A Paradoxical Painted Ceiling in Jelsa

28 July 2012


The present church at Jelsa was built around an earlier stave church.

Not far from Sand i Ryfylke, and also in Suldal, is the small town of Jelsa. Despite the fact that I have visited Sand many times, I have never before been to Jelsa, so my aunt and my sister and I piled into our rental car and drove over to the next town. It was a nice day for a drive in Suldal.

The interior of the early modern church at Jelsa.

Jelsa has a remarkable early modern church, which is a wonderful example of wooden vernacular ecclesiastical architecture. In an earlier post, Vernacular Culture in Hardanger, I mentioned how the Church Law of 1851 was used as a pretext to tear down many stave churches as being too small. There once was a stave church at Jelsa, but it did not fall victim to the Church Law of 1851. Apparently economic and demographic growth came earlier to Jelsa, and a newer (and larger) wooden church was built around the old stave church in 1647 — about the same time that Hålandstunet was being painted. These events suggest a level of relative prosperity in 17th century Suldal.

The remarkable ceiling of church at Jelsa is painted like the night sky — except that it includes the sun as well as the moon.

I particularly liked the ceiling of the Jelsa church, which is painted as a night sky, except that both the sun and the moon appear together on the ceiling — something one would never see under ordinary conditions of observational astronomy. Of course, one sees the sun and the moon together in the sky on a regular basis, but when we see this the sky is bright from the light of the sun, and not he dark blue of the night sky bespeckled with stars. One can suppose that this was mere astronomical eclecticism, perhaps the result of painterly enthusiasm and poetic license, or one can try to read a message into this paradoxical painting (e.g., Is this a veiled reference to Olber’s paradox?). Paradoxical painting is a favorite topic of theoretical exegesis (think of Foucault writing about Goya’s Las Meninas), but on this particular day I find myself quite without any theory to explain the ceiling (certainly an exception to the rule — I am rarely without a theory), so you must come up with your own and take responsibility for the interpretation.

It was a nice day for a drive around Suldal.

But now that I am thinking about both Jesla and Hålandstunet and the relative prosperity they represent, I am tempted to do some further research, as this sort of early modern efflorescence deserves an explanation, so I think that there is a potential theory here, though it may turn out to be as simple as the fact that a wandering painter was available in the area at that time, and was willing to paint for room and board. The local guide from the Ryfylke Museum, who was present at both Jesla and Hålandstunet (open on successive days, like a museum circuit), mentioned the name of the painter who did the interior of the Jelsa church. I didn’t think to ask if there was any relationship between these two examples of mid-seventeenth century painting in Suldal. It would be worth looking into.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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