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From ashes to Art Nouveau

A DRAMATIC FIRE RAZED THE CITY OF √ÖLESUND (say ‘Orlesund’) on Norway’s west coast, exactly one hundred years ago. Today, √Ölesund-host to last week’s YWAM Viking Arts Festival-owes its famous Art Nouveau architecture to this disaster. And therein lies a fascinating tale.

√Ölesund grew up as a fisheries town clinging to a rocky promontory, like a long boney finger pointing towards the coastal islands. Such a remote location seemed an unlikely venue for a Europe-wide Gathering of the Arts, following last year’s global event in Hollywood (see www.vikingfestival.org/aalesund).

Yet a statue in the city park of Rollo the Viking was a reminder of the widespread influence that has spread from this coast across Europe over the centuries. Up to 1200 years ago, marauding Viking flotillas left from western ports like √Ölesund for the British Isles. It was Rollo who led a bunch of Vikings (including my ancestors) from the Orkney Islands to found Normandy in 911. His descendent William the Conqueror crossed the English Channel in 1066, making Rollo a forefather of the English royal family.

A more obvious reason for holding the Viking Festival in √Ölesund was that for years now UIO (YWAM in Norway) has run a creative arts Discipleship Training School there with specialist tracks in dance, music and painting. The serene beauty of the surrounding fjords, islands and mountains makes this city a natural environment for creative inspiration. And creativity was evident on every side as young musicians, singers, dancers, painters and artists of all sorts converged on the Culture House-from all across Europe and as far afield as South America-for four days of concerts, seminars, workshops, inspirational plenary sessions and just hanging out together in the town’s cafes.

But the end goal was not simply art for art’s sake. A common thread throughout the festival was expressing God’s glory in cultural diversity – from Armenian dance to Argentinian rhythm. The 350 participants were serious about being salt and light in a field too-long dominated by godlessness.

And that brings us to another good reason for coming to √Ölesund. For the story of √Ölesund’s fire illustrates that godlessness reaps consequences.

On a corner just up the road from the Culture House stands an old two-storey wooden house with a gabled attic, the oldest building in the city. This house remains as a memorial to a remarkable act of God during that fateful stormy night on January 23, 1904, when a fire began in the western quarter of town. Fanned by the strong southwesterly wind, flames leapt from house to house, threatening the whole town and its ten thousand inhabitants. The alarm was raised. Panicky citizens gathered whatever possessions they could. Everyone fled to the city outskirts.

Almost everyone, that is. One elderly woman returned to her house to rescue more of her possessions, and died in the flames, the only human casualty of the fire.

Another who did not flee was a God-fearing believer named Anders Nord. In an interview in 1913, Nord explained to a journalist how an angel had appeared to him saying he was not to flee, but should stay in his house and that he would remain unharmed. Nord told of looking out the windows towards the raging fire quickly approaching his house destroying everything it its path. Yet he felt an inner calm, and sat on his bed reading Psalm 91. His wife, apparently less certain, began setting household articles out of the house to take to safety. Before she could flee, however, the flames surrounded the house and consumed everything outside, including the clothesline right up to the house.

But the house itself remained totally unscathed. While the temperature outside was unbearable, said Nord, everything inside remained normal. The fire, lasting sixteen hours, passed by to finish the almost total devastation of the whole town centre. One or two other buildings on the foreshore escaped total destruction, but only the two-storey wooden house of Anders Nord remained untouched.

My hosts showed me a photo (which I copied with my small digital camera) of the razed town centre with this solitary house standing amidst the ashes and the rubble as a testimony to the saving power of God. A staff member of a museum in the city told me that it was not such a miracle really, as the house was surrounded by large open spaces and fields. But that is clearly not so from the photo, which shows the rubble of the neighbouring buildings on all sides. And was it simply coincidence that in the one house spared out of 850 dwellings destroyed sat a man calmly reading his Bible?!

Three years prior to the fire, my hosts informed me, an evangelist planting Mission Covenant churches had been chased to the city outskirts by unresponsive citizens. The evangelist had apparently declared to his pursuers that they too would be chased to the outskirts of town just as he had been! I also saw a short film which had been aired on local television, in which Nord’s granddaughter confirmed the details of the story. The (non-Christian) historian-narrator, standing in front of the old wooden house, admitted that there were those who questioned the truth of this remarkable story. “The only problem,” he told his television audience, “is the house still standing behind me!”

From the ashes of disaster rose a new town – phoenix-like – in the Art Nouveau architectural style popular across Europe at the time. Helpers and donors from near and far assisted, including the German Kaiser Wilhelm II, for whom Norway was a favourite vacation destination. Stained glass windows in the Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) style adorning the √Ölesund Church (1909) was one of his gifts to the city. Turrets, spires, arches, balconies, imaginative wall ornamentation and interwoven designs have given √Ölesund an international reputation for architectural creativity.

And so the city’s Art Nouveau reknown is itself a memorial to an event in which both the destructive consequences of godlessness and God’s saving power are evident for those with eyes to see. A great venue for a Gathering of the Arts!

Till next week,

Jeff Fountain

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