Sculpture before 1800

The earliest-known Norwegian sculptural works are stone carvings dating from the period 5000-1500 BCE, found in the mountains of Nordland and Nord-Trøndelag. Featuring animals such as reindeer, moose, deer and bear, these symbols of the hunt continued to be carved throughout the pre-Christian era and even beyond – in the eastern parts of Norway several richly-ornamented rocks featuring Christian motives have also been found. The richly-decorated wooden portal at Urnes stave church, dating from the second half of the 11th century, is considered to be the last monument containing carvings representing animals, but in any case animal symbolism was by this time influenced mainly by religious motives. During the Bronze Age too, geometrically-shaped ornaments were created, and by around 400 BCE these had evolved into a basic style featuring eagles, wolves and snakes which was to remain unaltered until the middle ages.

Findings from the Viking Era show ornamental treatment of high artistic value. Norway’s first sculptural portrait is considered to be Eysten Rex, a marble head of Norwegian King Øystein Magnusson (1088-1123) found in the Munkeliv monastery at Bergen. Extensively represented at the Nidaros Dome in Trondheim (Nidaros was the original name of the city of Trondheim), the stone sculpture of the 13th century was influenced by both English technique and French Gothic style. The principal sculptural symbols of this century were the crucifix, Mary and the Holy Child and Olav Haraldsson, also known as Olav den Hellige (‘Olav the Sacred’). The late Gothic era which followed was dominated by imported work from Germany, Brabant and the Netherlands. Prior to the Reformation, sculptural work was mainly figurative, and during the 17th century a strong tradition of episcopal art developed in the form of altar pieces, altar panels and altar chairs, all of which laid the foundations for the rich ecclesiastical sculptural traditions of the Baroque era. Examples of this may be found in Vår Frelsers Kirke (Our Saviour’s Church) in Oslo, whence this new technique quickly spread to the regions, especially Hedmark and Gudbrandsdalen. Artists mostly carved in
either wood or stone and sculptures were rarely produced. As in many other disciplines of the arts, leading Norwegian sculptors such as Magnus Berg (1666-1739) generally had to move to Denmark to find work, a situation that did not change until Norway was in Union with Sweden.

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Wooden statue representing St. Nicolaus (dated approx. 1250). From Eidsborg in TelemarkPhoto: Vest-Telemark museum