This weekend, I attended a service at Frogner Church in Oslo. It is a beautiful structure, consecrated in 1907, and built in a neo-Romanesque style that was very common in Scandinavia around the turn of the century. The fondness for this style should probably be understood in light of the wider cultural framework of medievalism at the time, a framework in which the medieval past was used as a pool from which to draw resources for building a national identity, and thereby positioning Norway in a wider historical and geographical setting. The medievalism of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth century Norway was expressed in many different ways. Various such expressions were often relying on a lot of the same motifs or figures, but the medieval elements seen as uniquely Norwegian could often be blended with medieval elements from elsewhere. In the case of Frogner Church, we see how some various aspects of the Norwegian medieval past has been melded into one.
The first of these aspects that came to my attention was a wooden figure on a plinth on the southern side of the nave, just beneath one of the two galleries of the church. The figure, as seen below, shows Saint Olaf with one foot on a vanquished person, while his hands are resting on the sword whose point is placed just atop the person underneath the saint. The identity of the saint-king is made clear from an inscription in gold on the foot of the statue. This motif - of Olaf standing on a figure, a so-called underlier - is widely common in Scandinavian medieval art, and one of the most recognizable iconographical features in the entire medieval Nordic sphere. As far as I know, the earliest surviving example of this motif dates from the early thirteenth century.
The statue in Frogner Church is clearly meant to tie into the medieval motif, but it also shows itself as a product of a different time, a time that had its own ideas about the medieval past. The statue is, in other words, not so much a continuation of a medieval motif, but an adaptation of it. There are two elements that point us in this direction. First of all, the saint-king carries a sword, which he uses to subdue to defeated opponent. To my knowledge, this combination of iconographical features does not appear in medieval art. Olaf is typically seen holding an axe, which became is primary attribute at a very early stage, possibly already in the mid-eleventh century. The sword is very rarely associated with Olaf, and, as far as I know, never in the motif of trampling an enemy underfoot.
The second modern feature of the statue is the shape of the underlier. In medieval art, this figure is typically a human of uncertain identification (especially in the thirteenth century), or a dragon with a human head (mainly fourteenth century onwards). The figure in Frogner Church, however, is holding a hammer, which suggests that this is the Norse god Thor. The statue is, in other words, intended to summarize Christianity's conquest of Paganism in Norway, exemplified by Saint Olaf forcefully replacing the god of thunder. While medieval Norwegians did indeed emphasize Olaf's violent expulsion of Pagan elements during the Christianization period - an idea possibly invented in the twelfth century, as part of the Norwegian Church's efforts of identity-construction - this expulsion is not, from what I know, expressed as a battle between a saint and a god. Consequently, the scene in Frogner Church looks very much as an ecclesiastical response to the ongoing enthusiasm for the Norse Paganism that was part of the medievalism of the era, where the pre-Christian elements were made to represent Norway and confer antiquity and glory on a nation eagerly expending time and resources to construct an identity.
Another feature of Frogner Church that makes me suspect some sort of ecclesiastical reaction to the ongoing medievalism of the time, is the exterior. The neo-Romanesque features of the tower and the front are both strongly reminiscent of an actual medieval church in Oslo, namely that of Old Aker Church, which is heavily restored yet contains some surviving features from the twelfth century. The Romanesque style is a marker of European belonging, since it is an architectural vogue imported from abroad, and initially performed in Norway by foreign masons. The use of neo-Romanesque for the church exterior can be understood as a nod to Old Aker Church, by which the new church draws prestige from an earlier church, and provides a sense of continuity, which in itself is an important element of identity-construction. Furthermore, however, it might also be that the use of neo-Romanesque serves the same purpose as the statue of Saint Olaf in the nave, namely to signal a European belonging and to mark a certain distance to the enthusiasm towards the Pagan Norse heritage.
If I am right in thinking about these features as a pushback against the Pagan aesthetic, it is nonetheless doubtful whether a lot of people would have the toolkit for decoding this protest message. Yet this does not in and of itself mean that the protest would not have been legible to a certain section of society, whether it would be academics, clerics, or others.