And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

mandag 30. juni 2014

Performing Medieval Text, an Oxford Conference

In April last year I attended my first academic conference as a participant. The conference in question was titled Performing Medieval Text and was held at Merton College, Oxford, arranged by Merton's own Pauline Souleau and Henry Hope. I was very excited to go, not only because it was an important academic experience, but because I have a long-standing fascination with Oxford, fuelled by the TV-series Inspector Morse, Lewis and now recently Endeavour. These series are not the best advertisement for academic life in Oxford, however, as academics in these series are either murdered, murderous or generally unpleasant beings. A good friend of mine noted that I should take care to deliver a mediocre paper, for according to the series, only good or bad academics were at risk. I'm still alive, so it would appear I managed to follow his advice.
Edward the Confessor carrying a cripple into Westminster Abbey
From MS Egerton 745, a French collection of saints from early 14th century
Courtesy of British Library

During the two days of the conference I lodged at Balliol College, a college that vies with Merton (and presumably others) for the title of Oxford's oldest. Originating in the 13th century - according to a flyer in my room - they do at least have a very good basis for this claim. As a resident guest, I was allowed not only access to the college quad - which was like entering the court of a medieval castle - but also inside the college buildings, taking my breakfast in a rather magnificent dining room with stained glass roundels in the windows, and watching the evening settle over Oxford from a terrace right outside my room.

The Canadian novelist Robertson Davies once pointed out that the universities originated in the Middle Ages, and much of the Middle Ages remained in them still. Architecturally speaking, this is very true of Oxford. It was all very different from what I had grown accustomed to at NTNU in Trondheim, where the humanities are gathered in one single campus which was built in a modern - but not unappealing - design in 1996. As I navigated the streets and lanes finding my way from Balliol to Merton, I must admit I felt more academically significant, more academically capable. Like in the case of that old cliche that some people make you feel smarter by their mere presence, the atmosphere of Oxford made me feel grander. 

The conference itself was also a great and pleasant experience. It was a small conference with attendees from far and wide, which ensured that there was a wide array of perspectives and experiences, but also that there was only one session going on at any given time, so when you stepped up to speak, the audience was as complete as an audience can be, allowing of course for the odd absentee. I met a great number of interesting people, I was exposed to that generous kindness which I have realised is more typical of academia than most people are aware, and I learned a great number of things from the other papers, all of which were to some degree fascinating, providing me with valuable insight in the field of medieval studies. The papers were interspersed with two excellent keynote lectures, a brief presentation of medieval books from Merton College's collection, a beautiful concert in the college chapel and the various food breaks required to keep at it for eight hours.

The gateway to Merton College

It was an interdisciplinary conference, bringing together people from history, musicology, art history and literature to reflect on medieval texts from a performative perspective. I talked about texts for medieval saints, using as my case study Edward the Confessor, whom I had worked extensively on during my MA. In my paper I compared hagiographical texts with a liturgical item from the office material of Edward the Confessor, arguing that the distillation and compression of hagiographical material in liturgical texts owes to the performative aspects of liturgy, that liturgical items are shorter and more compact because they are performed in a set architectural setting, and for a set liturgical purpose. 

Merton College Chapel

The reason I bring up this conference now, more than a year later, is that a recording of my talk from the conference is now available on youtube, and so are the talks of many of my fellow attendees. They are all highly recommended.


mandag 16. juni 2014

Dance macabre

These days I have busy mowing hay in my homeplace, deep in the Western Norwegian countryside. This kind of work always reminds me of Andrew Marvell's poems of Damon the reaper, and naturally further depictions and formulations of death follow suit in the chain of association and rememberance. I while back I posted a brief introductory piece on the vanitas motif and its fourteenth-century roots. In this blogpost, I aim to look at another cultural trope that burgeoned from the same circumstances, with two modern renditions.

Death has always featured very prominently in Christian culture, and perhaps most poignantly in the medieval centuries. This is of course natural, given the omnipresence and inevitability of death, which naturally were both more emphasised in ages of high mortality rates due to epidemics, disastrous wars and sundry purges done out of a religious sense of duty or as a means to keep a princedom stable. However, the Black Death of the mid-fourteenth century left an unprecedented imprint on the collective cultural memory of medieval man, and this resulted in new cultural expressions and formulations that sought to prepare mankind for death and the subsequent final reckoning, or to comfort men in the great democracy of death: the knowledge that no man or woman on earth could escape it, be it a pope, a queen, a milkmaid or a beggar. Death as the great leveller came to the forefront of the cultural mind, and entered art and literature in new or enhanced cultural tropes. This was the great cult of mortality. It differed in certain respects from the cult of the dead that had permeated much of medieval religious life up to this point, and which continued as a cultural current for many centuries.

While the cult of the dead was greatly concerned with the soul's afterlife and that the proper funerary rites were observed and that the liturgy of the dead was performed, the cult of mortality can be said to have had a more immediate emphasis. While the cult of the dead looked to helping the departed through Purgatory, the cult of mortality sought to educate people so that they would pass through Purgatory well prepared. It is tempting to suggest that the Black Death had taught people that sometimes one could die and there would be no one left to pray for your soul.  

The Dance of Death (1493) by Michael Wolgemut, from the Liber chronicarum by Hartmann Schedel

Courtesy of Wikimedia

Of course, the novelty of the cult of mortality should not be exaggerated. The cult of the dead, with funerary rites, liturgies for the departed and obsequies continued largely in the same way as before, while the cult of mortality picked up on ideas already prevalent in the Christian mindscape. For instance, the legend of the three living and the three dead can be found in several sources antedating the Black Death. Likewise, the very culture of monasticism with its thousand-year long history at the eve of the plague, and the exertions of the mendicant friars also sought to turn people on to the narrow path well in advance of death. The novelty, however, of the cult of mortality as it came into being in the 14th century, was death's more visible position, and the emphasis on death as the leveller of society.

Perhaps the best example of this new emphasis, is the cultural trope known as the dance macabre, the dance of the dead, in which people from all walks of life are whirled away by death, which can be found in paintings, woodcuts, frescoes and sundry literary texts. The perhaps most striking aspect of this trope is the prominence of high-born men and women, stressing the idea that you can not escape death, no matter your position in society, and that in the grave - when stripped of all worldly pomp - the pope and the prostitute are the same. This is for instance the big message of the musicians of death found in a now-vanished fresco of the Cloister of the Innocents in Paris, 1424-25 and later rendered in a woodcut published by Guyot Marchant in Grenoble in 1485. (These fellows also features in the Corto Maltese story The rose of alchemy, as a part of Corto's exposure to Swiss history and culture, and the five of them dance to Camille Saint-Saëns' famous piece.)

Les morts musiciens
Woodcut published by Guyot Marchant, 1485
Courtesy of this website

Another eminent illustration of this message can be found in Hans Holbein the younger's series of woodcuts from 1526. Here, people from all strata of society meet their ends in manners suitable to their positions, harkening back to the thirteenth-century idea of vado mori, I go to die in the way I lived, which became more widespread in the wake of the Black Death.

The pope and death
Courtesy of this website

The fool dancing to the pipe of death
Courtesy of this website

The dance macabre has resonated strongly throughout later centuries as well, and below you can find two charming examples of how the trope has been rendered in modern times. The first, and perhaps best known, is Camille Saint-Saëns' symphonic poem Dance macabre from 1874, while the second is a short Silly Symphonies cartoon from 1929. 

søndag 8. juni 2014

King Uzziah and his intrepid wife

 And he did that which was right in the sight of the Lord
- 2 Chronicles 26: 4-5

Around the turn of the century, a few years before Norway gained its independence from Sweden, the great reconstruction programme at Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim began, and this programme lasted well into the mid-twentieth century. By the time of the beginning of the reconstruction, the cathedral was greatly damaged from ages of neglect, dilapidation and natural hazards. One of the leading figures of this reconstruction was the Norwegian architect Gerard Fischer (1890-1977). Fischer was also was one of the pioneers of Norwegian medieval archaeology, and his research on historical buildings was vital to the reconstruction of Nidaros Cathedral. I use the term "reconstruction" here advisedly, for it was not just a restoration of an existing structure, since most of the most recent parts of the church – the western front and parts of the nave and tower – were in a very bad state and not altogether extant. As a consequence, the part of Nidaros Cathedral most people are familiar with today is a modern edifice reconstructed from ideas of how the cathedral must have appeared based on 18th-century sketches and Fischer's knowledge of medieval architecture.

The west front of Nidaros Cathedral
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Photo credits: Morten Dreier

 One of the perhaps most famous features of this reconstruction is the three storeyed gallery of saints and biblical figures on the western front. The basis for this gallery is three statues that survived from the late medieval western front and are now at display in the former archiepiscopal palace. These statues portray St. James the lesser and the French saints Nicasius and Denis, a small glimpse of a long-standing relationship between Nidaros and France. The remaining statues that adorn the modern front are therefore educated guesses and medievalesque rather than medieval, and were crafted by the Norwegian sculptor Sivert Donali. As an hommage to the important work of Gerhard Fischer, he modelled the statue of King Uzziah after him, as can be seen below. Why Fischer's features were chosen for this particular king – one of about four Old Testament kings depicted on the front – I do not know, but it is a magnificent compliment. Uzziah is famous for being one of the greatest kings of Israel and is included in some of the medieval catalogues of paragons of kingship – for instance that put forth by Smaragdus of St. Mihiel (c.760–c.840).

There is a rather lovely story about Gerhard Fischer and his wife Dorothea Stoud Platou (1903-92). Dorothea, known by her nickname Tulla, was an art historian and like her husband she was a vital element in the establishment of a Norwegian medievalist environment which moved beyond the confines of the 19th-century archive-based history and towards a more interdisciplinary approach.  

King Uzziah
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Photo credits: Morten Dreier
The story goes that Tulla's husband suffered from fear of heights, which was a severe impediment when he was required to carry out measurements high up on the western front or on the front's two towers which also are modern additions. The solution to this problem was that Gerhard was stationed down on the ground, while Tulla climbed up the scaffolding and took the measurements. The story of Tulla's dauntless love for the reconstruction has passed into the mythology of the cathedral, and today her name is also remembered by a restaurant in Trondheim's city centre.

Restaurant Tulla Fischer
Courtesy of this website

fredag 6. juni 2014

The Monk and the Mason

Last weekend a friend and I took a couple of guided tours around Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim to see some of the less accessible sights in the church. The second tour took us up to the parapet of the west front where we came face to face with some of the stone carvings, executed by stone mason Gustav Vigeland around the turn of the 19th century. It was about this time that the cathedral was under a grand programme of restoration and reconstruction, and Gustav Vigeland started his work in 1898. In the course of this programme the west front with its two towers and its array of medieval saints were raised, which means that despite its medieval appearance, everything from this part of the cathedral is a modern imagination of what the late medieval front must have looked like. 

There are many stories surrounding the great reconstruction of the early 20th century, a programme that began only few years before Norway gained its independence from Sweden in 1905. One of these stories have been commemorated in the stone work up at the parapet and can be seen below. I can not say for certain whether these are Vigeland's creations or whether they came later.

The two figures, the monk and the mason, are found on the right tower and the left tower respectively. As can be seen in the pictures, their faces are very life-like and they were modelled on two workmen who took part in the reconstruction programme. The one rendered as a monk was a political conservative, while the one portrayed as a mason was a Communist. They would spend their hours working up by the parapet, and in the lunches they were known for their ideological discussions and bickering. Due to their difference of opinion - which seems to have cast no shadows on their relationship as fellow workers - they have been set on separate towers, each tower corresponding with their political persuasions.

The mason is significant for an additional reason. According to a prophecy of uncertain provenance, the cathedral will fall upon its completion. To avert such a brutal consummation of the long and arduous process of restoration and reconstruction, the petrified mason now holds the last brick in his hand, forever preventing the cathedral from being completed and thus - as the legend goes - keeping doomsday at a halt.

søndag 1. juni 2014

St. Michael contending with the devil - the stained glass of Nidaros Cathedral's chapel of St. Michael

Michael the archangel, when contending with the devil he disputed about the body of Moses- Jude 1:9

This afternoon a friend and I took a couple of guided tours in Nidaros Cathedral to see some of the areas not regularly open to the public. The first tour took us to three of the cathedral's chapels on the second floor, the chapel of St. Olav, the chapel of St. Michael and the chapel of St. Mary. We walked up those narrow stairs typical of a cathedral and navigated that semi-lit darkness which can be surprisingly comforting at times. The intended highlight of the tour - from the guide's perspective - were three sets of stained glass windows executed by the Norwegian artist Oddmund Kristiansen (1920-1997). 

Shutter from St. Michael's chapel
The text reads "this is the Lord's house" in Early Modern Danish
Oddmund Kristiansen started out as a pupil of Gabriel Kielland, who sought to give Nidaros Cathedral a series of stained glass cycles inspired by the medieval glass at the cathedral of Chartres. These can today be seen in the nave and choir of the cathedral, and are known for their dark hues. This owes to the fact that the windows at Chartres, which Kielland emulated, were darkened by centuries of soot, and serves as a good reminder that our view of a period is contingent in large part of remnants that have deteriorated through time. As a consequence, Nidaros Cathedral is informally known as the darkest church in Christendom.

Kristiansen was commissioned to decorate the chapel of St. Michael, and this was his first big job. In these windows, Kristiansen adhered to the scheme of his tutor, and the result is set of angels in which their tenderness and strength are emphasised at the same time through the sinuous movements of Michael's body and his sure-footed subduing of the beast. The almost clumsy faces and the illusion of movement are perfectly in tune with medieval stained glass, and is to my mind an excellent emulation of the medieval masters.

St. Michael contending

The weighing of souls

Eventually, however, Kristiansen grew displeased with his work and sought to move away form his tutor's medievalesque symbolism. He tried to have his glass in the Michael chapel redone, but this was - fortunately - denied him. In his later work, however, Kristiansen desired instead to explore the colour scheme of his Sami heritage. The result was a series of stained glass windows with very obscure symbolism, as can be seen below. I for my part prefer his first work.