Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Menorah of Viborg

It is truly an amusing coincidence that I should come across this story on Hanukkah. Yesterday, while looking through a postcard album that was given to me by my great-aunt and had belonged to my great-grandmother, I came across some photos of the cathedral in Viborg and the idea for this article.

The menorah was a seven branched lampstand made of pure gold that was used by Moses in the Tabernacle and later illuminated the Temple in Jerusalem. It is central to the Jewish festival of lights, called Hanukkah, which commemorates the purification of the temple by the Maccabees after the Greeks had befouled it. As the story goes, after reclaiming the temple in a successful revolt, the Maccabees could only find one small cruse of the sacred oil used to fuel the eternal fire of the menorah. The oil was sufficient only for one day, but miraculously lasted for eight - enough time for more sacred oil to be prepared without the holy flames dying out.

Depiction of the menorah in a Jewish bible
  Cervera, 13th century

In 70 CE the temple was destroyed by Emperor Titus and the menorah was brought to Rome. After being paraded in the city with the other spoils from the temple, it was deposited in the Forum of Vespasian. A depiction of it can be seen on the Arch of Titus. When the Vandals sacked Rome in the fifth century the menorah was lost. It is theorized to eventually have found its way back to Jerusalem - only to be pillaged again by the Persians and disappear for good.

While the relic may have been lost, the motif of the seven branched lampstand or candelabrum survived. Adopted from Judaism by the first Christians, it gradually spread over Europe and eventually found its way into the Catholic Church in medieval times. The oldest artifact in Scandinavia, found in the cathedral of Lund, was crafted in 1325. Another noteworthy seven branched candelabrum was designed in 1515 by order of Bishop Niels Clausen [-15.12.1531] for the cathedral of Århus. But the oldest artifact in Denmark is the one found in the cathedral of Viborg.

The candelabrum of Viborg, 1875
Illus. by Christian Olavius Zeuthen
-Det Kongelige Bibliotek

Front view of the Cathedral Viborg, 1910's
The seven branched candelabrum of Viborg [Danish: Den syvarmede lysestage] was crafted in Lübeck, Germany in 1494 by order of Bishop Niels Globs [-1498]. Fully cast in bronze, it stands at a height of approximately 2.7 meters. The foot of the artifact rests on three lying lions, bearing some resemblance to the older candelabrum of Lund. Amidst the central pillar is an openwork bible-holder, depicting the Sun in His Splendour, and above it a miniature of Bishop Globs with the inscription “hr. bisschop glop”. At the base of the middle branches is an emblem of the letter P, with an inscription commemorating canon P. Povelsen’s partaking in its creation. Like the menorah of Jerusalem, the candelabrum of Viborg also survived a few hardships.

On June 17, 1501 the cathedral was struck by lightning and went up in flames. The west tower, roof, transept gable and the top of the apse were destroyed by the fire. Only three artifacts survived the blaze - a crucifix, the ark of saint Kjeld [-1150] and the fairly new seven-branched candelabrum. After the cathedral was restored these objects assumed a place of honor in the high chancel next to the chest of saint Villehad [-789]

The candelabrum of Viborg, 1910's
A fire which broke out in Viborg on May 16, 1567 again damaged the cathedral. It was reportedly so intense it melted the bells in the two spires as well as the copper roof of the building, but the objects in the chancel were unharmed. Viborg suffered two more fires in 1615 and 1667, but the worst blaze in its history struck on June 25, 1726. The greater part of the city was laid to ashes in this fire and the cathedral suffered severe damage. Claimed by the flames, the right spire came falling down on the roof and crushed the arches, leaving nothing but the outer walls standing. All woodwork within the cathedral was consumed, including the saints’ arks. But the seven branched candelabrum miraculously survived the devastation with only slight damage to its foot. In the following four years the ruined cathedral was reconstructed in an impressive feat by master builder Claus Stallknecht of Altona [1681-03.03.1734]. Bellfounder Caspar König of Danzig [1699-14.01.1780] repaired the damaged foot of the candelabrum for the reconsecration in 1730. It was returned to its place in the chancel, and was later drawn by naturalist Søren Pedersen Abildgaar [18.02.1718-02.07.1791] in his survey of monuments in the cathedral.

Interior view towards the altar, 1910's
But Stallknecht's construction work did not hold long. Within a few years alarming cracks appeared in the arches, gradually turning into gaping holes. The cathedral went into repairs time and again, until finally being shut down in 1862. It was only opened in September 10, 1876, having undergone renovation and reconstrution by three different architects. The ceiling of the cathedral was decorated with marvelous murals by history painter Frederik Christian Lund [14.02.1826-31.10.1901], depicting various biblical scenes. The seven branched candelabrum was brought to Copenhagen in 1875 to undergo a meticulous restoration at the workshop of metal worker Pers. Three granite stones were attached to its foot under the lying lions to better its balance. Since its return, the menorah of Viborg has stood in a place of honor in the middle of the crossing. There the artifact is admired by many of the cathedral's visitors and often pictured, but few know its origin and meaning.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this. We were just at the Viborg Cathedral and wondered about that fantastic menorah.