Astounding with colored light

Stained glass and Norway

The Arctic Cathedral

Photo: Siri Uldal / Wikipedia
The Arctic Cathedral lights up the skyline of Tromsø, Norway, with its large stained-glass window.

Brooklyn, Ny.Y.

How humans discovered a way to take the granular substance of sand, add fire, and then watch it transform into translucent glass, may have been by accident or experimentation. But regardless of how the discovery may have transpired, this magical material has inspired humans ever since.

Brief history of glass creation

Nidaros Cathedral

Photos: Maverix / VisitNorway
The rose window is an extraordinary jewel on the west front of the Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, Norway. While the window itself is magnificent, its subject matter is not: Doomsday, the end of the world.

The earliest examples of glass artifacts originated in eastern Mesopotamia and Egypt in the form of beads. There are, in fact, clay Mesopotamian tablets explaining how to make glass that were handed down and used for centuries. The directions are picturesque and include rituals to follow during the process, indicating the spiritual or sacred nature it imbued. 

It then took centuries for this material to be rendered into stained-glass windows. Perhaps seeing the ubiquitous use of mosaics in the classical world that also depend on small, fractured pieces of a hard substance to make a whole was the germination of the idea.

As Gothic architecture developed, by lifting the church ceiling toward the heavens, it also expanded the wall space and opportunity to add light, a contrast to the Romanesque style, which was smaller and more intimate, but also much darker. Now, the walls became a blank page to add Biblical stories for the illiterate told through many materials and articulations, but none so colorful as those found through stained glass. These have an otherworldly impact, casting a dazzling cacophony of pigmented light across the walls, floors, and even humans.

Stained-glass windows  

Colored glass dates back to the origin of the material. One of the oldest known examples of multiple pieces of colored glass survives at St. Paul’s monastery in Jarrow, England, and dates back to the late seventh century. The state of Bavaria in southeast Germany boasts the oldest stained-glass windows (late 11th century) of complete figures in situ, remarkable in itself, at Augsburg Cathedral. 

Although the earlier piece is cruder, the fracturing and geometric forms that emerge can be quite alluring. They later developed into the rose window and other stunning elements specific to Gothic window style. 

Oslo Cathedral

Photo: Bair175 / Wikipedia
Emanuel Vigeland’s stained-glass window in Oslo Cathedral depicts Jesus with the moneychangers.

Norway in stained glass—in Scotland

Perhaps some of the most impressive historical stories told in glass about Norway are not even found within the country, but in Lerwick, Scotland. 

Historic Norwegian figures loom prominent such as, Haakon IV Haakonsson, sometimes called Haakon the Old, King of Norway from 1217 to 1263 or the Earl of Orkney and Shetland 1136 to 1158, Rognvald the Crusader. 

One window depicts a beautifully coiffed, crowned, and glamorously gowned Margaret of Norway, known as “Maid of Norway.” Margaret was the queen-designate of Scotland from 1286 until her death. 

The backgrounds, fine details, flourishes of floral ornamentation and geometric patterns will draw you back to a sacred space from medieval times, but they were created in the 1880s by James Ballantine and Cox & Son, Buckley and Co., and reside in Lerwick’s Town Hall. 

You might be wondering why this place in Scotland has chosen to include so much Norse history, royal figures, and symbols. It is because the Shetland and Orkney Islands were under Norwegian rule beginning in the ninth century. A thorough and costly restoration project of the windows began in 2016, requiring meticulous work and adept hands. It took about two years, evidence of how dear these people hold their Norse history, which ended in 1472.

Smaller glass images, including Viking ships and ravens (a symbol of Odin), as well as other Norse symbols, are placed throughout the hall. 

One of their windows even depicts the uproarious Up Helly Aa celebration, famous in Lerwick. Local groups organize as crews, donning Viking garb as they parade with lit torches throughout the dark streets heading toward the shore, where all the tribes set a Viking ship ablaze. 


the Arctic Cathedral

Photo: Thomas Veith / Wikipedia
The stained-glass window at the Arctic Cathedral is called “The Return of Christ.”

Stained glass comes to Norway

It is difficult to find examples of early stained-glass windows in Norway, perhaps because of the many fires and other catastrophes that affected older churches and cathedrals, including Nidaros. This cathedral in Trondheim began as a church over King Olav’s grave about 1,000 years ago. He was bestowed the honor of sainthood, which led to pilgrimages to Nidaros. The pilgrimage path is known as St. Olav’s Way. 

In more contemporary times, 1814 to be specific, the country was finally free of more than half a millennium of foreign rule. A decision was made to restore the cathedral, as if it represented a part of Norway’s soul.

One especially noteworthy window was created by artist Gabriel Kielland and was completed in time for Olav’s anniversary in 1930. But although this glorious geometric rose window is sublime, its subject is not: Doomsday. Interestingly, it was the women of the area who raised money for this window project by selling their crafts. 

Stained glass in the 20th century 

Emanuel Vigeland, the artist who painted the astounding fresco-enveloped mausoleum where his ashes rest, is the younger brother of the famous Gustav Vigeland. Emanuel designed stained-glass windows that adorn churches and cathedrals throughout Norway and beyond. He even ran a school for this art form for three years.

“The Virgin and the Unicorn” is a particularly strong impression. If you have seen the famous Unicorn tapestries at the Cloisters in New York, it is interesting to see these themes in a distinctly different medium. The tender way the young girl embraces the unicorn is visually replicated in the entwining foliage. Even the hunter is wrapped in this design motif. However, in the virgin and unicorn side, the tendrils serve as a means to protect, while on the other side, the foliage serves as way to disguise and hide the predator, forging an interesting twist and tension.

Nidaros Cathedral

Arctic stained glass 

Perhaps Norway has the most northern piece of stained glass in the world found at Tromsdalen kirke, known as the Arctic Cathedral. Designed by Architect Jan Inge Hovig, the church’s contemporary architecture, comprised of triangles of various sizes, is compressed in places like an accordion. 

The window called the “The Return of Christ,” takes that frame from this spectacular construction. Although it is contemporary, its design hearkens back to the earliest pieces of glass windows with its fractures and thick texture. Made in 1972 by Victor Sparre, it is placed on the eastern side of the church. Thus, as the sun rises, a soaring Christ bedazzles in cobalt blues and golds, with the magical, magnificent beauty of stained glass. 

This article originally appeared in the March 4, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Victoria Hofmo

Victoria Hofmo was born, raised, and still lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the historical heart of Norwegian New York. She is 3/4 Scandinavian: 1/2 Norwegian and 1/4 Danish/Swedish. Self-employed, she runs an out-of-school-time program that articulates learning through the arts. Hofmo is an advocate for arts and culture, education, and the preservation of the built and natural environment of her hometown, with a love for most things Scandinavian.