And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

mandag 31. mars 2014

A church of its time - a brief history of the Church of St. Olav, Trondheim

In recent years Catholicism has been on the rise in Norway. This is partly a consequence of immigration from Catholic countries – such as Poland or the Philippines – but another significant reason is the increase of converts, many of whom are intellectuals dissatisfied with the lack of mysticism in the Protestant Church of Norway.

Catholicism has not always had a good condition in Post-Reformation Norway. When our constitution was drafted in 1814, it stated specifically that monastic orders and Jews were denied access to the realm. We have fortunately come a long way since then, and today both monastic orders and – more importantly – Jews are welcomed to our country. As a result of this, several monastic sites in Norway have resumed their activity, and in the vicinity of Trondheim – where I study – we have several active monasteries.

In the early 20th century a Catholic church was built with significant financial support from professors of the Norwegian Technical College, one of the predecessors of the modern-day university conglomerate known as the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. This church was torn down after a few decades and a new church was built which still stands, albeit only for a short while longer. Amusingly enough, this is the cathedral of Trondheim in the true sense, since it is here, in the Church of St. Olav in Trondheim, that the Catholic bishop has his cathedra.

Modern statue of St. Olav from the eponymous church, conspicuously beardless
Photo credits: Eline Løvlien

The heavily-restored medieval cathedral, the church's neighbour
Also, what everyone thinks of when they talk about the cathedral of Trondheim

The new church was built in the 1970s and was designed to meed the immediate needs of a church building. It was not built to last, and the architect was surprised to learn from the current priest – in a fairly recent conversation - that it was still standing. This almost intentional brevity was not evident to the church authorities at the time, and they commissioned the Norwegian artist Håkon Bleken – one of our most celebrated modernists – to paint an altar fresco.

Håkon Bleken before his modernist altar piece
Courtesy of Adresseavisen

When considering the architecture of the place, it is not surprising that the building is lumbering heavily under the ad-hoc nature of its design. The walls are made of concrete interspersed with glass roundels and it is, to my own and personal opinion, aesthetically displeasing, and from a practical point of view this architectural solution is both costly and cumbersome, since it requires a lot of electricity to heat up the central nave. As a consequence, a new church will be built in its stead, and construction will being after the celebration of Easter Week this year. Bleken's altar fresco has been the major challenge in this process, but now it has been agreed that it will be dismantled and stored by the science museum belonging to the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.  

onsdag 19. mars 2014

Saint Sebastian in Tuscany - two martyrdoms by Benozzo Gozzoli

The martyrdom of Saint Sebastian is a recurring theme on this blog, as can be seen here, here and here. This time I wish to introduce you to two renditions of this legend by 15th-century Italian painter Benozzo di Lese (1420-97), better known by his cognomen Gozzoli, which suggests he was fond of a feast (gozzoviglia = party). One of Gozzoli's perhaps most splendid and well-known works is his fresco work at the Chiesa di San Agostino in San Gimignano, executed in the period 1463-65. He did, however, also paint some magnificent frescoes in the Duomo di Santa Maria di Assunda, namely the decorations for the chapel of the city's patron saint Fina and a spectacular martyrdom of Saint Sebastian.

Courtesy of Wikimedia

I saw this wonder myself as I explored the cathedral of San Gimignano last summer, but then I had no idea that it was a work by Gozzoli. The fresco is found on the rear wall of the nave and is executed very skilfully in that familiar theatrical composition so typical of the Quattrocento, and which becomes particularly evident in the depictions of Saint Sebastian.

San Gimignano

Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta

Sebastian was a very popular saint in 15th-century Italy because he was believed to guard his devotees against the sundry plagues that haunted the communes. In cities like San Gimignano, which had a rich mercantile estate willing to express its devotions expensively, it is therefore no wonder to find such a sumptuous and centrally located depiction as Gozzoli's.

During my stay in Tuscany I also happened upon another Gozzoli's renditions of Saint Sebastian, this time in the nearby city of Certaldo, which can be seen from the towers of San Gimignano. In one of the churches of the old city, the Chiesa di SS Tommaso e Prospero, located right next to the Pretorian palace, a beautifully painted altar can be found, where the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian can be found on the backside.

Chiesa di SS Tommaso e Prospero

As seen below, the martyrdom is splendidly depicted and surrounded by the coat-of-arms of the city (as seen by the onion, Certaldo's most famous produce) and local families. It is less grandiose than the fresco of San Gimignano, but the rigid style, the profusion of arrows and the beard of the saint are all recognisable features. It was likely executed around 1464-65, when Gozzoli was in Certaldo for the decoration of another local chapel.

What is most interesting about thes frescoes, however, is to note Sebastian's ante-apollonian beard, a detail that fell out of vogue towards the close of the 15th century, as painters like Mantegna and Botticelli turned to Classical renditions of Apollo for their models (hence ante-apollonian). This fashion is particularly evident in Mantegna's three paintings of the saint, the first of which dating as early as the 1450s. Benozzo Gozzoli, in other words, stuck to an older, pre-Quattrocento paradigm in his depictions of Saint Sebastian.

torsdag 13. mars 2014

A town of books

(...) but it behoves a man who wants to see wonders sometimes to go out of his way.
- Sir John Mandeville, The Travels (translated by C. W. R. D. Moseley)

In Fjærland, Western Norway, nestled in a fjord under looming mountains, snow-clad even in the summer months, lies the Norwegian book town, a range of second-hand book shops comprising the centerpiece of the small rural community of Fjærland. The book town was founded in 1995 and modelled after the Welsh village Hay-on-Wye which took its first modest stepts toward a book community in the 1960s. The Norwegian book town boasts its approximately four kilometers of books, and buildings of various kinds - barn, bank, post office - are converted into charming shops with numerous nooks and crannies and small hidden gems.

The book shop "Thousand nights and a night", home of many good books

Perhaps needless to say, the Norwegian book town is one of my favourite places in the whole world, and although I try not to go there very often, for economic reasons, I'm always very pleased to saunter among the numerous shelves, half-searching for new treasure with Serendipity as my main method. This is often an exercise in self-restraint. Being a voracious reader and a committed bibliophile, I take interest in almost any kind of books and lest common sense got the better of me, I would descend into economic ruin upon every visit.

Fjøsen, i.e. The Barn

Although my favourite part about the book town is the vast amount of books - to me a sacred manifestation of the divine creativity with which humanity is blessed - I also find the surroundings very pleasing. Being a Western Norwegian, I feel at home among mountains, fjords and wooden houses erected in the first half of the 20th century. I like the rural Norwegian architecture, I like how the buildings have negotiated their positions between fields, woods and salt water. I like that there is a small communal green area where one can enjoy a book while casting the occasional glance towards the mountains.

Aside from these attractions, I am also very pleased with the literary diversity that the book town can offer. I have found a number of fascinating books in both Norwegian and English, some of which I would not expect to see in a remote Western Norwegian book shop. Among the gems I have found there are Jorge Luis Borge's collected fictions, the complete Wakefield Mystery Plays, Charles Homer Haskins' medievalist classic The Renaissance of the 12th century and the complete poems of Thomas Moore and Elizabeth Barren Browning, to mention just a few. There is also a lovely little shop filled with second-hand comic books, and I always make sure to drop by and have a look around.

I love the Norwegian book town for all these reasons and many more. An ardent lover of books, I always find a great peace when walking along rows fully stacked with books of various kinds, being reminded of mankind's tireless fondness for invention, creation, poetry in all its numerous forms, and to find this kind of solace in a small, distant Norwegian farming community, must be like finding a life-giving oasis in the middle of the Saharan desert. Fjærland is a good way away from the larger communities of the Western Fjords, but, as John Mandeville reminds us, sometimes it is necessary to go that distance when one wishes to see wonders.

lørdag 8. mars 2014

The strange labyrinth - a sonnet by Lady Mary Wroth translated

Lady Mary Wroth (1587?–1651/1653) is one of my favourite poets and sonneteers, and today I present to you the opening sonnet of her sequence "A Crown of Sonnets Dedicated to love" with a Norwegian translation of my own doing. The translation is followed by a literal rendition of it back into English, to better highlight how the compromise of translation has been carried out. The English text here given is taken from A crown, or a corona, is a sonnet sequence in which the last line of one sonnet becomes the first line of the next until they are all tied together.

Mary Wroth is an interesting figure of Elizabethan and Jacobean England, and her significant literary production was probably influenced by a number of her relations and friends. Her father was the poet Robert Sidney, brother of the more famous Sir Philip Sidney, and later in life she befriended Ben Jonson, who expressed great fondness for her. This is not to say that Mary Wroth's poetry was only influenced by those around her, she also influened others in turn. Ben Jonson claimed in one of his sonnets, that Mary Wroth's verse had made him "A better lover, and a much better Poët", and he dedicated his play "The Alchemist" to her.

Lady Mary Wroth
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Sonnet 1

In this strange Labyrinth how shall I turne,
Wayes are on all sids while the way I misse:
If to the right hand, there, in love I burne,
Let mee goe forward, therein danger is.
If to the left, suspition hinders blisse;
Let mee turne back, shame cryes I ought returne:
Nor faint, though crosses my fortunes kiss,
Stand still is harder, allthough sure to mourne.
Thus let mee take the right, or left hand way,
Goe forward, or stand still, or back retire:
I must these doubts indure without allay
Or helpe, but trauell finde for my best hire.
Yet that which most my troubled sense doth move,
Is to leave all, and take the threed of Love.

My translation:

I slik ein labyrint, kor skal eg gå?
Eg finn ein stig og så er stigen vekk.
Går eg til høgre, kjærleik tek meg då;
Går eg rett fram, då fyllest eg med skrekk.
Til venstre? Nei, til mistru då eg gjekk,
Og snur eg meg skrik skamma "gå no på!"
Svim ikkje av, om lukka får ein knekk,
Men verst er det å vente, berre stå.
So lat meg då til kvar ei side ta,
Attende, kanskje, fram, ell' stå i ro?
All tvil lyt eg best takle slik eg pla'
Og utan hjelp finn eg den beste sko;
Men det som mest av alt vil røyve meg
Er å forlate alt for kjærleiks veg.

Mary Wroth's coat of arms, from Henry Peacham's The Compleat Gentleman (1622)
Courtesy of this website

A literal rendition into English of my translation

In such a labyrinth, where do I go?
I find a path and then the path is gone.
If I go to the right, love takesme then;
If I go straight ahead I'm filled with fear.
To the left? No, to suspicion then I went
And if I turn my shame cries "onwards, go!"
Do not faint if fortune breaks
But worst of all is waiting, just to stand.
So let me then to each of all sides go,
Back, perhaps, forward, or to stand?
All doubt I must best handle like I use to
And without help I find the best of shoes.
But that which most of all will make me move
Is to abandon all for the path of love.


Alexander, Gavin, Writing After Sidney: The Literary Response to Sir Philip Sidney 1586-1640
Lamb, Mary Ellen, ‘Wroth , Lady Mary (1587?–1651/1653)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [, accessed 8 March 2014]