The Røst Altarpiece: a Medieval Survivor

Rainy day on Røst.  What are you going to do?  Windy, too.  Does the wind ever stop blowing on Røst?  I need a place of sanctuary, so what more normal instinct than to turn to the church?

Locked.

However, there is a notice––Martin Luther-style––which states that the key to the church door can be obtained from the rådhus––a modern complex, not so very far distant.  I am swift in making my acquaintance with the keeper of the key and, after signing a ledger to confirm my bona fides, return to the church door, key in hand.

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The church itself is a pleasant-enough building––made all the more pleasurable having been granted exclusive access. I look at the visitors’ book in the foyer.  The last entry is over two weeks beforehand; the entire book is only sparsely populated with comments, and covers a period of several years.  The chance of anyone else violating my sanctuary today seems remote.

I walk up and down the pews; I go up to the organ loft; I even go up a staircase above the organ loft and lift a trapdoor to the attic, which I am pretty sure I am not meant to explore, even having signed for the key.

However, the highlight of Røst church is not its attic, but its altarpiece.  Constructed around 1520 in Utrecht, the wooden altarpiece, along with four others, was brought to Norway at the behest of Queen Elizabeth, wife of Christian II.

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The Røst altarpiece is a triptych, which stands 82cm high and 113cm wide.  Its central panel depicts St Olav holding a halberd, and standing victorious over the dragon of paganism.  Flanking him are St Nicholas and St Lawrence.  On the inside of the left door is St Catherine of Alexandria, and on the inside of the right door is St Margaret of Antioch.  The front side of the doors reveal representations of Moses and Aaron.

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These doors, more than any other aspect of the altarpiece, give evidence of its fragility: no surprise given that it has survived numerous moves, storms and fires over the centuries.

Perhaps this turbulent history is only apt: Queen Elizabeth’s original behest was a ‘thank you’ for surviving a storm at sea in 1515.  I can only echo her thanks that a similar storm, which has temporarily marooned me on Røst, has permitted me the chance to discover this little-seen medieval treasure.

© E. C. Glendenny

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E. C. Glendenny contemplates the divine, whilst simultaneously remaining warm and dry.

 

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