Saturday, October 27, 2007

Nidaros Cathedral - a national project

Norway declared its independence in 1905 after 600 years in political union with Denmark, and Sweden. But already in 1814 Norway formed its first parliament and wrote its constitution, heavily influenced by its American and French counterparts. Through the 19th century national patriotism grew in the young aspiring democracy, and a new state needed its national project and it found it in Trondheim.

The Norwegian patron Saint Olaf, christened the wild Norwegians through the first decades of the 11th century. He fell at the battle at Stiklestad in Trøndelag, and was canonized and buried, first at St Clement church, later in Nidaros cathedral.

The building of this large church started around 1070 and ended around 1300, but it was ravaged by fires several times during its history and by the 19th century, large parts of this medieval shrine had decayed considerably.

By the middle of the 19th century Nidaros cathedral had become an important national project and work started in 1869, and has proceeded more or less until the present day.

Nidaros cathedral is a monument of considerable national pride, but the travellers should bear in mind that it reflects the ideas of a young and immature nation, as much as a medieval monument. Today, the Nidaros cathedral would have been left in the state as it was, in decay, but the architects wanted to boost the pride of a long lost medieval past. During Norgesveldet, Norway controlled parts of today's Sweden, the Orkney's, Iceland, and Greenland, and the conquests of the vikings were just a few centuries back.

Only the base part of the magnificent west facade of the cathedral was preserved, and the reconstruction was based on large European counterparts as the Wells cathedral. As in Wells, the facade is covered by a large number of statues in small niches, and the models of these statues came were important figures in politics, art, and culture of the new nation.

The Nidaros cathedral has probably never been as magnificent as it stands today. For me, as a historian, there are other medieval churches that provides a better and more genuine feeling of Norways medieval past. The wonderful cathedral in Stavanger and Mariakirken in Bergen are far more interesting monuments from the Middle Ages.

As you enter the cathedral you will find it very dark, the many windows do not provide much light. I find that the choir, where the shrine of Saint Olaf once was, as the most interesting part of the whole structure.

The shrine of Saint Olafs grave was a centre of a very important pilgrim route in Northern Europe during Medieval times.

At the choir of the church you find this alter, and it is here scholars believe the grave of Saint Olaf once was, and where sick and healthy, sane and insane walked to pray for health and fortune in this life, and for salvation and eternal life in the next.

As I visit shrines, here as in Montserrat, I sense that we, in our modern times, have lost something important reflected in the pilgrims progress to places of worship and healing. To have enough time to reflect on our own lives and the times in which we live.

So this shrine itself makes a visit to Nidaros cathedral worth while, and of course to observe the vanity of a young nation.

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