Norman Roots of European Integration

The Gol Stave Church, c. 1200. Photo: Norsk Folkmuseum, Olso.

The Norwegian kingdom was established in the ninth century and conversed to Christianity under king Olaf (995-1030). The looters of monasteries changed into committed builders of splendid stone cathedrals in various parts of Europe. Norman crusaders also introduced Norman art into the Middle East. The great importance for the artistic development in Norway was the extensive building of wooden stave churches however, which took place all over the country during the twelfth century. Approximately 1500 stave churches were built between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries.

Though only 31 survived (still a remarkable number taken the wooden structures into account), they are highly representative in their architecture and decoration. These remaining stave churches show doorways, ornamental details, such as carved bench-ends, chairs, caskets, animal heads, masks and many motives. They give a clear impression of the artistic activities in this period and in particular of the Romanesque period (the heydays were between c. 1080-c.1210 in Norway).

The relatively late conversion to Christianity and their past of looters urged Norwegian kings and bishops to present the Normans as committed Christians. Self-representation by means of art and Christian symbolism was evident. Norman bishops should play a prominent role in this process. This became apparent after the conversion at the beginning of the eleventh century and the construction of the first stone cathedral soon afterwards, the St.Olav in Trondheim. King Olav had brought Christianity to the land and created the first bishoprics in Bergen, Oslo and Trondheim. In 1104, the Norwegian bishoprics were placed under the authority of archbishopric of Lund (in Scania, a part of Denmark) until that time Lund belonged to the archbishopric of Bremen. Norway became a separate bishopric in 1153, with Trondheim as the archiepiscopal see. The archbishopric included the bishoprics of Trondheim, Oslo, Hamar, Bergen and Stavanger and bishoprics in the colonized territories, Island of Man, Iceland, Ireland, Hebrides and other regions.

The Norman conquests of England, Sicily and Normandy in the tenth en eleventh centuries can’t be separated from the foundation of these powerful bishoprics in the twelfth century. The bishop was the main victor of the economic, political and social changes. The rise of cities, trade, bourgeois and money changed the role of the feudal nobility and the bishop filled the political and military gap.

Norman ecclesiastical art of the eleventh and twelfth centuries shows the European European migration of art and artists. The nearest parallels of Norman art can be seen in Normandy, England and Sicily. The stave churches have plain capitals and volute capitals decorated with (fighting) animals, plants, geometric figures, volutes and other motives that are also present in the St. Étienne and La Trinité and the abbeys aux Hommes and aux Dames in Caen, all founded and built by William the Conqueror in the eleventh century. The cathedrals in Winchester, Durham or Canterbury also proof the transfer of Norman art to England. The building activities during the rule of Norman kings in Sicily show the same Norman characteristics, though in combination with Byzantine, Muslim and regional art. Powerful Norman bishops and Norman kings were the initiators of these magnificent building activities.

Abt Suger of  St. Denis in Paris was the first to challenge the Norman accomplishments in the twelfth century. It is a remarkable story that the tradition of stone sculpture and buildings was absent in Norwegian culture until the second half of the eleventh century. Within a few decades Norman stone sculpture and churches should dominate large parts of Europe. It seems obvious that craftsmen from other European regions teached their Norman colleagues. They soon surpassed their teachers however. It shows European cooperation and integration long before the EU (Source: M. Blindheim, Norwegian Romanesque Decorative Sculpture 1090-1210 (London 1965).