Obdormio.com Unwasted Hours

25 June, 2012

A Study in Red Brick

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

Last Monday, I started my summer job as a tourist guard in St. John’s Church in Bergen. I am not there to guard the tourists, but to guard the church from the tourists, who would, if given half a chance, run away with the pews.

St. John's Church

St. John’s Church, Bergen

Even though being a guide isn’t part of the job description, I thought I ought to try my best to be helpful when someone had a question. So I studied up for this job. I read all I could find about the Church online. I tracked down one of the few remaining copies of the book published for its centennial. I am trying to definitely track down the identities of some of the ambiguous statues. I crammed.

And, of course, no one has any questions. The building and its history? Nope, don’t care. Where’s the nearest toilet? Once or twice someone asks when it was built, but that’s about the extent of it. Now, maybe it’s just that they don’t speak English very well, but even so I am frustrated. I could tell you more than the fact that the church is neither Catholic nor the cathedral, is what I’m saying!

So, lacking an appreciative audience in the philistines that come by in my work hours, I shall instead foist my new-found expertise on you, gentle reader. Prepare to be educated.

St. John’s Church is the largest church in Bergen, and it is visible from the most central parts of Bergen as it lies on top of the hill overlooking the harbour area. It is not the tallest building in Bergen any more, but because it is on top of the hill, the tower is still the highest point in Bergen, not counting the mountains.

The church was built between 1891 and 1894, to service the previously established St. John’s Parish. It is built in brick, clad with red tile. It is built in a neo-Gothic style, as was common in church architecture at the time, which looked for inspiration in the awe-inspiring medieval churches that sought to capture a piece of Heaven on Earth. This was partly a reaction to the previous dominant style, which was more austere and influenced by rationalist ideals. While the building style draws inspiration from the middle ages, the stained glass windows were kept as abstract patterns rather than proper murals – they did not let go of rationalist ideals so completely as to allow the necessity for illustrating Bible stories in glass.

St. John’s is very much in the tradition of German neo-Gothic architecture, with one important exception. While German neo-Gothic churches tend to be brick throughout, St. John’s embraces its Norwegian nature and uses quite a bit of wood.

Inside St. John's Church

Fantastic amounts of wood.

The siding of the walls is wood, the galleries are made of wood, and of course, the whole ceiling structure is wood:

The ceiling of St. John's Church

They even managed to fit in some Gothic arches.

All the wood makes the feel of the room very different from a pure brick construction, makes it warmer and more organic. It is 18 meters from the floor of the nave to the top of the ceiling. The wooden columns supporting the roof have boggled the mind of at least one visiting carpenter last week. The wood also affects the acoustics of the room – there’s a reason why it’s rented out to so many concerts.

The Meat Market, Bergen

The Meat Market. Picture by Alfred Diem.

Like I said, St. John’s is visible from much of central Bergen, as a giant red building looking down on the city centre. There is, however, another red brick building worth mentioning here. You can see it there on the left, it is the old Meat Market. It is from the same general period as St. John’s, but it is built in a Historicist style – though it is similar enough that I have seen at least one writer mistake it for neo-Gothic. He must not have really looked at the arches.

I mention this building because of its parallels with St. John’s in time and style – the latter a complete coincidence – and because of it’s location. Here, have a look at this map of Bergen, where I’ve marked out their locations. If you draw a more or less straight line between them, you realise that these two buildings book-end the city centre of Bergen. They form the end points of a sort of axis civitatis. Churches should traditionally be oriented east-west, with the altar facing east. In St. John’s the altar faces south-west, with the entrance pointing north-east, along this axis, presumably because they wanted the church to face the main area of the town.

If you start out by the Meat Market, as carnal a place as you could wish, you’re basically at sea level, right next to Bryggen and the Fish Market. If you start moving towards St. John’s, you pass through Torgallmenningen, which is, I think it’s fair to say, Bergen’s main street. It is the heart of the city centre, lined along all sides with shops selling all manner of things. As you reach its end, you pass the Blue Stone – and do note the colour – with the edifices of culture on either side of it: the theatre to the right, the park and music pavilion to the left. Now you begin to climb ever so slightly, up Torggaten and its lesser version, Vestre Torggaten, which are also core parts of the city centre, until you finally stand by the steep steps leading up to St. John’s, and all the spirituality it represents.

See, tourists, what you’re missing? You’re visiting a freaking poem!

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