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).