Lorentz Dietrichson (1834-1917) and the Beginnings of Systematic Studies on Iconography


  • Per Jonas Nordhagen University of Bergen




Lorentz Dietrichson, history of art, Iconography


In 1875, Lorentz Dietrichson was called to a chair in the history of art in Kristiania (Oslo), the first professorship established for this discipline in Norway. With boundless energy he laid the groundwork for a distinguished tradition of academic studies of art in this country, and worked for the establishment of organizations and museums for the advancement of artistic culture. He wrote the first large survey on the history of Norwegian art and published pioneering books on Norwegian medieval architecture and ornament. Foremost among the latter ranks his 1892 monograph on the Norwegian stave churches, which with its solid documentation of the surviving specimens of this unique architectural category, supplemented by the available information on those which were lost over the centuries, is still regarded as the fundament for all studies on the matter. Dietrichson was a prolific writer of popular articles and essays, and as a lecturer he became famous for his precious language and for his exquisite and ‘soulful’ interpretations of art works. However, the easiness with which enlightened judgements on art flowed from his lips and pen should not mislead us to doubt the seriousness he brought to his scholarly efforts or his involvement in the improvement of the instruments of research. He and the scholars from his generation moved the art of describing art objects towards a higher level of precision. Late in life he witnessed the rise of the new tool, photography, as an auxiliary in the study of images and their meaning. It brought comparison, the methodical key to advanced iconographic study, to new heights of exactness. Most of Dietrichson’s research, however, took place in the period before this means became fully available. His never-ending hunt for his material, which he sought in uncharted collections spread over many countries, and the problems he met in providing illustrations of it, is the theme of this essay. These are forgotten pages in the annals of Norwegian archaeological research.

Author Biography

Per Jonas Nordhagen, University of Bergen

Professor emeritus, University of Bergen


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