The Unique Altar Cabinet on the Island of Leka

The altar cabinet of Leka has motifs of St. Michael and St. Olaf on the outside of the doors (Photo: Arve Kjersheim © Directorate for Cultural Heritage in Norway)


One a stormy night in June 1515, violent winds raged in the North Sea. Escorted by a fleet of 11 Danish and Dutch ships, Princess Isabella was on her way from the Netherlands to Denmark. She was convinced that her ship was going to sink. In her despair, she prayed to God and promised that if she survived she would donate a worthy gift to the church in her new country. Princess Isabella kept her promise.

Today, nearly 500 years later, five magnificent and unique altar cabinets are placed in the churches of Leka, Røst, Ørsta, Hadsel and Grip. The cabinets are part of the so-called ‘Leka group’, all of which was donated by the princess. The altar cabinet on Leka is the best preserved of the five, hence the name. But it is the story itself that is extraordinary.

Special order

In 1514, Princess Isabella, later Queen Elisabeth of Denmark-Norway, was married to the Danish prince Christian II. She was only 13 years old and the daughter of Philip I and Joanna “the Mad” of Castile. Isabella was sent to the Netherlands when her father died and her mother was declared insane.

During the dramatic voyage in 1515, the princess traveled with her counselor, the Archbishop of Nidaros, Erik Valkendorf, who became her confidant. Today, we most likely can send our thanks to Valkendorf for the five altar cabinets. Historians believe that Isabella instructed the archbishop to order, purchase and distribute the cabinets, and there are indications that the cabinets are special orders from the parishes. Valkendorf had strong ties both to Papal Rome as well as the Norwegian coastal parishes.

Curator Tone Marie Olstad, describes the altar cabinet on the island of Leka in Nord-Trøndelag County in a report made by the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research:

‘The altar cabinet from the church of Leka dates back to around 1520 A.D, and is made in the Northern Netherlands, probably in Utrecht. The cabinet has two doors with painted images on both sides and stands on a pedestal. The left door has St. Margareta inside and St. Michael on the outside, the right has St. Sunniva inside and St. Olaf on the outside. The cabinet is divided into three niches with columns and round arches, and the inclined side walls are decorated with blind Gothic windows. In the middle niche there is a sculpture of Virgin Mary with Jesus in her arms, and in the niches beside her are St. Olaf and St. Michael.’ The figure of St. Olaf strengthens the theories that this was a special order, due to the fact that the original church of Leka probably was devoted to him.

The inside of the cabinet shows motifs of St. Margareta and St. Sunniva on the doors, and the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus in her arms surrounded by St. Olaf and St. Michael (Photo: Arve Kjersheim © Directorate for Cultural Heritage in Norway)

Nine Lives

In August this year, the altar cabinet left the island of Leka. During autumn, winter and spring 2012-2013 the cabinet will be exhibited in museums in the Netherlands and Germany. As ‘payment’, the Dutch museum Catharijneconvent will restore the cabinet before the opening of the exhibition. The museums also finance shipping, security and proper storage. The insurance value is set by the Dutch museum to 415,000 Euro. In the Netherlands, this particular artwork is highly valued for several reasons. Not only does it represent quality craftsmanship made by national artists, but the cabinet also presents rare Catholic motifs. After the Reformation, during the ‘Iconoclastic Fury’ (image storm) in the Netherlands in 1566, almost all Catholic icons were destroyed. There are therefore very few similar artworks in Central European countries.

Although Protestantism was introduced in Norway in 1536, people on Leka chose to keep the Catholic altar cabinet. This also shows that the old church of Leka was listed in the Middle Ages. In 1634, the old church was demolished and the altar cabinet was the only object that survived.

One winter day in 1864, the cabinet nearly was consumed by flames. The vicar at that time, Louis Brinchmann, described the fire in an almost poetic manner:
Yesterday, the 2nd February at 12 o’clock, ‘his Wrath’s Lightning’ ignited our old church. One hour later, it was burned down to the ground (…) Old men, women and children rescued the altar cabinet, chandeliers, oil paintings, and other church objects (…).’

When the new church was built in 1867, it was discussed where the altar cabinet should be placed. Several residents in the community wanted to give it a central place, but the vicar refused. He thought it was ‘tasteless and un-fashionable’ for the new, modern church, – and he placed it in the church tower attic. There it was kept until Leka in 1930 received a visit by an American. He was shown around the church, and when he entered the tower, he noticed the dusty cabinet standing in a corner. The American immediately understood that the cabinet was valuable and offered the church 700 Kroner (125 dollars), which was a high sum at the time. Luckily, there was one skeptic in the parish council, and the sale was averted. The bid indicated that the cabinet had something unique about it and was worth preserving. After this episode, the cabinet was moved into the church, where it stands today. Well – if it was not for the European tour.

Leka Chuch of today (Photo: Anette Broteng Christiansen, ThorNews)

Back to the Netherlands

This is not the first time the altar cabinet is sent out on a tour. In 1958, it received rave reviews in the international press during the World Exhibition in Amsterdam. The cabinet was – and is – considered a very rare artwork and research shows that all the cabinets in ‘the Leka group’ is made in the same workshop in the Netherlands. The altar cabinet ended up at Leka due to a series of coincidences and historical events in Europe.

In the period between 16 November and 24 February, the cabinet will be on display at the Catharijneconvent in Utrecht, Netherlands. The museum is known for its large collection of both Catholic and Protestant artwork, which makes the museum unique in a global context. From 14 March to 16 June next year, it will be shipped to Das Suermondt-Ludwig Museum in Aachen, Germany. The museum holds one of the world’s largest collections of medieval sculptures.


Text by: Anette Broteng Christiansen, ThorNews

Translated by: Thor Bugge Lanesskog, ThorNews

Categories: Art, Culture, History

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