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Paintings for a Cathedral - A temporary liturgical decoration of Nidaros Cathedral

The aisles of Nidaros Cathedral’s western nave and southern west-front chapel are the main arenas for Gullvåg’s project “Paintings for a Cathedral”, a temporary decoration 28 May - 4 September 2005.

With this temporary exhibition, Håkon Gullvåg was challenged to let his paintings echo the cathedral’s stained-glass motifs. Hence the paintings enter into a close dialogue with the magnificent windows, designed almost a century earlier by the architect and painter Gabriel Kielland (1871-1960).

One work that dialogues most clearly with Kielland’s windows is the first picture on the “cold” north side. This is a triptych of The Fall. In the first panel we are confronted with the serpent twisting himself decoratively around the apple; it reminds us of the carvings on stave churches. The colour of the tempting green apple verges on being both delicate and poisonous. Then we see Eve tempt Adam. She looks like a Neanderthal, her stomach repeats the apple’s form. The apple is also repeated in the third scene, where the desperate couple is chased out of Eden.

The way the fruit functions is interesting in relation to the corresponding motif in the southern aisle; it is a diptych of the Bethlehem Stall and the Flight into Egypt. The fruit alludes to the fall into sin with the first Eve, and the reconciliation aided by the willingness of Mary, the New Eve. “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb”, Elisabeth says to Mary (Luke 1: 42). In the same way that Eve and the apple have a clear relation to the Madonna and Child, we see that the north aisle’s Expulsion from Paradise is commented upon in the south aisle’s Flight into Egypt.

Thus Gullvåg has let himself be inspired by Kielland’s pictorial program, which follows the characteristically medieval custom of placing motifs from the Old Testament on the cold north side, while Jesus’ life-story unfolds to the south and is oriented towards the sun. When moving forward through the nave, we can interpret the windows as a chronological narrative, and will discover a theological resonance between the scenes positioned across from each other to the north and the south. In other words, the biblical narratives do not merely move forward in time, but they also move across the room; we can interpret events in the Old Testament as portents of events in the New. In this way, Gullvåg’s works in the aisles of the west nave also effectively visualize how the New Testament lies hidden in the Old.

If we lift our gaze, we discover a version of the Resurrection floating in the vault. The risen Christ is turned towards the western rose window, where the Last Judgment shines in the intense colour harmony of a sunset. Hence the church is activated by Gullvåg’s paintings, and the various parts interact with each other as in a large installation.

A Temporary Liturgical Installation

Gullvåg’s temporary liturgical installation modifies the church in a fascinating way; we are emancipated from our usual routine and see the church with renewed vision. Today it cannot be assumed that everyone has either a general knowledge of Bible stories or that they are familiar with the traditional modes of presentation for Christian art. We often experience difficulty in plumbing the depths of potential for meaning offered by Nidaros Cathedral’s iconographic details. Given this, Gullvåg’s works can function as a bridge; the pictorial program consists of a palpable number of works that deal with some of the Bible’s most known motifs. They are contextualized in a way that makes it easier for us to understand the connections between the New and the Old Testaments. If we hunt for the scenes in the stained glass from which Gullvåg’s works were spawned, we can find fixed points for a further investigation of the church.

This temporary installation hung for a few months in 2005, and thereafter its function in the cathedral exists in the form of documentation; the pictures will be exhibited in other contexts.