It is Thursday morning the 5th of September 2013, I am standing by the window next to the balcony on the first floor of the old dairy at Blaker. In the window frame in front of me, leaning against the win­dow­pane, are three rizas which have arrived with the mail from an auction house in Århus. The word riza is Russian and desig­nates a metal cover pro­tecting an icon. An icon is an image of a saint in the Ortho­dox Church. A riza covers the whole image with the excep­tion of the heads, hands and feet of the holy. It lays bare the skin and con­ceals every­thing else. It is strange, I have seen images of saints where the surface of the paint­ing is almost empty, only heads and hands are de­picted. They float in the air. They are made to be cov­ered up. A riza is often made of a pre­cious metal, it shall both hon­our the image and pro­tect it, from soot and dirt and touch. The be­liev­ers light can­dles before the images and they kiss them and run their fin­gers over them. The images hang in icon cor­ners in homes and in church­es at desig­nat­ed places. Christ is en­throned to the right of the Royal Doors, the double doors at the centre of the icon­os­ta­sis, the image wall sepa­ra­ting the nave from the sanc­tuary, the con­gre­ga­tion from the clergy, in an Ortho­dox church. The Moth­er of God, Madon­na with the Child, is de­pict­ed on the oppo­site side. The Royal Doors lead to the altar, they are closed to the con­gre­ga­tion, they can only see into the sanc­tuary when the doors are opened at cer­tain points in the litur­gy. I am stand­ing look­ing at the three rizas in the win­dow frame in front of me, they con­ceal no­thing, there are no images be­hind them, the holes in the metal covers radi­ate with day­light. Yet I can en­vis­age the images, I recog­nize the out­lines, the styl­ized fig­ures, re­cur­ring in the art of the Ortho­dox Church: two heads, one lean­ing to­wards the other—it is the Vir­gin again, with her son in her lap, she bends her head to­wards him and he looks at us and lifts his hand to heav­en. I re­mem­ber an­other figure, a strong­ly sim­pli­fied story, from a stone church on a moun­tain ridge in the north-west of Spain, on the bor­der be­tween Gali­cia and Castil­la y León. The moss-grey build­ing lies be­hind a wall against the road, I went over to the low door at the foot of the bell tower and pushed it open. I went in and looked around me, the room was small and aus­tere, with wood­en bench­es and white­wash­ed stone walls. On the side walls, at reg­u­lar inter­vals, hung four­teen simple wood­en cross­es. They sym­bol­ize the Way of the Cross, the Way of Suf­fer­ing, the four­teen sta­tions of the Pas­sion of Christ, from when he is con­demned to death till he dies on the cross and is taken down and laid in the tomb. The four­teen scenes are por­tray­ed in most Catholic church­es, as paint­ings, memo­rial tablets or sculp­tures along the walls. I have seen fres­coes from floor to ceil­ing and marble groups the size of men, irre­place­able. Here, on the other hand, in this rural church, high up under heav­en, sim­plic­ity reigned. The four­teen cross­es looked the same, no­thing told them apart, no Roman nu­mer­als carved into the wood­work, no­thing. I have never seen a simpler de­pic­tion of the Way. The rad­i­cal sim­pli­fica­tion speaks of a com­mon, deeply rooted im­agery, people knew the Pas­sion, they carried it with them, four­teen wood­en cross­es were enough to evoke the se­ries of im­ages in the mind. I stand be­fore the first cross and see Jesus being con­demned to death. I stand before the sec­ond and see Jesus taking up the cross. I stand before the third and see Jesus fall­ing for the first time be­neath the cross. And so on, from cross to cross through­out the room. I go anti­clock­wise, in accor­dance with tra­di­tion, from the north side, the Gospel side of the altar. I think four­teen empty nich­es in the walls would have evoked the same images, and I would have been un­cer­tain if there were fewer or more. I stop at the repe­ti­tion and I rec­og­nize the num­ber. I have an­other memory from this bor­der­land, from a room at a guest house be­hind the Bene­dic­tine monas­tery in the moun­tain vil­lage of Samos. A day has passed, it is early after­noon, my fa­ther stands un­settled in the bath­room door­way and asks me if I can cut his toe­nails. I’m old and stiff, I can’t reach down, he says. I say yes and he gives me the scis­sors and sits down on the bed. I sit on the floor. I put his feet in my lap and we fall silent. I am grate­ful for this memory. I went to work care­ful­ly, I re­mem­ber the un­easi­ness and the in­ti­macy and the con­cen­tra­tion on the task, the soft re­sis­tance of the nails and the dry clicks when they gave in. I re­mem­ber the si­lence that fol­low­ed and the bells that chimed for ves­pers, I went to the church along the mas­sive stone walls, the monas­tery in Samos is among the largest in the West­ern world. I went in and sat down and wait­ed. I thought about the small things, and the last things, all this to come. A young novice lights the can­dles. The monks gather, dres­sed in black and bent with age, they sing with cracked voices. So it shall always be. I closed my eyes and asked for time.

Text and trans­lation by Jørn H. Sværen. First pub­lished in Nor­wegian as an un­titled loose-leaf insert to the book Vi er tiggere [We Are Beggars] (England Forlag, Oslo, 2014). Later printed in the col­lection Britisk museum [British Museum] (Kolon Forlag, Oslo, 2020), accom­panied by the image below. First pub­lished in English in Snow 3 (East Sussex, 2015).

Riza (Russia, 19th c., unknown artist)

Photo: Silje Schild, Guttormsgaards arkiv, orig. in colour, reg. no. GA_001227