New book about the Church observed pays tribute to Carsten Bach-Nielsen (Den sete kirke. Festskrift til Carsten Bach-Nielsen, Aarhus University Press 2021).
In 2020, Carsten Bach-Nielsen retired from his position as an associate professor of church history at Aarhus University. Carsten Bach-Nielsen has been a great support of LUMEN over the years, bringing plenty of critical and constructive questions and perspectives to the centre’s projects, which often included references to material culture. To honour Carsten Bach-Nielsen’s work, a team of six colleagues has edited a festschrift published with Aarhus University Press. This blog entry presents his contribution to scholarship.
The church as tangible object
The title of the festschrift, Den sete kirke [The church observed] is a play-on-words of the distinction between the church visible and the church invisible in theological tradition. However, the book’s contributions and its overall scope do not discuss how to make such an ecclesiological distinction. Rather, the book takes as its point of departure that to church historians, the church is not only always an object, visible and tangible, but it also goes one step further to say that the scholarly undertaking of church history – ecclesiastical historiography – concerns the church observed. When church historians work, their object of study is “church” – a tangible object as it is observed, understood and voiced throughout the entire history of the Christian religion. But “church” does not only mean the building; it is also the organization, the theology, the jurisdiction, the art, the music, the people. Of course, in a more general sense, we all see the church, particularly if by church we mean building. Church historians, on the other hand, do more than just notice the fact that there is a church—they observe, scrutinize, look for details, and try to establish connections between all that they see.
Theology and art history
The tactility of the church, the fact that it is always seen and sensed by someone, is a persistent element in Bach-Nielsen’s research. Holding a degree not only in theology, but also in art history, he has always taken a particular interest in the tangible.
Bach-Nielsen has worked predominantly in Renaissance and Reformation studies, the study of Pietism, and ecclesiastical architecture and art across the centuries. His works in the 1980s and 1990s focused mainly on representations of Biblical and traditional figures and their meaning in the visual arts and architecture, especially in Scandinavian and Italian material. In more recent years, Bach-Nielsen has turned towards the material culture of the Bible itself. In 2019, he published a book titled, Bibelen i Danmark, which tells the history of the Bible in Denmark, beginning with early Renaissance translations into Danish in the first decades of the sixteenth century, and ending with the most recent Danish translation from 1992, and the transformation of the biblical text from book to world wide web. In the book, Bach-Nielsen particularly emphasizes that the Bible always was and still is a book – a manufactured object dependent on printing technology, the literary market, aesthetic codes, and readers.
A recurrent theme in Bach-Nielsen’s research is emblematics – the Christian, hermetic symbolic language that flourished across confessional borders in early modern Europe; a pictural puzzle at the crossroads of image and word that requires a profound knowledge of Biblical rhetoric, the classic virtues, and the communicative authority of the symbol; an emblem that can be both a language understood by a select few or a way of sending messages to the masses. Bach-Nielsen has unearthed the meaning of the emblem in sepulchral art, Danish church interiors, printed books, the modernist architecture of Aarhus University, and in the commemorative culture of the Reformation, and he is a frequent contributor to the conferences of the Society for Emblem Studies.
Following an Aarhus tradition established by former professors of church history, P.G. Lindhardt (1910-1988) and Anders Pontoppidan Thyssen (1921-2004), Bach-Nielsen has also been active in Christian revivalism research. In a 1996 essay, Bach-Nielsen innovatively demonstrated that the Grundtvigian and Home Mission movements in Denmark shaped the landscape in different ways, based on their distinctive? interpretations of Christian piety. He has a particular interest in the history of the revivalist movements in the former Danish overseas territories, especially the Danish West Indies (since 1917: US Virgin Islands). He has published on Christian mission in the West Indies, colonial church architecture, colonial hymnology and, most recently, colonial and post-colonial literature.
Uses of the past
An important element in Bach-Nielsen’s research deals with the nature and uses of the past. Since the 1980s, historians, not least Pierre Nora, have stressed that while the past may be a foreign country where they do things differently, it is nevertheless present. Throughout history, historical agents were always interested not in mitigating the past, but rather, actualizing, reenacting and controlling the narrative of the past. Even if past times were long gone, they became present by invoking them at sites of memory – places mental and topographical. A recent international event testifies to this: the fifth centenary of the Protestant Reformation in 2017. Churches, parliaments, cultural associations, tourist organizations, and the scholarly community all had diverse interests in and reasons for remembering the reformation – and diverse agendas. In Bach-Nielsen’s 2015 book, Fra jubelfest til kulturår (From Jubilee to Cultural Centennial), he studies and narrates the history of remembering the Reformation in Denmark from the seventeenth to the twenty-first century, stressing that each Reformation jubilee and their agents had their own motives for using the past in the ways they did.
The church observed
In Den sete kirke, twenty-one contributors present historical studies in honour of Bach-Nielsen. Chronologically, the contributions frame the entire history of Christianity, with an emphasis on early modern and modern church history. Thematically, the contributions show the many topics and scholarly disciplines within which Bach-Nielsen has worked: literature as a national site of memory, liturgy and hymnology, ecclesiastical art, the history of Biblical exegesis, Reformation and social disciplining, architecture, transnational church history etc.
As editors of the book, we are happy to see it appear in print, and we hope that the chapters stimulate future endeavours into seeing, sensing, and hearing the church in history. On the day of publication, the Department of Theology at Aarhus University and the editors will host a seminar on Zoom (in Danish). See programme and Zoom link here: https://cas.au.dk/fileadmin/ingen_mappe_valgt/Den_sete_kirke.pdf
Den sete kirke [The Church Observed], is edited by Mattias Skat Sommer (University of Oslo), Nils Arne Pedersen (Aarhus University), Jette Bendixen Rønkilde (Aarhus University), Rasmus H.C. Dreyer (The Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Denmark), Svend E. Mathiassen (Aarhus University), and Anne Pedersen (Royal Danish Library), and is to be published on 24 February 2021.