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Steilneset Memorial: a suggestive monument to the victims of the 17th century Norwegian witch trials

3 min read

On the stark, barren coast of the Barents Sea in Vardø, Norway, there are pair of modern but impact structures known collectively as the Steilneset Memorial which honors the memories of the dozens of people killed during the 17th-century Vardø witch trials.
In the seventeenth century, a series of witch trials occurred in Norway, of which the Vardø witch trials were among the most brutal. Over a hundred people were tried for witchcraft, with 77 women and 14 men being burned at the stake. The northern district of Finnmark, within which Vardø lies, experienced the highest rate of accusations of witchcraft of any part of Norway, and an unusually high proportion of executions arising from the trials.
Designed in collaboration between the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor and the late French-American artist Louise Bourgeois and inaugurated in 2001, the ultra-modern constructions stand out against the natural coastal landscape yet don’t seem out of place, sharing an almost perfect fusion with the landscape.
The Memorial comprises two separate buildings: a wooden structure framing a fabric cocoon that contains Zumthor’s installation, and a square smoked glass room that contains the work of Bourgeois.

Zumthor’s portion of the memorial consists of a pine scaffolding supporting a suspended silk cocoon. Within the cocoon, visitors walk along a narrow 120-meters long oak-floored corridor illuminated by 91 small lights set into little windows randomly placed, each one representing someone who was killed on suspicion of sorcery. Each window is accompanied by an explanatory text based on original sources that illuminates the story of each victim. Through each window there is a single lightbulb, intended to evoke “the lamps in the small curtainless windows of the houses” of the region.

Bourgeois’ portion of the memorial is a large box made of smoked glass that sits just to the side of Zumthor’s silk missile. Called, The Damned, The Possessed and The Beloved, the piece was Bourgeois’s last major installation before her death. The darkened glass room contains an endless flame burning atop a steel chair that that itself is nested within a hollow concrete cone. The hot seat is surrounded by a series of mirrors that bounce the eerie light off of each other and the glass walls making the whole room dance with flames. This is reflected “in seven oval mirrors placed on metal columns in a ring around the fiery seat, like judges circling the condemned.” Writer Donna Wheeler, reflecting on Bourgeois’ sculpture with its fire burning within the solitary chair, observed: “The perpetual flame – that old chestnut of commemoration and reflection – here is devoid of any redemptive quality, illuminating only its own destructive image.

Yes. Knowing that the witch trials peaked in 1662–1663, It took over exactly 348 years for a memorial to be built for people tragically killed in Vardø, but given how haunting and suggestive the resulting installations are, it was well worth the wait!

Images from web.

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