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Frontalen fra den gamle stavkirken i Ulvik

The frontal from the old stave church in Ulvik is one of the finest examples of English influenced Gothic to be found anywhere in Europe. Beside the Crowned Jesus in the central panel we see Peter, Paul and Andrew, amongst others. (Ann-Mari Olsen, owner: Bergen University museum (MA 3)).

In the still and dim church interiors of the Middle Ages the performances of belief came to life in the gleam from the wax candles. Beautiful and significant pictorial imagery rose up in front of the congregation’s eyes from the frontals on the front of the altar table. The attention of the congregation was focussed on the pictures on the altar. Here the essential articles of faith were presented, here the church was presented through holy men and holy women and here the events from the Gospels were told: the angels with Maria, the birth of the baby Jesus, the Three Wise Men, the history of the drama of the Passion and the victorious Christ.

These images constituted the congregation’s bible in a time when only a few could read. Today we do not find the frontals in their old place in the churches. As inalienable treasures they are to be found, together with much other medieval ecclesiastical art, in the Historical Museum (HM), at the University of Bergen. The Museum’s first vice-director, from 1825 to 1848 was Bishop Neumann of Bergen who on his many visitations had a watchful eye open for threatened ecclesiastical possessions! The frontals are unique in European art history, but they are part of a long tradition where each age has portrayed the world of belief in its own way; a tradition of a thousand years from today and right back to the time when Christianity came to the country.

The early middle ages

According to the sagas the first church in Norway was built in Moster in 995 AD, and ecclesiastical law, with rules for the building of churches was established by the Council of Mostra (Mostratinget) in 1024. Nonetheless we must view the 11th century as a period where the “White Christ” lived side by side with the Norse mythology. As time went by the new churches were provided with crucifixes, baptismal fonts, liturgical equipment, figures of the saints, religious pictures and symbols. This is the way that ecclesiastical art is created.

It is a distinctive feature of ecclesiastical art that it is never tied to a specific form of artistic expression. Its message is always communicated in the style of the times. It is therefore quite natural that it was the style from the later Viking times during the transition to the Romanesque style around 1100 that has put its stamp on the early church art in Norway. A good example of this is the portal from the Ulvik stave church which has now disappeared, from the last half of the 12th century – now in the Historical Museum in Bergen.

In the early Middle Ages the liturgy was adapted to the Resurrection and the Ascension.  Through Christ the congregation could take part in this. The liturgy and the art could tell the congregation that they were celebrating a future which had already begun! Thus we see the crowned Jesus in the centre of the Ulvik frontal from the period around 1250 AD. Gradually a development towards the events on Golgotha takes place. We see this switch in the Kinsarvik frontal from the end of the 13th century (HM). The main emphasis is put on the history of the Passion, and this is how images of the Passion then came to dominate.

The high middle ages 1250-1350

Up until 1350 the artistic impulses came from England. The rapidly growing trade activity in the ecclesiastical residence town of Bergen - perhaps a bishop’s seat from as early as 1100 AD - orientated itself first and foremost towards the west. These trading links led to cultural contacts where Norway was, to a large extent, a “cultural importer”.  Since little has been preserved in England of Gothic sculpture and painting, it is the English illustrated manuscripts which can tell us about 13th century English pictorial art. It is here we find the precursors to the period’s Norwegian art works.

Besides the painted altar table panels, crucifixes and sculptures of Maria and Saint Olav were obligatory. In Gjerstad church on Osterøy there hangs the triumphal crucifix from the time around 1300 AD in its place in the church. As early as the13th century the churches were already small treasuries of art and handicrafts; pictures of the church’s patron saint and other pious pictures, liturgical equipment such as communion chalk and counter, incense holders, processional staffs and clothes used for Mass. Some information from the property book the “Bergen Calfskin”, tells of many sculptures even in remote churches within the bishopric.

Røldal Church which belonged to Stavanger bishopric in the Middle Ages has preserved examples of ecclesiastical art which at least gives a faint glimpse of the original wealth. In the church itself are to be found the fine crucifix from the middle of the 13th century; “the miraculous cross of Røldal” which made the little country church into a place of pilgrimage of some significance. It was only in 1835 that a stop was put to pilgrimages to Røldal!

The remains of the triptych from the same period, a sculpture of Saint Olav, a Madonna and equipment from the last part of the 13th century are preserved in the Historical Museum in Bergen. 

However the most important examples of medieval ecclesiastical art are the frontals of which an unusually large number have been preserved in Western Norway itself. Most of the frontals in Hordaland come from Hardanger, where the two oldest in particular from Ulvik and Kinsarvik distinguish themselves for their high quality. The stylistic antecedents, and perhaps also the artists, are without doubt English, but the frontals were made in Norway. Most of them date from the period 1250 to 1350, and all of them are preserved today in the Historical Museum in Bergen. Such altar frontals were common throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. But on the Continent the frontals were often metal reliefs with inlaid crystals and semi-precious stones. Many of the Norwegian frontals attempted to refer to this with the help of painting.

The entire flourishing of medieval art rest on the concept that God took human form, and was thus visible. The Kinsarvik frontal told this to medieval people in concentrated form with the inscription on the frame: “This image that you are looking at, portrays neither God nor a person alone. But He that the image portrays is both God and a person”. Like the liturgy, ecclesiastical art was also an expression of the encounter between Heaven and Earth.

The late middle ages 1350 – 1536

From about 1350 onwards the English influence in the art disappears and is replaced by North German influences from the Hanseatic areas along the Baltic Sea. It seems that, in many ways, indigenous Norwegian art production stopped or vanished into insignificance. The switch in impulse must, however, be related to the fact that, from 1380 Norway was in union with Denmark. This brought with it a trade and political orientation towards the south.

In the course of the 15th century the saints gained increasing significance for the life of piety. People had a need for a mediation between the theological truths and daily life with all of its concerns. It was first and foremost the Virgin Mary who was the link, through her son, Jesus Christ.  The many saints, however, had each their own area: Saint Nicholas protected ships at sea, Saint Christopher protected the traveller and Saint Blasius protected one against throat complaints. But above them all ranged Saint Olav and the West of Norway’s patron saint, Saint Sunniva, in the people’s portrayals of belief. The saints were models of Christian practice for the congregation.

At the same time a middle class grew up which did not have to give away as spiritual gifts as the nobility did, but who nonetheless were well off. This all meant that the churches were filled with liturgical furnishings, altar silver and pious images without any reciprocal, thematic connection. The demand for ecclesiastical art was increasing and a large number of workshops in the North German Hanseatic areas worked, partly by way of mass production, to satisfy these needs. 

The late medieval altar consisted most frequently of a central part with a relief or sculptures. This could then be closed as a cabinet with leaves on both sides. There were either reliefs or paintings on the door leaves. The cabinet was opened or shut in accordance with the liturgical season. It was closed during times of fasting, but on great feast days it was fully opened with its figures gleaming with gold.

With the Hanseatic office in Bergen in full swing it was inevitable that ecclesiastical art in the whole region was characterised to a large extent by Hanseatic art. It cannot be completely excluded that there were workshops in Bergen which made semi-manufactured pieces, or even made smaller pieces of work for the churches in the district, but much came from the North German workshops.

The reformation period 1530 – 1600

It is clear that the Reformation in 1537 was by no means a popular uprising. It was a result of politics; decisions taken by the king in Copenhagen. People held on to “the old faith” for a long time, but the breach with the Catholic Church led to isolation. Things were not so clear to begin with. In Denmark-Norway the first generation of Lutherans were very tolerant towards the ecclesiastical art from the Catholic times. Thus the pictures were largely left to hang in the churches. In purely theological terms the breach with the Church of Rome was not really so dramatic, and it was more a question of the way a church was supposed to be. The cult of the saints, the spiritual gifts and the rich liturgy disappeared, and so there was no use for the abundant liturgical furnishings, the altars or the pictures of the saints.

About 1570 there emerged a new and stricter view on Catholic ecclesiastical art. None less than the bishop of Bergen, Jens Schielderup, was spokesman for such an attitude. It was influenced by Calvinism’s great scepticism for all religious art. In Bergen this attitude led to many pictures being removed, but it is not known if this had great significance otherwise in the bishopric.

The “crypto Calvinist” movement led to a new ideal for the altar piece: the catechism piece. It was a piece with inscriptions rather than paintings and sculptures. The synod of priests in Bergen decided in 1589 to recommend that catechism pieces be put up in all the churches in the diocese. In this way could one avoid “the heathen pictures” and emphasised the Reformation’s idea of “the word alone” – sola scriptura. The catechism pieces which have been preserved date from the years around 1600; Ølen, Holdshus, Granvin, and Skånevik; the last dating from 1599. Many churches got such pieces, which were often removed only a few decades later.

The period of Christian IV and the baroque period 1600 – 1750

The Calvinist inspired attitude did not last long. The need for pictures had not disappeared, but gradually the Catholic art had become rather old-fashioned as far as form of expression and theology was concerned. Thus the basis for a new Lutheran ecclesiastical art were present. Most triptychs in the churches of Hordaland in fact date from the 17th century. The message of the imagery to the congregation again became important, but as the canon of saints no longer provided the images, and the people needed teaching in the new belief, the range of motifs was fairly limited. Jesus’ death on the Cross, the Holy Communion and the Resurrection became central themes.

The pulpit has most commonly pictures of the evangelists in the fields, flanked by figures which portray apostles or the Christian virtues. This is true for the richly carved pulpits from the 1630s and the 1640s. in the churches at Støle in Etne, Hamre on Osterøy and at Herdla.  In addition we can view the Christian virtues as a replacement for the canon of saints in Catholic church art. Where the Christian virtues in the Middle Ages were examples from a saintly life, in the 17th century they became abstract symbols. In this way they could indicate an attitude, a disposition rather than deeds.

Rationalism and historicism 1750 – 1900

The sale of the churches in 1724 meant that the church buildings in the rural areas, together with all of their contents came in private hands. The new owners were preoccupied with the incomes rather than the churches’ continued maintenance and beautification, and the decline soon set in in many places. One of the few altar pieces from that time is Øystese church’s old altar piece from 1761. In that period the impulses came from Denmark, but apart from some pieces of ecclesiastical silver, it was seldom a matter of works of quality.

Divine service in the 18th century was characterised by many, lengthy psalms and readings, and a lengthy sermon. Holy Communion had become relatively unimportant, and by the end of the 18th century many folk left the church just after the sermon. The adornment of the church interior no longer featured in a collective liturgical concept, as in the early Reformation period, but became pious works for the enlightenment of the congregation.

In the 19th century we come across for the first time the perception that there is a particular Christian style: the neo-Gothic. Frequently it was often only the altar itself which got a picture, and these pictures were characterised by the purpose of the divine service: that is enlightenment and the moving of the heart. Now that there was no longer any clear thread to the divine service the subjects behind the decoration of the altar also became somewhat random. Typical features of the neo-Gothic altar pieces were big paintings, often copies of renowned painters’ works, placed in a Gothic architectural framework. The subjects were taken from the New Testament. Such neo-Gothic altar pieces are to be found in Tysnes Church (Losting, Jesus as teacher, 1868), Fana (Askevold, Jesus in Gethsemane, 1871) and Jondal (Bergslien, the Jesus’ Descent from the Cross, a copy of Rubens, 1887).

After the great construction at the end of the 19th century, it was, however the towns which encountered the need to erect new church buildings in the 20th century. It was also here that modern ecclesiastical art has developed.

The triumphant Crucifix from Jondal Church from around 1200 AD

The earliest Romanesque sculptures are strictly frontal (one-dimensional). The triumphant Crucifix from Jondal Church from around 1200 AD bears the first traces of the change from the Romanesque “Christ as the Victorious King” to the Gothic: “Christ the suffering son of God”.  (Ann-Mari Olsen, owner: University Museum in Bergen (MA 269)).

Madonna figure in Holdhus church

In the late Middle Ages the saints received greater space under “the new piety” –  “devotio moderna”, an expression of the emphasis on Christian practice. The Madonna figure in Holdhus church, from the last part of the 15th century, probably comes from a North German workshop. (Egil Korsnes).

The church at Holdhus

The church in Holdhus from 1726 gives us an evocative picture of the interior of the small wooden churches which replaced many of the medieval stave churches. In the liturgy of the Reformation, the preaching of the word of the Lord was as important as a Holy Communion and the pulpit, “God’s own seat” became a central element in the interior of the church. The pulpit here is from 1570, the earliest preserved in Hordaland. (Photo: Egil Korsnes).

“Jesus in Gethsemane”

The painting in the neo-Gothic altar piece in Fana church, “Jesus in Gethsemane” is typical of ecclesiastical art at the end of the 19th century. Painting by Anders Askevold, 1871 (Egil Korsnes).

Late medieval altar piece from Austevoll Church

The late medieval altar piece from Austevoll Church probably comes from a North German or North Holland workshop. Similar altar pieces from the churches in Uggdal, Granvin, Birkeland and Eksingedalen are to be found in the Historical Museum in Bergen. (Ann-Mari Olsen, owner: University Museum in Bergen (MA 283)).

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