Vardø, a tiny town in northern Norway with a population of just 2,200, is the site of one of the world’s most haunting contemporary memorials: the Steilneset Memorial for the Victims of the Finnmark Witch Trials. In this spot, in the 1600s, 91 men and women were tried and burned at the stake for the “crime” of witchcraft. Now, 400 years later, in a ceremony presided over by Her Majesty Queen Sonja of Norway this past summer, there’s an attempt to honor the victims both in Norway and around Europe.
Witches were first burned at the stake in the 1400s in England and Scotland. The practice then spread to Norway by the 1600s, with Vardø playing a central role in this dark period in human history. According to Norway’s tourist site, “As with most other witch trials, it was often part of the process to include ‘trial by water’ – the result being seen as ‘God’s will.’ Those accused were bound hand and foot and thrown into the water. If the person floated, it was sign of their guilt. If they sank, they were innocent. During the Vardø witch trials, all those that were subjected to ‘trial by water’ floated – thus guilty in the eyes of God.” Because fear ruled during this period, trials were then “quick and efficient,” so as to ensure that witches “could not seek revenge through spells cast upon the accusers and the population.”
In the opening ceremony for the memorial, Sturla J. Stalsett, general secretary of the Vardø Church City Mission, said the site “is meant to remind us of the ongoing danger of collectively creating scapegoats.” And while the monument commemorates the deaths of many innocent people, it’s also a powerful addition to one of the world’s great sets of contemporary landscape architecture and architecture projects, the National Tourist Route, which offers designed vantage points for seeing Norway’s rich natural beauty.
According to Architectural Record, the monument was sponsored by the town of Vardø, Finnmark County, the Varanger Museum, and the Norwegian Public Roads Administration. Famed artist Louis Bourgeois was commissioned to create an art installation for the memorial, while Pritzker prize-winning Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, who recently partnered with Piet Oudolf on last year’s successful Serpentine Gallery pavilion, was hired for the building. Bourgeois was 94 at the start of the project, so much of it was executed by her longtime assistant, Jerry Gorovoy, after she died a few years ago.
The building design was inspired by the powerful setting: “Arriving in Vardø, the architect was struck by the harsh, treeless landscape along the Barents Sea, and the indigenous man-made elements such as spindly diagonal wood racks for drying fish, once a major export item. He also found the lamps in the small curtainless windows of the houses had a certain poignancy.”
Inside, Zumthor created various window frames that “funnel out on to the landscape, a swaying bulb in each of them, one for every witch that was burned at the stake here in the 17th century,” writes Icon Magazine. “By each window is the story of the witch that the bulb commemorates, reproduced from court protocols and printed on a piece of suspended silk. Accused of demonic conspiracy and of exerting magical harm by the casting of spells, they were thrown into the icy sea to see if they sank or floated (the latter indicative of their guilt), tortured on the rack or with hot tongs and, after they’d signed a confession, burned to death at this very spot.”
Bourgeois wanted her own space for her installation, The Damned, The Possessed and The Beloved, so, at the south side of the building, an exterior “gangplank” was set leading to a “glass cubiform” pavilion with a Cor-Ten steel roof and columns that support panels of dark glass. Inside is a visceral, scary work meant to give a sense of what the victims must have experienced.
Image credit: (1) Andrew Meredith / Icon Magazine, (2) Andrew Meredith / Icon Magazine, (3) Andrew Meredith / Icon Magazine, (4) © Matilda McQuaid / Architectural Record (5) © Lysholm Hege / Architectural Record