A Story of Murals – the Oslo Cathedral and Oslo City Hall

Whats in a picture?


A picture is a snapshot of history, a memory frozen for posterity, a guide to creativity, a chronicle of a civilisation…

It was the last thing that struck me while visiting the Oslo Cathedral and City Hall. Despite the Cathedral being completed more than 250 years prior, the Cathedral was completed in 1694 while the City Hall was completed in 1950 the harmonised brilliantly in teaching the traveller about a people. The murals told the story of a people and their beliefs and taken side by side stand as a testament to the evolution of society.

The Cathedral of Oslo is the mother-church of the Diocese of Oslo within the Lutheran Church of Norway. Scandanavia is a relative bastion of Lutheranism and has three national churches, the Church of Norway, Church of Sweden and Church of Denmark. All are enshrined as the National Church in the constitution of the countries.

On exteriors of the church are unspectaular, this is no Sagrada Familia by Gaudi, its most notable external feature has nothing to with the architecture of the church but the location – that it is situated next to the main shopping street of Karl Johans Gata.

But walk inside and the murals capture you. What is normally a plan looking Lutheran-styled church (such a the cathedral in Helsinki) is transformed by the paintings and murals on the ceiling.  The murals here are christian in nature, a catechism in hues, a style of public evangelism atypical for a Lutheran church and more at home in a catholic church.

The placement of the murals is also revealing. At the heart of any Christian Church (not of the modern evangelical movement) is the altar and the centre where the act of the last supper is either relived or memorialised (depending on which church you go to). The murals to the left and right aisle of the church depict Jesus’ ministry leading up to the final act of redemption (the deed that begins the Christian church and faith) – Jesus’ condemnation to bear his cross to Calvary, crucifiction.

Imagine yourself walking in in the 1700s, illiterate and poor and trying to listen to the priest explain Jesus’ ministry, these pictures bring alive the words that the priests say.

After the service ends, you walk out of the church from the same door you entered, you look up and what greets you now instead of Jesus are depictions of the twelve apostles who were sent to evangelise and spread the Christian gospel. The symbolic meaning of such an idea is really powerful – just as the apostles were called to evangelise and bear witness through your life so are you the devotee called to do the same.

The church and the state were only delinked in Norway in 2017 and irreligiousness is still relatively new in Scandanavia. Belief in God was very strong in the 1700s and the murals on this wall stand, in my mind as a powerful testament to that. But it is a testament to a past, lived out almost in the number of people who frequent it and the people who use it for marriages. There were barely any people in the church and from what I understand, barely any weddings.

Instead of putting faith in God, a short walk to the City Hall shows that the faith in science, progress and humanity has come to be the more dominating factor in Norwegian society today.

Putting aside the decidedly controversial external facade of the City Hall (some people love it, some people seem to hate it), there was the unavoidable fact that more people were visiting and getting married in the city hall than the cathedral.

The typical church wedding was replaced by the city hall wedding, I saw two weddings in the short time I walked around there, I saw practically no one in the cathedral.

The city hall contrasts even more with the cathedral because it too is filled with murals. Walking in the city hall, a vast mural greets you. Like the central one in the church this too talks about the stages of life – but in this case the main actor is not Jesus but average people, who go one to live their life in many ways (from birth to death, romance and business etc).

The site of the award of the annual Nobel Peace Prize, the city hall is filled with murals and art works in every room with themese dedicated to the Norwegian people and they struggle as a society to move from relative poverty to the richest in the world.

It immortalises the economic reason (oil) for the wealth of Norway in recent times, it records the founding of a nation, it details the horrors of World War 2. Then there are the less eventful murals that depict the beauty of the countryside and the small town living outside of Oslo.

The shift is obvious, from a religion driven society, to one where individualism stands tall. From worshiping a god to celebrating a people.

What is the value of these pictures?

A chronicle of the evolution of the Norwegian peoples.

ON THE MAP (Oslo Cathedral)

ON THE MAP (Oslo City Hall)

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