Obdormio.com Unwasted Hours

2 July, 2012

Interiors, with a Smattering of Hagiography

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To finish up my primer on St. John’s Church in Bergen, here is a bit about the interior of the church. I ought to rework these posts into an informative pamphlet after this!

Let’s tick these off one by one, starting with the lights.


When it was built, the church was outfitted with a very modern gaslight system. The gaslight fixtures are still all in place – you can see some of the pipes crossing the ceiling in this picture – but they have of course been retrofitted for electricity. Keeping the old fixtures helps preserve the period feel of the room.

Baptismal fontPulpit

Moving on to something a bit more decorative, have a look at the font, pictured over there on the left. It is carved from a block of stone, in the same neo-Gothic style as the rest of the church. Some sources say that it is carved from sandstone, others say soapstone. I don’t know anywhere near enough about stone myself to tell which is correct, but the soapstone explanation seems to be slightly more common in the material I have read. It was carved by the sculptor Wilhelm von Hanno. It is a beautiful font. Unfortunately it is slightly broken – a couple of the columns have been broken off – though the damage isn’t visible on my photo. When it is in use, a silver dish is placed in its bowl to hold the water.

The pulpit of the church is a gorgeous piece of construction. It is made of oak, and carved and gilded for decoration, still in neo-Gothic style. The antependium on the pulpit is the only piece of liturgical colour in the church. The overhang makes the pulpit appear almost like a little church within the church.

St. Sunniva of Selja

St John the Evangelist

At the entrance to the quire there are two statues hanging on the wall, one on either side. These are both replicas of statues from Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, the only monumental cathedral we have in Norway. On the right hand side, right next to the pulpit, there is a statue of St. John the Evangelist. You might think that this would be a heavy weighing argument in the debate on who the church is named for, but these statues are a fairly recent addition to the church. If this statue reflects anything, it is the views of the parish priest who ordered it, not the intentions of the parish founders. Nevertheless, though, it gives the Evangelist a tangible presence in the church, something the Baptist lacks. If you compare the statue with the original from Nidaros, you’ll see that some changes have been made. The original is depicted holding a book, sensible for an Evangelist, while the statue in St. John’s is shown holding a cup. I do not know why this change was made, but the cup is also a symbol associated with John the Evangelist in art, and the change could perhaps be nothing more than a result of the tastes of the priest who commissioned the statue.

Opposite St. John, on the left side of the quire, there is a statue of St. Sunniva, the patron saint of Western Norway. According to her legend, she was an Irish princess, who fled her heathen husband by setting herself adrift on the sea. She came ashore at the Norwegian island of Selja, and lived there for a bit before heathen Vikings came to root her out. She and her followers hid in a cave, and were miraculously saved from the heathens by a rock slide which sealed the cave, burying Sunniva and her followers and preventing them from falling into Viking hands. As miracles go, this one has always struck me as getting the short end of the stick, but when the cave was opened many years, Sunniva’s body was supposedly found intact, and she was proclaimed a saint. The statue holds a rock, one of the rocks that killed-slash-saved her. This statue has also been altered slightly compared to the original, but the differences are minor in this case.

Finally, there is the altarpiece.


The altarpiece, like the pulpit, is carved oak, with red and gold decorations. The central painting is flanked by statues of Moses and Aaron. Or at least I’ve been told it’s Aaron. It seems a funny choice to me. I mean, it’s a man with a stick in a toga, it could be anyone. Aaron is so rarely depicted in art that he doesn’t really have any distinguishing symbols associated with him, unlike Moses with his tablets. Personally, I would have gone with a New Testament figure, probably Paul, for symmetry. Moses on the left hand pointing ahead, Paul on the right pointing back, with the painting of Jesus in the middle, that sort of thing. Anyway, official word is Aaron, just to go with Moses, I suppose.

The central painting, “Christ in Prayer”, is by Marcus Grønvold, and was painted for the opening of the church in 1894. It illustrates Mark 1:35, which is quoted beneath the painting: “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” I have been told this is the only altarpiece in the world to illustrate this particular passage. The painting was stolen in 1981, cut out of its frame. The thief turned out to be mentally disturbed; he kept the painting rolled up with him in bed. It was heavily damaged, but it was successfully restored and is back in its proper place.

And that’s it. I think I’ve unloaded all the main bits of knowledge I have been bursting to spew at the tourists. Now I can face their disinterested masks for another week.

28 June, 2012

St. John the Whatnow?

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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, but 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 instance this little chapel.

I’m still rooting for the Baptist, though.

25 June, 2012

A Study in Red Brick

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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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