Thursday, May 26, 2011


* as Trondheim was called in the Viking age.
As Jennifer mentioned previously, I spent a few days this May attending SCAI 2011. The conference was held at NTNU, in Trondheim, so I got to spend a few days in that very pleasant city. I'd actually been to Trondheim once before, for a few hours: in 2005, when we were in Norway attending one of Jennifer's conferences, we took Hurtigruten down from Bodø, so we were in Trondheim for about 4 hours early one morning along the way. We managed to wander the city a bit that time, just enough to see the cathedral from the outside and to get a cup of coffee at a nice little café, and it seemed like a nice place, and I was excited to get a chance to go back for a bit.

It's hard for me to talk about Trondheim's cathedral except in terms of contrast with Uppsala cathedral—which isn't entirely unreasonable, historically, since the builders of Uppsala cathedral made the comparison fairly explicit right from the get go. It's hard to devise a meaningful catechism for Uppsala cathedral without constant reference to Nidaros:
How big is Uppsala cathedral?
6 meters taller than Nidaros.
Why is there a statue of St. Olav here?
Because a lot of the pilgrim traffic came from Jamtland, and they were basically Norwegians who just happened to live in Sweden, so they wanted to pray to St. Olav instead of St. Erik.
So what?
They were all making pilgrimages to Trondheim, and we wanted the business.
Why is the statue of Erik taller than the statue of St. Olav?
Because Erik is Swedish, duh.
You get the picture.

Given all of that, it's a little surprising to me just how poorly Uppsala's cathedral fares in a direct comparison. I think the difference basically comes down to something I heard the University tour guide say once about Uppsala cathedral: it isn't just that no one comes to Sunday services at the cathedral now—there has never been a large congregation here. It wasn't intended as a church for Uppsala, as evidenced by the fact that when it was completed it could seat twice the population of the city; instead, it was a symbol of how very Christian Sweden had become. Intended to impress more than invite, the resulting building does neither.

Nidaros came about more organically, starting as a romanesque basilica in the 11th century and undergoing a series of expansions (and recoveries from fires) up until 1531, when it looked essentially like it does today. I'm not saying that it isn't showy—the massive wall of saintly statues looming over the entrance certainly isn't meant to make you feel welcome—but it has seen steady use through the centuries, and the dimly lit, hushed interior encourages contemplation. The stone work, both decorative and structural, is local soapstone, and the obvious handholds in surviving sections have smoothed and blackened with centuries of human contact.

No pictures allowed, so you'll have to settle for this one of a small side chapel, I'm afraid.
I say, "surviving," because, of course, there have been many fires over the years; most unfortunately, soapstone melts at a relatively low temperature, so the walls have a tendency to slump when the interior burns. The building may now look like it did in 1531, but that's a recent development; a particularly bad fire that year, combined with Trondheim's declining political significance and lack of economic viability, left the front half of the building in ruins for more than three hundred years, and the reconstruction project that started in 1869 wasn't completed until 2001. Despite all of that, though, it manages to feel like a living building. While church attendance in Norway is just as low as it is in the rest of northern Europe, the building remains a popular destination for locals, serving mostly these days as concert hall and picnic focal point.

The crypt holds a collection of gravestones from throughout the cathedral's history—check out the awesome font!
The frequent [ de | recon ]structions have a plus side. In the modern renovation, the walls of the nave had to be torn down and rebuilt, revealing that in a much earlier reconstruction the walls had been filled with discarded stone work from the building's previous incarnation. This includes an impressive amount of medieval statuary in remarkably good condition. This now forms the bulk of the collection of a nicely done museum just next door in the reconstructed Archbishop's palace complex. I wound up spending a few hours there—long enough to start to feel a little freaked out by the blank stares of oversized saints and tortured gargoyles. Not that the statues are all the museum has to offer—when digging the foundation, they unearthed the tile floor of the Archbishop's mint! I'll admit that I'm more numismatically inclined than most, but don't you think that the oldest discovered mint in Europe would be worth some mention in the guidebooks?

As this has turned out to be a rather lengthy post, I'm going to stop there, leaving my random comments on the city and the university for another (theoretical) post.
  1. For the sake of correctness (and possibly at the cost of clarity): yes, I was there because I won a Best Masters Thesis award, but not one presented by SCAI. I won the annual SAIS award for best AI Masters thesis. And yes, my field (that is, constraint programming) is considered part of AI by SAIS, although not by SCAI. It just happens that this year's SAIS meeting was part of the larger SCAI meeting, so that's where I went to present. And yes, I did feel a bit like I imagine Ian Anderson must have done when Jethro Tull won a Grammy for Best Heavy Metal Album.
  2. An attitude which, unfortunately, persists to this day: the recently installed pipe organ is quite impressive until you hear how jarringly unsuited it is to the space.
  3. Once when visiting the British Museum, we started in the coin collection. As I slowly made my way through the cases, Jennifer got further and further ahead of me, finally disappearing altogether. She returned later to point out that I had spent the bulk of the afternoon getting through the first three of six rooms of coins, and to rather pointedly mention that there were a few other things worth seeing in the building.

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