The 'After the Black Death' project (ABD) was launched in 2010 and funded from mid-2014 to the end of 2018. Funding allowed an international network to focus on late-medieval folding altarpieces, shrines and sculptures from Norwegian churches. Efforts concentrated especially on circa 25 objects that have been categorised as imports from northern Germany to Norway in the period after the first wave of Bubonic Plague (1349) until the early years of the Reformation from 1536.
A point of departure was the problematic category of 'import' and the theory first aired 1878 that too few craftsmen survived after the Black Death to meet demand for religious objects. According to this theory, traders from northern Germany and the Netherlands filled the void, delivering objects for Norwegian churches to the detriment and exclusion of local sources. In the era of national-Romanticism, allusions to loss were furthermore conflated with negative ideas about Hanseatic traders. The objects under investigation during the ABD project have therefore been more closely associated with Norway's 400-årsnatten (the '400-year night') than national narratives, despite their importance to Norwegian cultural heritage (Streeton 2014; 2016/17; 2018; Ebert 2019).
The ABD project has engaged conservators, materials scientists, and historians to redirect interpretations of this category of object. Together, collaborative groups have traced the circumstances under which late-medieval objects in Oslo and Bergen were produced, which formed foundations for decoding damages and tracing transformations over time.
Investigations focused first on original form, colour and lustre, to explore when and how individual elements within each object were made. Dendrochronology indicated dates for wooden structural components, as well as sources for the wood (Daly and Streeton 2017), while imaging and chemical characterisation offered essential data for assessing composition and degradation of paint and gilding. This work established firstly that the category of 'import' is far too simple, primarily because it appears that numerous workshops were responsible for producing various parts over many decades, and probably in multiple locations (Daly and Streeton 2017; Streeton et al. 2018; forthcoming). While workshops in northern Germany undoubtedly were responsible for some elements in multi-component altarpieces, shrines and epitaphs, it is likely the many individual components were shipped separately, mainly to Bergen, then assembled and finished on arrival. For this reason labels like 'North German', or 'Norwegian' are unhelpful, as locations for production were complicated and multi-national.
Materials research furthermore clarified the mechanisms by which copper-green and lead-based paints have degraded, e.g., in sea-side churches (Platania et al. 2018). Among the findings, it is now evident that metal soaps can remineralise within oil paints, which complicate the interpretation of original components more than previously acknowledged (Platania et al. forthcoming). Diverse investigations into the nature of support structures, repairs and overpaints have furthermore redrawn the lines of previous art-historical narratives (Ebert 2019).
Beyond this, the aforementioned studies of original materials, fragmentation and degradation have led to new questions, which in turn have opened paths for enquiries into how parishioners over hundreds of years experienced these objects in their churches and in their daily lives. For example, physical evidence of repetitive touching, likely to activate a saint sculpture, or deliberate damage to test, deactivate and/or shame it, can now be 'read' alongside historical and legal sources (Streeton 2017; forthcoming). Specific evidence for nasal mutilation, coupled with specific punishments found in Norwegian civil law, lend support to broader research into the ways in which hybrid liturgical practices were halted during the protracted Reformation, long after 1536. A transition from Catholicism was not achieved within three generations, as is so often stated.
Finally, the Museum of Cultural History (UiO) has created a public face for ABD research through the exhibition Forvandling / Transformation, which opened in January 2019. The exhibition was developed specifically to feature ABD results together with those from another NFR-funded project, 'Religion and Money'. The curatorial team drew on rich experience of historical modes of display for medieval church objects (Liepe 2018), while also confronting display challenges posed by profoundly damaged religious instruments. Gallery texts along with a gallery guide (Bjerregaard ed. 2018) highlight issues of making, continued use, partial destruction and constant re-interpretation after the Reformation and up to today.
The ABD project has engaged conservators, materials scientists, and historians to redirect interpretations of this category of object. Together, collaborative groups have traced the circumstances under which late-medieval objects in Oslo and Bergen were produced, which formed foundations for decoding damages and tracing transformations over time. This is important because the majority are now both physically and ontologically unrecognisable to a general audience.
Efforts concentrated especially on circa 25 objects that have been categorised as imports from northern Germany to Norway in the period after the first wave of Bubonic Plague (1349) until the early years of the Reformation (from 1536). Funding allowed the international network to focus on late-medieval folding altarpieces, shrines and sculptures from Norwegian churches, and particularly those now in museums. For final project results see: https://www.hf.uio.no/iakh/english/research/projects/medieval-painting/index.html
'After the Black Death' focuses on an internationally important group of folding altarpieces, shrines, sculptures and crucifixes. The majority is thought to have been imported to Norway from northern Germany and the Low Countries after 1350, and possibly as late as the 1550s - between the first wave of Bubonic Plague and the early years of the Reformation.
The collection was last studied systematically in the 1930s. In the intervening 75+ years, scientists have developed innovative methods for character ising paint, gilding and the wood used for carving and frames. Such material data will allow project investigators to build on art-historical attributions, and to provide a context for these currently de-contextualised works of art. This research will fac ilitate a far more complete understanding of profoundly altered objects than has been possible before.
Visualising the original and interim appearances creates intellectual access to earlier perceptions of objects that were once central to late-medieval church culture across this country. However, understanding appearances and functions over time is only the first step. The process of examination and interpretation aims to inform far larger debates, especially those that address foreign influences on No rwegian cultural landscapes. Foreign origins and Catholic associations have conditioned negative ideas about so-called Hanseatic art and Norway's decline after 1350. Moreover, objects of this kind continue to sit outside of Norwegian national narratives. The project therefore aims to unravel and unveil the positive aspects of cultural exchanges during 'Dansketiden'.
The project is led by Tine Frøysaker in collaboration with an international network. The research agenda has been designed to cultivate n ew understandings of conservation research and its contemporary implications. Outcomes include publications, exhibitions and a database, to make this little-known resource broadly accessible.