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

onsdag 27. juli 2016

Churches of Gloppen in Western Norway, part 1 - Vereide

In this blog I have written a lot about my adventures in England, Denmark, Spain and Italy, and I have now come to realize that it is high time I start writing more about the history of my own home region. This home region is Nordfjord in the western Norwegian county of Sogn og Fjordane, and I live in the municipality of Gloppen in the central part of Nordfjord. My home village is Hyen, one of the parishes of Gloppen. This blogpost is, as the title says, the first in a series on the churches of my home region, concentrating primarily on the churches of Gloppen municipality. The blogpost was made possible thanks to my friend Benny Aasen, the verger of this church and others, who gave me a guided tour. He is an avid outdoorsman and a great amateur photographer, and his blog can be found here.

It is fitting to begin with the oldest of these churches, that of Vereide (meaning the isthmus of the ram), which is situated on the northern side of Gloppefjorden. This is the only medieval church in Gloppen which was built in stone, and it is therefore the only one that has survived. Most of the medieval structure is still in use, but in the course of the 19th century the church has been extended in several stages. As can be seen when compared with the penultimate picture in this blogpost, the wooden tower has replaced the medieval porch built in stone, which suggests that in the Middle Ages the church had a belltower outside the church itself. Furthermore, there has been added a choir in stone and later a wooden sacristy.

We do not know the exact age of the Vereide church. A local fiction has given the year of its foundation as 1163, but this was heralded by the celebration of the octocentennial in 1963, and there seems to have been no prior argument about such an early date. The fiction, however, was continued in 2013 when the supposed 850th anniversary was celebrated. This is untenable based on written sources (starting late) and lack of any thorough examination. However, it is possible that the church was built in the late twelfth or in the thirteenth century, as the architecture of the nave is very similar to other Norwegian churches built in this period. The oldest written source, on the otther hand, with reference to a priest at Vereide, in 1303, is Bergens Kalvskinn, a rent-roll or urbarium of the bishopric of Bergen from the fourteenth century (Rinde 2014). In addition to this, there is a handful of references in various surviving medieval letters and wills. The content of these can be found in the form of summaries in the project Regesta Norvegica, a registry in Norwegian of the letters pertaining to Norwegian medieval affairs. In volume 3, entry 538, we read in a letter by Bishop Arne of Bergen that Sigvat, priest at Vereide was given five days to drive away his concubine and cease carnal commerce, or else Sigvat would be suspended from his office and benefice by the authority of that selfsame letter. This letter was dated 16th or 17th October, 1308, and it was written in Gimmestad, a parish at the southern side of Gloppefjorden. Sigvat, or Sigvard, was not alone in this, also four other local priests were mentioned as guilty of the same crime.

A later source, a note in the copybook of the Bishop of Bergen (vol. 4, entry 254), states that Vereide was one of the places where the bishop should reside during his visitation in 1322/1323. I don't know if the note specifically mentions the priest's lodgings as his place of residence, but it does suggest that Vereide parish was of some importance, or at least was well situated as a base from which the bishop could inspect the other local parishes.

In addition to these references, there are three letters of testimony where members of the local elites served as witnesses for financial transactions. These letters are from the turn of the fourteenth century. From these sources we learn that by August 13 1380 the priest at Vereide was one Torbjørn Andresson (vol. 7, entry 885) and that he was still in this office by March 12, 1386  (vol. 7, entry 1288) and July 27 1401 (vol. 8, entry 1019).

Torbjørn Andresson resurfaces in the sources in 1626, when a certain man called Skonvig documented the cemetery. The tombstone of Torbjørn was found by the cross pictured above, although the cross itself is considered to be far older and might have been moved from another location to serve as a grave marker for the priest. The design of the cross is also known from other medieval Norwegian crosses (Rinde 2014: 24).

When you enter the church, you do so through the modern porch in the modern tower, and when you open the door to the nave itself you see the altarpiece from 1604, situated in the choir which also is a nineteenth-century addition.

View from the pulpit

Hourglasses to help the priest keep track of the length of his sermon

Throughout Vereide church there are many small treasures from its long history. Many of them have been omitted here for the sake of brevity, but a handful of the can be seen in the picture below. The painting, of which a better picture can be found further below, shows the deposition of Christ. It was painted by the local artist Karl Kristian Uchermann (1855-1940), and is inspired by a painting on the same motif by Peter Paul Rubens, which Uchermann studied in Antwerp. He had been commissioned in 1880 to paint the new altarpiece for Verede Church, and this painting served this function until 1962 (Gundersen 2014C: 136).

Three other items in the above picture are noteworthy. The first is the little processional cross, which appears to be a minitature copy of the old stone cross shown above. This is carried in front of the procession in and out of the church. The second item is the stone on which the staff stands, as this is a piece of a type of conglomerate rock which is typical for Gloppen. The final item is the little statuette, which seems to be depicting Saint Sunniva, who holds in her hands a rock which also seems to serve as a church, presumably a nod to the monastic community which grew up at Selje, the place of her legendary martyrdom. This is a modern figurine, but it is suitable to a parish church within the Bergen diocese, as Sunniva serves as a patron saint for this region.

Vereide church also contains some underground rooms. My friend told me about these and it was indeed that conversation which prompted the tour in the first place. Two of these rooms are no longer possible to reach since they are covered by pews, but one of these rooms is still possible to go down into, and we did.

The room is accessible through a door hidden under the carpet, and it is one of two crypts in the nave. I do not know whether these two crypts go all the way back to the Middle Ages, although it is likely. When the church was renovated early in the 1930s, there were found several wooden caskets - probably early modern - and these were removed to the southern crypt (Eide 2014B: 62). The northern crypt is no longer accessible, as mentioned above. The rooms themselves are old, but the southern crypt has been modernized, the floor has been covered in concrete, the stair is new, and electricity has been put in place.

The southern crypt contains about a handful of adult caskets, and about the same amount of child caskets. Two of these caskets are open and contain mummified corpses. These will be shown below, so if you, dear reader, find that an unpleasant prospect, you are hereby warned. The quality of some of the pictures are not very good thanks to the poor light in the crypt.

As a final note of conclusion, I have added these following pictures. The first is a photograph of a painting from around 1879, which shows the medieval design more clearly. The second picture is an interior from before the addition of the choir.

Vereide church is a beautiful old artefact and a rare medieval survival in the Norwegian fjords. I'm very grateful to my friend for having shown me around, and I was elated to see so many treasures big and small both inside and outside this church.


For some of the details of this blogpost I have relied on chapters from the book Vereide Kyrkje - Kyrkjestad og kyrkjelyd gjennom 850 år, edited by Ove Eide and published in 2014 by John Grieg Forlag. The book is intended as a publication for the 850th anniversary and is a treasure-trove of anecdotes, pictures and useful information. In many respects it is a good book, but it has neither been written nor edited by trained historians and is very much a lay production. This can be seen in the careless perpetuation of some ideas which are not properly grounded in sources, or at least if they are these sources have not always been referred to. For all its shortcomings, however, it is a useful book, and I have relied on the following chapters.

Eide, Ove, "Kyrkje og kyrkjelyd frå 1600-talet til vår tid (56-110)

Rinde, Anders, "Vereidskyrkja i mellomalderen" (10-29)

Gundersen, Olaf Sigurd, ""Nedtakinga av Krossen"" (135-136)

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