The Curious Case of Norway’s Disturbing Demon Wall

October 17, 2021

A respected conservator restoring a centuries-old church mural saw the devil in the details—and created a wholly imagined, diabolical scene.

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.

The story of how the demonveggen, or demon wall, came to be is as strange and disturbing as the mural itself. It’s a tale of scandal, fraud, and possible madness that begins with Gerhard Gotaas, one of Norway’s leading conservators of the mid-20th century. His work preserving and restoring medieval church art was wide-ranging and respected.

But in 1940, when he entered a small village church in Sauherad to restore centuries-old artwork, he saw demons. Researchers determined earlier this year that, instead of reviving a 17th-century painting, Gotaas actually spent two years creating a monstrous mural from his own imagination. That revelation is just part of the story, however. Scant and contradictory clues only deepen the mystery of what might have possessed him to create the hellish image.

“We couldn’t believe it. We were shocked by how much he really did,” says Susanne Kaun, a conservator at the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage (NIKU). Kaun undertook the demon wall investigation with her colleague, art historian Elisabeth Andersen.

Through archival research and scientific analysis of the mural itself, the team discovered not only that Gotaas invented the demons, but also that he destroyed all remnants of the original art, painted more than 300 years earlier. “That’s really the most shocking thing, from a conservator point of view,” says Kaun. “He found something there that was old, and he painted over that. He changed what he found. He has to have known what he did.”

The church, in southern Norway, was built almost 900 years ago. It sits just west of the Saua, a minor river that connects two of the Telemark region’s many lakes. The church itself looks out onto tidy farms and thickly forested hills, a landscape little changed since the late-16th or early-17th century, when a mural was added to the chancel. Kaun and Andersen found an archival photo that shows traces of what appears to be the head of a Biblical figure on one part of the wall.

The photograph was taken years before Gotaas took up his tools and brushes and irrevocably changed it: “The eyebrows became like animals with 10,000 legs and heads at each end, the beard became all heads with ears,” says Andersen. Based on other, larger demon heads on the wall, Andersen and Kaun think Gotaas may have painted over two or three other original figures.

The question, of course, is why. Gotaas had conducted numerous restorations all over Norway before and after this project, including additional work at Sauherad Church. He also completed other assignments during the same two-year period he spent working on the demon wall: The unheated village church was too cold for winter work, so he turned his attention elsewhere for weeks and months at a time.

None of the other work from that time—or the rest of his career—is considered problematic. In 1944, art historian Harry Fett, then the director of the country’s cultural heritage management agency, even lauded the “excellent work” Gotaas did in restoring the mural. Anyone who has seen the demons up close might raise an eyebrow over Fett’s praise, but the truth is, most people—Sauherad’s congregation, church visitors, and likely Fett himself—haven’t experienced the demon wall as Gotaas envisioned it.

The mural occupies a stretch of arched wall in the chancel that’s about eight to 12 feet above the floor. It’s on such a fine scale that, “when you stand on the floor and look up, it’s like a gray cloud. It looks dirty on the wall,” says Andersen. “It’s impossible for a visitor to see the details, how strange and fascinating it is … It’s chaotic, and it’s so, so small, a figure in a figure in a figure.”

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