola og stjernene i rørsle]
Ho kjenner verkeleg
at ei anna verd ser på henen
på kanten av denne grå og tørre verda.
Mot ei fjern sol
i ei fjern skyming
ser to elskarar kvarandre i augo.
kviler på skuldra si.
Almetrea kviskrar orda til Dante.
Elskarane er tunnelar av lys
Kyssa, valmuar i eit måleri av Van Gogh.
Vinteren kjem seint, som eit dikt kjem.
Den lasete kulden kjem, feberen og spyttet,
og tek over den kvite kroppen
på same vis som maurane invaderer
desse etterlatne brødsmulane.
Seksti år etter, mellom grøne ruinar,
les eg eit elda kvil i fred
ved grava til Beatriz Orieta.
Stilla er av marmor.
er svaret på alle spørsmåla.
Nokre meter lenger borte har ein mann
lege gravlagd i berre to år,
som, medan han lente seg på skuldrane til Beatriz Orieta,
teikna eit hjarte over ein epoke av beiske.
Kva meir kan ein seie?
At livet skil dei elskande
sa allereie Prévert.
Men enkelte gongar
kjem døden attende for å nærme seg leppene
til dei som ein dag vil elske kvarandre.
The children run and skip rope
Beatriz Orieta walks together with Dante,
while they avoid the desks
[Midway upon the journey of our life…].
Litres of cold run through her back.
They can hardly do anything about it,
those miserable embers in the rusty brazier.
Into the classroom come the shouts of little children,
smelling of cough and hunger.
Beatriz Orieta almost succumbs
to the desire of crying
and see those small, dirty faces make an effort
to remember the emphases in the simple words.
All day, Dante keeps mumbling
so that Beatriz Orieta can hear it
[…the love that moves the sun and stars].
She really feels
that another world is looking at her
at the edge of this grey and parched world.
Against a distant sun
in a distant twilight
two lovers look into each other’s eyes.
rests on her shoulder.
The elms whisper the words of Dante.
The lovers are tunnels of light
through the fog.
The kisses, poppies
in a painting by Van Gogh.
The winter comes slowly, like a poem comes.
The ragged cold comes, the fever, the spittle,
and takes possession of this white body
in the same way that the ants invade
these abandoned breadcrumbs.
Sixty years later, between green ruins,
I read an aged rest in peace
by the grave of Beatriz Orieta.
The quietness is of marble.
is the answer to all the questions.
A few meters further away, a man has laid buried
for only two years,
who, while leaning on the shoulders of Beatriz Orieta,
drew a heart over an epoch of bile.
What more can one say?
That life separates the lovers
Prévert said already.
death comes back to draw close to the lips
of those who one day will love each other.
torsdag 20. august 2020
In two blogposts earlier this summer (here and here), I shared some details from the magnificent Hopperstad stave church in Vik in Sogn, Western Norway. In this blogpost, I am focussing on one of the most exciting details to be found in the twelfth-century timber of the church, namely the carpenter's marks. As with the mason's marks of the stone cathedrals, the carpenter's marks were carved into the timber to determine how much each carpenter was owed in payment. These marks could be simple, or they could be elaborate, and they provide our closest point of contact with the nameless individuals who were employed to erect these churches. In Hopperstad, several of these carpenter's marks can be found in the timber, and this is particularly exciting since quite a lot of the structure was restored in the nineteenth century. Moreover, in order to protect the timber from aging too rapidly, the outer walls are coated in tar, which makes it particularly wonderful when we nonetheless are able to make out these marks beneath the tar.
The most clearly visible of the marks are found within, where the logs have not been tarred and where the darkness of the church interior has protected it from overexposure to light. But some, as can be seen below, are notably visible even beneath the tar,
In some cases, several carpenters seem to have collaborated on one and the same board or log, and several marks appear together. If this interpretation is correct, it also provides an interesting glimpse of the work practices during the building of the stave church.
onsdag 29. juli 2020
Today is the feast of Saint Olaf of Norway, who died at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030, in an attempt to regain control of the Norwegian kingship. In the following year, Olaf's remains were translated from their first place of burial to a shrine in the Church of Saint Clement in Trondheim. (A church that is believed to have been found in a recent archaeological dig.)
Saint Olaf - thirteenth-century wooden sculpture, Drev Church, Sweden
The life of the historical Olaf, as well as the history of his posthumous cult, have been the subject of much scholarship in the past century, and because Olaf was a saint venerated throughout the North-Atlantic and the Baltic culture-spaces this is a very rich material for academic discussion. One aspect that often comes up when talking about Saint Olaf is how we should understand the events of August 3, 1031. Very often, one will see that this is talked about as a canonisation, which is the typical term for describing when someone is proclaimed a saint in the later Middle Ages, as well as in the modern period. In this blogpost, however, I aim to explain as well as I can why this term is not accurate, and does not provide a good understanding of what happened that day in August almost a thousand years ago.
Olaf is prepared for the translation
Detail from an altar front from an unknown church, Trondheim, c.1330-40
(Courtesy of Wikimedia)
The translation of Olaf's relics was initiated and supervised by Grimkell, the bishop of Trondheim who had come to Norway in Olaf's retinue, and a man likely of Anglo-Norse background and well-versed in the cult of saints. Following Olaf's death on Stiklestad July 29, the body was interred unceremoniously and in secret, according to the account in Snorri Sturlusson's Heimskringla from c.1230 (it is not mentioned in Olaf's saint-biography, now known by the title Passio et Miracula Beati Olavi, which was finalized in the early 1180s). Following reports of miracles, the bishop interpreted these as signs that God was proclaiming the holiness of the would-be king. Olaf was exhumed and enshrined, which consisted of a translatio, a moving of the relics of a holy person to a new resting place. The feast was eventually also included in the liturgy for the Norwegian archdiocese, but we do not know exactly when this happened. The cult of Saint Olaf was thus established.
On August 3 1031, Bishop Grimkell of Trondheim proclaimed to the people that Olaf was a saint of God and demonstrated this by moving his relics to a shrine where those relics could be venerated. The question then remains: Should we call this a canonisation? The simple answer is no, and I will try and explain why this is the case, and why the terminology matters.
First of all, a canonisation means to inscribe the name on a list, a canon, which thus makes the status of this name official. Such a list of saints - be it physical or just an abstraction - became part of the later medieval papacy's system of ensuring orthodoxy in Latin Christendom. In the context of the cult of saints, the term itself, canonisation, means to be formally acknowledged as a saint by the papal authority.
The problem with using the term "canonisation" for the proclamation of Olaf's sainthood in Trondheim in 1031, is that Olaf was never formally acknowledged by the pope, and neither did he have to be. By the early eleventh century, the proclamation of sainthood was left to the authority of bishops. In the more developed church organisations, as we see in Germany, France, England, Spain, a proclamation of sainthood was often done following a synod of several bishops, to ensure that the proclamation was valid. Certainly, the verb "canonizare" had existed in Latin since at least the tenth century, but it was not widely used, and it was not the terminology that accurately described a synodal confirmation of someone's sainthood. The reason why the proclamation of sainthood was an episcopal matter had to do with the limitations of the papal church at the time: In the first half of the eleventh century, the pope's authority was mainly local, and while he was acknowledged as the head of the entire Latin church, he did not have the administrative infrastructure to control the cult of saints throughout the expanding Latin Christendom. The declaration of sainthood, therefore, was an episcopal responsibility. Moreover, since the Norwegian church organisation by 1031 was still very much in its infancy, the authority of Grimkell as bishop of Trondheim was sufficient for establishing the sanctity of Olaf. When canonisation became a mechanism of control for the papacy in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, this did not work retroactively, and was only used for new cults. Every person that was already venerated as a saint was allowed veneration - unless it was a controversial case.
The question then is: Why does it matter whether we use the term "canonisation" to talk about the moving of Olaf's relics in 1031. First of all, this is simply a matter of precision. While the term "canonizare" did exist in 1031 and is therefore not anachronistic, it was not widely used and it is very unlikely that Grimkell himself thought in such terms. Secondly, the term "canonisation" implies a stronger contact between the nascent diocese of Trondheim and the papal see than was in place by 1031. To call the translation of what was essentially a local saint a canonisation is to vastly overplay the importance of Olaf in the Latin cult of saints. Even though Olaf became immensely popular throughout Northern Europe, this success came in stages and was not directly due to the ceremony of August 3 in Trondheim. In this way, to say that Olaf was canonised is to imply that there were people in Rome, in the minuscule papal administration, that knew anything about the recently-dead Norwegian would-be king. There were other mechanisms by which the cult of Olaf gained popularity, and the term canonisation tends to overshadow those mechanisms.
Olaf was, in other words, not canonised. His relics were translated, and by this translation he was proclaimed to be a saint, who could intercede for those who venerated him and who had merited a shrine in the church and a liturgical feast. This was established through episcopal authority, the highest authority needed for these affairs in the 1030s, be it in Norway, in Germany, in Spain, or any other part of Latin Christendom.
tirsdag 28. juli 2020
In my previous blogpost, I talked about Hopperstad stave church in Vik in Western Norway, and its exterior. My aim was to showcase how the exterior decorations served to emulate styles from other parts of Latin Christendom, thus demonstrating that this wooden church in the Norwegian fjords was part of that same cultural community. In this blogpost, my purpose is the same - to highlight the interconnectedness of the Latin Christian world of the Middle Ages - but this time I will do so by focussing on one element from the church interior, namely a thirteenth-century ciborium.
The nave of Hopperstad stave church
Stave churches are small spaces, even those the most stupendous of them. This has mostly to do with the centralised skeleton of logs, around which the walls are raised. Consequently, the church space is different in a stave church than in, say, a basilica or a cruciform church, where the nave can be extended and where it is possible to build a broad and long space. This means that the division between nave and choir - an important division in the medieval liturgy - must be made in a different way than in other churches. As might be seen from the pictures, the ciborium where the priest performed the mass was not a separate room from the nave, but was situated in the nave itself. It is possible that in order to emphasise the difference between the space for the church-goers and the space for the ministrant priest, this ciborium was erected.
(It should be noted that the church as it stands today does have an apse-like choir, but this is a later addition.)
The decorations on the outside of the ciborium is from the thirteenth century, while the inside of the ciborium vault is covered with a series of roundels traditionally dated to the turn of the fourteenth century. It is especially this pictorial narrative that serves to highlight that the iconographic expressions of medieval Norway were the same as those found elsewhere in Latin Christendom.
The roundels in the vault recount the story of Christ's birth and the flight into Egypt. The narrative runs from left to right as you face the congregation, and the top four roundels contains the first part of the narrative, while the rest is told in the lower four.. In the top roundels we see the Annunciation, the Nativity, and the angel announcing the birth of Christ to the shepherds. In the bottom roundels we see the gift of the magi, the presentation in the temple, the slaughter of the innocents, and then the flight into Egypt.
These roundels are made in a style typical of its time, in emulation of styles in England and on the continent. The fact that the captions of the roundels are in Latin, and also impossible to see when you are part of the congregation, suggests that these roundels were intended primarily for the priest. We can only guess as to why it was painted, and one suggestion has been that it served to educate and remind the priest of the how the second-most important narrative of the Gospels actually progressed. This suggestion, while in and of itself reasonable, is borne out of a traditional impression of Norwegian medieval priests as poorly educated, barely latinate and in need of constant supervision. While there are sources from medieval Norway that testify to troublesome and insufficiently educated priests, the idea that this was representative of the entire medieval clergy in Norway is probably at its core a Protestant interpretation, which formed part of their general demonisation of the Catholic Middle Ages. Ultimately, we can only guess why this vault was painted the way it was when it is only visible to the priest, but considering that medieval church interiors were often covered in image cycles for educational as well as pious reasons, we should expect that these Norwegian roundels came about through a combination of intentions and desires - just as similar cycles did elsewhere in Christendom.
søndag 26. juli 2020
Earlier this week, my family and I went south to visit Hopperstad stave church, which is situated in the village of Vik in Sogn. Hopperstad is one of the most spectacular surviving examples of Norwegian medieval architecture, and in the following blogposts I will present various details from this magnificent building.
The stave church is a famous building type, which has become emblematic of the Norwegian Middle Ages, thanks to the largest and most splendidly decorated of these churches, such as Hopperstad, but also Urnes, Borgund and Lom. The term "stave church", however, does not in and of itself signify a work of splendour and grandeur, it simply means the way in which the church was constructed. This was done by a basic structure of poles, or staves, forming the interior skeleton of the church, and such churches can be found in all shapes and sizes, from the stupendous specimens such as Hopperstad, or the more shack-like from poorer districts.
Unfortunately, only 27 stave churches survive to this day, out of several hundred that were likely operative in the course of the period 1100-c.1550. The majority of these lost churches were demolished in the latter half of the nineteenth century, when the department of churches had set down new rules for the minimum number of people that a church should contain. As many stave churches are small and not designed to house large congregations, these were destroyed by the government. A few were rescued, however, as in the case of Hopperstad, which was bought by the architect Peter Blix in 1882 and subsequently restored. At that point, the church was in a very poor condition, and some of the elements were replaced, and some were even added, as in the case of the arcade running along the sides of the church.
View into Vik from the nineteenth-century arcade
Hopperstad stave church was built around 1130, and is believed to have replaced an older church on the same site. By this point in time, Norway had been officially Christian for about a hundred years, and the ecclesiastical and secular aristocracy were very conscious about the fact that they belonged to a cultural network that connected them to the rest of Latin Christendom. Several of them had travelled by trading routes throughout the European continent, some had joined King Sigurd I in his crusade to Palestine (1108-12), and some had journeyed as pilgrims to the most holy places in the Latin Christian world. This connection to the world outside also meant that the Norwegian elites were familiar with the architectural styles further south, and they were eager to emulate the artistic expressions and vogues of that world. This can be seen very clearly in the case of Hopperstad, in particular in the carvings that decorate the portal into the church.
The right-hand side of the portal into the church
A gaping animal, most likely a wolf
The portal is covered with carved animals fighting an convoluted and frozen battle in a wilderness of leafy vines. Elongated, curving necks and bodies, a mixture of wings, maws, beaks and talons showcase the mastery of the medieval carpenters who could render a chaotic war while also making it possible to trace every line to its end and distinguish the individual figures that comprise the scenery. These entangled scenes have become emblematic of Norwegian medieval art, at least as it is understood in the modern imagination.
However, while these beasts of impossibly long necks, locked in an unending struggle, are excellent examples of the skill of the carpenters operative in Norway in the twelfth century - whether they were themselves Norwegians or brought in from abroad - these animals are also an example of that stylistic connection that tied Norway to the world outside, a world in which such convoluted images had long been part of the artistic practice. It is likely that such battles in the vines - perhaps signifying the strife of the temporal world in contrast to the peace of Heaven - were not conceived in Norway, but inspired by artists in other regions, such as Germany, England, France, Spain, etc.
In order to highlight these similarities, I have included a few images of the digitised manuscript Rouen - BM - ms.0008, a Bible from the turn of the eleventh century - about fifty to thirty years older than Hopperstad stave church - which was produced in Normandy, an area with which Norwegians were frequently in contact. Consider these initials, and while there are obvious differences in the images - owing in no small part to the different medium - notice most of all how the basic scene itself is the same in both Hopperstad and the Rouen MS, namely the vicious battle of beings in a self-contained world of vines and greenery.
Rouen - BM - ms. 0008, f.002v, Bible from Jumièges, last quarter of 11th century
(courtesy of enluminures.culture.fr)
Rouen - BM - ms. 0008, f.015v, Bible from Jumièges, last quarter of 11th century
(courtesy of enluminures.culture.fr)
Rouen - BM - ms. 0008, f.244v, Bible from Jumièges, last quarter of 11th century
(courtesy of enluminures.culture.fr)
Rouen - BM - ms. 0008, f.211, Bible from Jumièges, last quarter of 11th century
In comparing these initials with the carvings from Hopperstand, I'm not suggesting, however, that this manuscript was known to whoever decorated Hopperstad or commissioned those decorations. I am suggesting, rather, that both the MS and the carvings in a Norwegian fjord are renditions of the same basic graphic idea which was common throughout all of Latin Christendom by the first third of the twelfth century.
This comparison is also strengthened - as well as inspired by - the ongoing exhibition in the Museo Episcopal de Vic in Catalonia, Nord & Sud, in which medieval art in Catalonia and Norway are juxtaposed, thus highlighting the shared features of the art in these regions. I am in particular indebted to Dr. Judit Verdaguer for notifying me of this exhibition.