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  • Perspectives (Old and New) on Late Medieval Church Art in Norway:Questioning the Hegemony of Lübeck Workshops1
  • Noëlle L. W. Streeton

Historical assessments of late medieval church art in Norway have, since the 1870s, advanced from the theory that artistic production in Norway largely ceased after the Black Death (1349). In the late nineteenth century, scholars were also developing ideas and assumptions about Hanseatic trade networks around the North Sea and Baltic region, which facilitated the transfer of raw materials, works of art, and craftsmen from one place to another. These two lines of inquiry intersected with the art historian Lorentz Dietrichson (1834–1917), who in 1878 appears to have been the first to suggest that all wooden sculptures were imported (Dietrichson 1878, 63–8). [End Page 50] According to Dietrichson, plague had devastated the Norwegian population of craftsmen, which in turn led to the loss of local traditions. Thus, sculptures were imported via Hanseatic traders to satisfy demand in churches across the country because this demand could no longer be satisfied by indigenous workshops. Dietrichson's assertion was preliminary and limited to sculpture, but it was reinforced by other scholars who extended it to other object types. Of approximately 200 surviving altarpieces, shrines, and polychrome sculptures that pre-date the Reformation in Denmark-Norway (1536), roughly 75 percent have at one time or another been set apart from products of the Norwegian High Middle Ages through an association with painters and sculptors in Lübeck. This association with Lübeck and other north German Hanseatic centers has brought with it links, both subtle and overt, with the political and economic dominance of the Hanseatic League during a period commonly referred to as Norway's "400-year night."

The impact of this categorization is still present in current scholarship, and, for this reason, this paper addresses issues tied up in a Lübeck lineage. The significance and connotations of this lineage cannot be taken at face value today when a combination of historical scholarship and scientific analysis can simultaneously clarify and problematize earlier unsubstantiated assumptions. This is important when considering that these assumptions have led to a cultural devaluation of this category of church art, particularly those objects that were transferred to museums (Streeton 2016, 421–3). With keen insight into the nature of workshop practices, and attention to the materials found in the objects themselves, it seems that Lübeck attributions for many objects are difficult to defend, even if the mysteries of Lübeck workshop practices are far from being resolved. Current work focuses on drawing stronger connections between international impulses entwined with Norwegian cultural traditions, which have the potential to significantly alter public perceptions of this category of cultural heritage (Streeton 2013a; 2014; 2016).


This paper centers on formative scholarship for Lübeck attributions and the sparse evidence related to activities of painters working in and around Bergen as a way to unravel and locate current perspectives on late medieval church art in Norway. The two central questions pursued here have been: Who were the figures that shaped ideas surrounding [End Page 51] Lübeck attributions? And how might current researchers make sense of connections to Bergen (because it seems unlikely that the demise of local production was complete)?

The aim has been to offer a historical underpinning for materials research (physical and chemical) within the scope of a multi-disciplinary project based in Conservation Studies, Department of Archaeology, Conservation and History, University of Oslo. Without drawing conclusions as yet, this study has strengthened arguments for the presence of active painters in Norway in the late medieval period, most likely with links to the Hanseatic community in Bergen.2 At the very least, the data that have already been gathered suggest strongly that the circumstances under which composite objects were produced were far more complicated than a Lübeck attribution could possibly reflect (fig. 1).


The research network within the project called After the Black Death: Painting and Polychrome Sculpture in Norway (henceforth, ABD) has focused on roughly twenty-five of sixty-five late medieval works owned by the Museum of Cultural History (Kulturhistorisk museum; KHM), University of Oslo. These...


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