The Demon Wall

The demons on this church wall were not “uncovered.” They were born inside their forger’s mind. (Photo courtesy of Susanne Kaun)

 

 

Once you have seen it, seen even a photo of it, you will be haunted by it.

And maybe that is what it was: a haunting.

The demonveggen, or Demon Wall, covers a limestone archway in a small church in Sauherad, in southern Norway. I cannot do better than the Atlas Obscura description:

 

“The demons are tiny, and legion. Scowling, tongue-flicking devils, no bigger than a thumbnail, and strange animals pile together in a tangle of dog legs and rabbit ears, each smaller than the next. The lines of the painting are so fine that the tiniest figures seem to pull the viewer into an infinite Satanic menagerie.”

 

Why would such a wall be inscribed in a sacred place?

In 1935, Gerhard Gotaas, one of Norway’s leading conservators, was charged with an important restoration in Sauherad. He walked into the village’s medieval stone church (its bells a later addition, in 1441). He was to restore faded frescoes that had been painted in 1700, the year the church was rebuilt after a blazing, all-consuming fire that probably resembled the congregation’s image of hell.

In August 1940, Gotaas announced his discovery of “faces and figures of humans and animals” across the top of the chancel wall, from the choir arch up to the ceiling. He had followed incised lines, he said, and uncovered a Demon Wall unlike any other.

When Christian art depicts demons, they are being cast out or redeemed. The images at Sauherad are purely demonic, an intertwined decadence with no white space. A detail shot looks like an eerie Seek and Find game, filled with demons, clerics, and bishops; goats, lambs, owls, and insect claws; princesses, tormented men, and masked figures. Nobody was there to counter them, banish them, or save them; they writhed on the wall unchecked.

“All this which Christ had declared war, we have on the west wall of the choir,” wrote art historian Henry Fett the following year, at once thrilled and appalled.

The churchgoers were delighted by the 1940 restoration. Granted, they could not see it closely. Many of the line drawings were so tiny, they would be impossible to make out unless you climbed a ladder (and wore good specs). Otherwise, the top of the wall just looked cloudy. But it was exciting to know that something extraordinary had been restored to them, and a backstory was swiftly invented: Because the demon figures were probably added in the middle of the 1600s, they might have been painted, parishioners gossiped, by the Rev. Jens Christensen Slagelse, who served at Sauherad Church and supposedly lost his sanity there. Or there was another priest. . . .

Gotaas was whispered to have taken a little too much artistic license, but those whispers were drowned out by German occupation and bombing raids. Besides, what government wants to admit it has funded and praised anything less than stellar?

In 1947, Gotaas spoke on Norwegian radio: “In search of art behind limestone walls.” Academics wrote papers on his restoration project. In a master’s thesis, Torbjørg Holtestaul noted that the figures on the demon wall were painted with soot or burnt bones on fresh lime primer (but had no idea how recently).

Even without knowing the truth, those who studied the wall felt its power. “You meet the evil eyes, you meet people with the jackal in them, with the sheep, the rooster or the lion in them, the whole demonic entourage of animal forces in man,” wrote Fett, then head of the Norwegian Directorate for Cultural Heritage.

There was, at least, the solace of distance. For decades, those sufficiently brave and curious to gaze up at the tiny figurines assumed they were seventeenth-century demons.

And then, in July of this year, the perspective shifted.

Another restoration had begun, because time smudges and devours even what is sacred. Conservator Susanne Kaun and art historian Elisabeth Andersen, both from the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage, set to work, climbing up scaffolding and examining the murals magnified, under ultraviolet light, and with raking light that shone from one side at an oblique angle. With those tools, it became obvious that the 1940 work had not been a restoration at all. There were none of the incisions Gotaas had claimed to find. The color remnants from the seventeenth century showed no demons.

These images had come straight from Gotaas’ imagination. Or his nightmares.

He had drawn them fresh, covering whatever lay beneath them. This, to anyone who loves art, was the real crime: not allowing your private visions to erupt on a church’s walls but using them to obscure someone else’s vision.

After their physical exams and tests, Kaun and Andersen went digging in the archives, curious to know exactly what Gotaas had done and why. They found no mention of the Demon Wall of Sauherad in the Norwegian archives, but they did find an archival photo that suggests a biblical figure was once painted on the wall. After Gotaas got to work, “the eyebrows became like animals with ten thousand legs and heads at each end,” says Andersen, and “the beard became all heads with ears.”

Gotaas was sixty-one years old, and he worked with his son, Per Gotaas—could this be the son’s doing? Unlikely. Gerhard documented which part his son worked on, and it has fewer figures and does not match the father’s detail.

Was it an elaborate prank? Neither Gotaas was known as a prankster. Andersen and Kaun fine-combed the wall for some “Kilroy was here” wink, but they found nothing.

Was this deliberate deception? It almost had to be. Yet it was a deception with no apparent motive, executed by someone with an excellent reputation who had never done anything like this and never would again.

Psychologist Ellen Winner, author of How Art Works: A Psychological Exploration, told Atlas Obscura the way the Demon Wall is drawn “‘looks like schizophrenic art,’ which is characterized by what’s called horror vacui, or a horror of empty space.” Yet he wrote coherent letters, one of the first abilities that schizophrenia targets. He left no account of trauma, and while working on the mural he lived in the vicar’s house and the villagers quite liked him.

We prefer to think of madness as an either-or proposition, but I have seen people who are quite situational about it, losing all perspective in only one category of life. Delusion can slip up on you: King Lear was strategically doddering, wildly uninhibited at long last—and then the madness took root. All of us go off the deep end at regular intervals, then paddle to shore. Something drives us crazy, and then we come home. We lose our minds, then find them again. We are driven mad with grief or injustice, and time heals us.

It is presented as a curiosity—or a sign of targeted vengeance—that Gotaas produced other, perfectly sane work in the years of the Demon Wall, as well as before and after.

What no one mentions is that on April 9 of that year, the Nazis launched an invasion of Norway—a collective madness that could easily climb inside someone’s brain.

 

Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.

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