Medieval Art and Architecture…

Medieval Art and Architecture: Representing a North Sea World

Session Chair:

Candice Bogdanski

Ph.D. Candidate, York University, Toronto, ON, Canada

[email protected]


“The Cathedral of the Faroes at Kirkjubøur – between Britain and Norway”

Morten Stige, Cultural Heritage Management, Oslo, Norway.

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The Faroes is situated far out in the Atlantic, with Scotland, Norway and Iceland as the closest neighbours. Politically and culturally the islands had strong links to Norway through the middle ages. Both the Norwegian king and the archbishop in Nidaros held power in the Faroes. The king had ambitions towards the Western islands at least through the century while the bishops were appointed from Nidaros until the reformation. However the short distance to Scotland and the impulses that came from southern Europe via England can be expected to have influenced the material culture, including the church building.

When discussing medieval church building in the Faroes it’s the bishop’s seat at Kirkjubøur which is of special interest. This site includes the bishop’s residence and at least three stone churches, the only ones known in the Faroes from the period. Are these buildings Norwegian in character, are they Scottish or even English?  This was one of the key questions under debate when a group of scholars met at Kyrkjubøur at an interdisciplinary seminar in August 2011. The aim was to investigate the site and the ruin of the medieval cathedral and the other ecclesiastical buildings.

In this paper I will present some of our findings with emphasis on the discussion of the possible sources for the architecture at Kyrkjubøur. The results will be discussed in light of the political and ecclesiastical conditions at the time of the cathedral building c. 1300.


The Medieval North Sea at Nidaros Cathedral: A Case Study of Architectural Influences Around the North Atlantic

Candice Bogdanski

Ph.D. Candidate, York University, Toronto, ON, Canada

Introducing some of the session topics. Nidaros Cathedral’s Octagon portal is a small, but lavishly decorated portal on the south-eastern face of the Octagon’s exterior. It is stylistically complex and has proven difficult to date. The traditional view has been that it must be contemporary with the rest of the Octagon, which means somewhere in the period 1180-1220. The eclectic appearance of the portal does not help clarify matters– in fact, the combination of Romanesque and Gothic features as well as certain unusual elements which have been hard to place only seem to complicate things further.

By looking at each of the portal’s elements from a stylistic point of view and combining this stylistic analysis with the possibility of style in some cases being a result of active choices made by the patron and workers, I have, in my recent MA, shown that it is possible to arrive at a more precise date for the construction of the portal and that the portal on closer inspection reveals itself as less eclectic than previously assumed.

A close stylistic analysis shows, not surprisingly, a heavy North-Eastern English influence in many of the elements of the Octagon portal. There is however also a strong French influence in the portal’s capital sculpture, in addition to the Northern English, as if the background of the sculptor (or sculptors) was Northern and South-Western French as well as Northern English. This opens up a series of questions about communication and the transfer of stylistic features not only across the North Sea, but also between Northern France, the British Isles and Norway in the Middle Ages and I would therefore like to investigate the possibility of a “North Sea School” of style and the Octagon portal in relation to this.


“An Overview of Art and Architecture in the Kingdom of the Isles”

Dr. David H. Caldwell, private scholar, Scotland.

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The Kingdom of the Isles consisted of the Western Isles of Scotland plus the Isle of Man, and was ruled by a Scandinavian dynasty of kings from 1079 to 1265. They were subject to overlordship by the kings of Norway while the Church in the Isles, organised in a single bishopric, was under the metropolitan authority of the archbishops of Trondheim. Relatively small in area and with limited natural resources this kingdom was engrossed in Scotland in 1266 through a treaty between King Alexander III of that country and King Magnus IV of Norway. Politically, it had been troubled for years, had failed as a unitary state by 1249, but there is evidence for wealth, perhaps largely derived from piracy and the services of mercenaries to neighbouring states.

That wealth is most obviously seen in the famous hoard of gaming pieces, including chessmen, from the island of Lewis. For too long the Isles’ provenance of the Lewis chessmen has been regarded as irrelevant to their status as works of art. Not only have they been stripped of history and context but there was no attempt to explore how they represent the taste and patronage of leaders of Isles’ society. There has been a failure to see that the Lewis Chessmen are but one element in a spread of artefacts and architecture that belong in the Kingdom of the Isles.

In this paper the attempt is made, firstly, to identify the range of art and architecture of the kingdom. This is harder to do than might at first appear since some of the items in question, like grave covers and architecture, have been assigned to periods after 1266. Others, like two bell-shrines, have misleadingly been labelled as Scottish. Secondly, an assessment is offered on whether this inventory of art and architecture includes a core of material which can be recognised as the Isles. There are evidently imported artefacts and parallels to be drawn with art and architecture elsewhere.  It does seem, however, that we can identify a body of work that is truly local, made for local patrons. This has wider significance in re-establishing the Isles’ political and cultural identity. There should be no surprise that Scandinavian influences are strong with a reasonable assumption that they largely emanate directly from Trondheim.

In coming to these conclusions there are major issues to be dealt with in how we recognise and evaluate styles and influences that have been given nationalist or ethnic labels. On the one hand we would be right to be suspicious of any analysis which purports to provide a key to such matters in any but the fuzziest of terms. On the other hand there are messages to be drawn from this on contacts and identities in the medieval North Sea World and beyond.


“Romanesque Architectural Decoration in Twelfth-Century Norway”

Kjartan Hauglid, PhD. Candidate, University of Oslo, Norway.

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The research on Romanesque art and architecture in Norway focuses largely on the stave churches. This is not surprising, as art historians since the early nineteenth century have regarded the stave churches as the most genuine and representative art of twelfth-century Norway. The art of stone building was introduced to Norway as early as the second half of the eleventh century, but the Romanesque stone buildings have received little scholarly attention compared to the stave churches dating from the same period. This paper will focus on the architectural decoration “imported” or “translated” from England and continental Europe. Most of these new and direct impulses were transmitted across the North Sea.

The technique of building with prepared stonework (ashlars or rectangular blocks) was unknown in Norway until the late eleventh or early twelfth century. The introduction of a European Romanesque stone architecture gave rise to a multiplicity of forms and decorations that were previously unknown in Norwegian architecture in wood. This early material is in a fragmented state, but the archaeological, architectural and artistic remains from this period are essential because of the lack of written sources. The late eleventh century and the first half of the twelfth century are in my opinion one of the most interesting periods in the history of Norwegian art and architecture. Before the Latin Church got a secure grip on Norway with the establishment of the Archdiocese of Nidaros in 1152/53, stone architecture was exclusively associated with elite culture. The variety of architectural styles within the concept of Romanesque art shows that there were many direct links between Norway and Europe in the early twelfth century. The large number of foreign impulses across the North Sea in this period is also a consequence of an internationally oriented Norwegian royalty and high mobility among the aristocracy.

The saga of Harald the hard ruler (Haraldr harðráði) tells that he introduced the art of stone building to Trondheim, but today there are no visible traces of this activity. Several records are mentioning Olav Kyrre’s building activity in stone in Trondheim, but only the foundations of his Christchurch remains below the present chancel of Trondheim Cathedral. It is only in the reign of King Eysteinn (reg 1103–1123) that we first have firm evidence of architectural decoration in stone in Norway.

I will argue that all the important Romanesque monuments in Norway were built in a relatively condensed period from c. 1110–1170. The Norwegian aristocracy virtually competed in the building of small but splendid and sumptuous churches. Most of these early churches are lost, ruined or at best remodelled at a later stage, but the fragmented material tells us about patrons that were conscious in their choices of plan and architectural style. The introduction of Cistercians and Augustinians to Norway in the middle of the twelfth century coincides with a new and less figurative architectural style. The coronation of Magnús Erlingsson as king of Norway in 1164 directly caused the introduction of a new and “Transitional” architectural style in the Royal Chapel in the cathedral of Nidaros. This event also marks the end of the Romanesque style as the vogue for the Norwegian aristocracy.

Despite a solid scholarly tradition on Norwegian Romanesque art and architecture, previous scholars have overlooked several architectural features from the early twelfth century. One example is the “sunk star” motif. Although “sunk stars” sometimes are the sole known form of decoration on early stone churches in Norway, there exists no study of this ornament in twelfth-century Norway. This adaptation of the rhetoric of European contemporary architecture must in my view primarily be understood as a demonstration of secular and aristocratic power. In the paper, I will use iconography and semiotics as a theoretical approach to the understanding of selected Romanesque features as for example the “sunk star” ornament. Where previous scholars have treated this ornament more or less as an uninteresting imported stylistic feature, I will consider it as part of a highly emblematic language transmitted across the North Sea.