Obdormio.com Unwasted Hours

28 June, 2012

St. John the Whatnow?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Obdormio @ 00:00

Here’s another little titbit of information the tourists visiting St. John’s Church in Bergen don’t care to find out: Which St. John is the church named for?

Well, in fairness, two people have asked me this, but they lacked the staying power (and English proficiency) to hear me out.

There are two Saints John. No, let me be more precise. Even leaving aside the for the purposes of this post irrelevant issue of authorship of the various Johannine works, there is a whole bunch of Saints John, butĀ traditionally there are two big ones: the Evangelist and the Baptist.

So which St. John is the church named after? Unfortunately, the short answer is “no one really knows.” There are arguments in favour of both of them, but no definitive proof that shows the parish founders intended one over the other. As a result, the question has prompted a bit of a debate. Personally, I think the Baptist has the stronger case here, but hopefully that won’t influence my presentation of the arguments too much.

Let’s start with the fact that most churches named for a St. John are named for the Evangelist. Bergen, however, had previously had a church dedicated to the Baptist, so there was a pre-existing tradition for naming churches for him here. That church had been torn down several decades before the present St. John’s was built, but it was recent enough in memory that the builders of the new church would have been aware of its existence.

Furthermore, St. John’s was built on a hill outside what was then the city proper, in what was pretty much open space. Prior to the church’s construction, this site had been used for the bonfires of the midsummer celebration. Midsummer, as it happens, coincides with the feast of St. John the Baptist, and the name of the day in Norwegian is indeed St. John’s day. The hill was so strongly identified with this celebration that is was actually known as St. John’s Hill. Today, it is called Sydneshaugen – “south headland hill”. All in all, the Baptist had a strong prior claim on the area.

In favour of the Evangelist, however, the church was not named for the hill. St. John’s church was built to service St. John’s Parish, which had been established a decade prior – the church is thus named for the parish, not the other way around. The parish was not restricted to this hill, which was, as noted, open land at the time. It encompassed a large population on the south side of the city – which is incidentally why the church is so large; laws at the time required new churches to seat a certain percentage of the parish population – and the hill was largely incidental. As noted before, when naming something for St. John and not specifying the Baptist, you are usually talking about the Evangelist.

But like I said, no one knows. The parish founders did not see fit to write down their thoughts on the matter, so we’re in the dark. The parish no longer exists, it was merged with the other parishes of the city centre a decade ago to form the Cathedral Parish, so see where shoddy record keeping will get you?

In lieu of a definitive answer, a compromise has been proposed: we say that the church is named for both of them, a solution that also has precedents around the world – there is for instanceĀ this little chapel.

I’m still rooting for the Baptist, though.

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