The University Museum of Bergen was founded in 1825 (as ‘Bergens Museum’) by Wilhelm Frimann Koren Christie (1778-1849). Amongst other roles, Christie was the president of the first Norwegian parliament in 1814. He closely worked together with the bishop of Bergen, Jacob Neumann (1772-1848). The museum’s aim was to document and exhibit Western Norway’s natural and cultural history. It became a major research centre and the basis for the University of Bergen that was founded in 1946.
Since 1927, the Cultural History Collections have been housed in a Neo-Renaissance building designed by the architect Egill Reimers Sr.
The museum’s collection of church art is one of the finest in Europe. Most objects came from churches in Western Norway, but their style, techniques and iconography reflect the many cultural connections which tied this region to other areas surrounding the North Sea (Britain, the Low Countries, Germany, Denmark) and even beyond, to the Mediterranean and Central Asia. The collection includes building fragments from several of the sites you have visited on this tour, e.g. Nikolaikirken, Nonneseter Kloster, Jonsklosterets kirke, and Munkeliv Klosterets kirke.
The collection was largely formed during the second and third quarters of the nineteenth century, a period in which many medieval churches in Norway were demolished and replaced by larger modern churches. Christie and Neumann wished to save unique objects from the past, and they were particularly interested in medieval objects that had survived the Reformation (the museum charter of 1833 speaks of “…relics of the Catholic cult, such as old altar pieces, crucifixes, relics, reliquaries, pictures of saints procession staffs and banners, censers and holy-water receptacles, baptismal fonts, old gravestones, etc.”).
In the rural areas of western Norway many of the old medieval church furnishings had survived in spite of Protestantism. Many objects were either in continuous use in Lutheran churches, re-used for other purposes, merely tolerated and left in place, or forgotten. For these reasons, the church art collection of the University Museum of Bergen is an excellent illustration of what has been called the ‘preserving power of Lutheranism’.
Among Romanesque and early Gothic objects some categories deserve special mention. First, the collection of around twenty painted altar frontals from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries is unparalleled in Europe. Together with the painted baldachin from Årdal stave church, their closest parallels may be found – surprisingly – in Catalonia, particularly in Barcelona (Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya) and Vic (Museu Episcopal de Vic).
A number of polychromed Madonnas are also outstanding, with the fine Virgin from Hove having preserved its framing tabernacle shrine. In addition, there are several highly ornate relic shrines clad in precious metals, crucifixes and stone baptismal fonts. Stylistically, the collection of Romanesque art testifies to High Medieval Norway’s close connections to other North Sea countries including Britain, the Low Countries and Northern France. Purely Norwegian, however, are a number of portals originating from wooden stave churches, decorated with intricate carvings.
The late Gothic section contains a wide range of pieces of late medieval church furniture. Most outstanding are a number of altarpieces or ‘retables’. Their styles and techniques reveal origins in different parts of the Hanseatic world, of which Bergen was also part. The altarpieces from Austevoll and Eksingedal were most probably imports from the Northern Netherlands. Since all altars there were stripped during the Calvinist Iconoclasm these retables offer rare glimses of late medieval Netherlandish altar production.
In addition, the late Gothic section contains a fine collection of chasubles and other textiles, and a number of liturgical vessels, two painted image shrines, various crucifixes, epitaphs, candlesticks, a rare painted banner, among many other things. Together, the Romanesque and Gothic church furnishings offer a unique impression of what the interior of medieval country churches – in Norway and beyond – originally looked like.
The last section of the church art collection contains a number of post-Reformation church furnishings that reflect the ideals and principles of Lutheranism. The rise of texts as media, as a replacement of and in combination with images, was particularly characteristic to this period. The text triptych (‘katekismustavle’) from Bru represents a short period of crypto-Calvinist fear of images around 1600.
During the seventeenth century, however, exuberant Baroque art and imagery reigned supreme. The post-Reformation section includes a number of altarpieces, a wooden pulpit and baptismal font, several epitaphs and a votive ship model, among other items.
University Museum of Bergen (Universitetsmuseet i Bergen), Postboks 7800, 5020, Bergen, Norge/Norway www.uib.no/universitetsmuseet
You have reached the end of the Bergen1517 City Walk. You can return to your starting point by walking back to Johannes church and take the steps down to Torgallmenningen which leads to the Fishmarket, Bryggen and the Bergenhus Fort (1-1,5 km)