An enigmatic stone from a bygone era

It constantly arouses wonder as it sits walled in the southwest corner of the church. Maybe first and foremost because it’s upside down. But also because of the runic script.

Photo: Tom Thowsen 2021

For motorists who drive county road 118 from Sarpsborg towards Halden and Svinesund, Skjeberg church looks like a completely ordinary Norwegian church. A white building on a hill surrounded by cultivated land in the relatively flat Østfold in Viken County.

But the church from the 12th century has an interesting history to offer, which is not found in many other places in the country. Traces from the master stonemason himself.

Skjeberg church seen from the southeast. The Sacristy were red. Note the colour beneath the white. Beginning in the Middle Ages, the Pope and Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church wore red to symbolize the blood of Christ and the Christian martyrs. Photo: Tom Thowsen 2021

The riddle

In the 14th century, when the church had stood for approx. 200 years, it was rebuilt and extended, adorned with small portraits and runic writings carved in stone. Both rune stones sit on the south wall, where the red arrows in the picture point.

«This house is dedicated to our Lord and His mother Mary and the apostle Peter,» it is written on the lower stone.

On the top, it is written: «This stone is made by Botolv the master stonemason». This writing is upside down, and the man’s head at the end of the stone shows that it should be so.

But why?

A hint: Check the apostle’s name.

Does it ring a bell?

Not that, no.

A new hint: His cross is upside down, no matter what the death metal band Deicide think about it.

It is said that Peter was crucified with his head down out of respect for his master Jesus.

By placing the text upside down, Botolv did the same.

Christ is the cornerstone of the church, according to the Bible. The foundation itself.

In Acts 4:11, the apostle Peter said: “This Jesus is the stone you builders rejected, which has become the cornerstone.”

The stone face has its gaze facing east, towards the rising sun.

This symbolizes Jesus’ resurrection, according to ecclesiastical imagery.

Photo: Tom Thowsen 2021
The picture shows a stonemason from the Middle Ages. Notice the one-legged chair, a so-called Swiss milking stool. Photo: Wikipedia LEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01

A practical man

We know almost nothing about Botolv. Except for what we see here. Botolv was at least a common name in Norway in the Middle Ages, where Botolvsmesse was celebrated on June 17 in memory of the English Saint Botwulf of Thorney. The name itself originates from the Old English and Old Germanic Botulf. Presumably formed by Old English bōt, which could mean improvement, help, repentance. With wolf at the ending.

But he was probably a highly regarded craftsman with broad experience because it was a large and extensive project. Strong stone walls were torn down, moved, and extended.

As for the runes, there were probably several reasons why Botolv chose to use them. First, the runic characters are easier to carve than Latin letters. Fewer curves, more simple lines. Secondly, the text could be read by many because it was common to use runes in everyday life to mark goods and send short messages.

Photo: Tom Thowsen 2021

A frugal soul

The choir’s south portal also tells a little about Botolv and his choice. It consists of hewn stone, mostly soapstone. A soft rock that is easy to process, and consequently, each boulder can be finely adjusted to each other without difficulty. But here, the joints in the arch split. It can be interpreted as meaning that the stones originally sat in a larger arch. That these are recycled parts from an arch that has been torn down. Maybe from the original choir. Thus, Botolv saved both time and money. At the same time, it should be said that the nearest quarry was only 15 kilometres away, in a straight line. But money saved is money earned. And reuse is not to be despised in our days, as well.

A stone head from my garden. Photo: Tom Thowsen 2020

So, a little curiosity at the very end

I made this stone head when I was 18 years old. Originally an unprocessed stone from Skakkestadberget in Halden. Soapstone has been mined there from the Viking Age to the 19th century. As I said, it is not far from Skjeberg church, and the quality is good.

O, by the way. While speaking of soapstone, there is a magnificent building in Norway called Nidaros Cathedral