Möðrudalur, one of the most isolated farms in Iceland, lies under the icy nipple of Mt. Herðubreið in the northeastern part of the island. In 1919, a man named Jón Stefánsson bought Möðrudalur from one of his brothers. Jón was a saddler and harness maker by trade. He was also an accomplished musician. At night he’d sit at his organ, and the echo of Bach sonatas, which he’d play backwards note for note, would sweep over Möðrudalur’s lava and empty sands.
Jón was, to put it mildly, an eccentric. He’d wake up at 4am and get the farm labourers working furiously on some strange project, then he’d forget the purpose of this project and wander off by himself, playing his fiddle. Playing it, that is, until noon. At noon he’d stop and sneeze. If you want to live to a ripe old age, he’d say, you must sneeze punctually at noon. (Jón himself lived to well over 90.)
There’d been a church at Möðrudalur in saga times. But when Jón purchased the farm, this church was in a hopeless state of disrepair. Jón used the pulpit for storing salt fish and probably would have wintered his sheep in the nave if it weren’t for the fact that the nave didn’t possess a roof.
In 1949, Jón’s wife died. He decided to build a new church as a memorial to her. He didn’t have a plan for this church, so he sat down, drank a few cups of strong coffee, and drew up a plan in six minutes. He built the church in a relatively short time with his own hands, but the local Bishop refused to consecrate a building that was dedicated to a mere human being rather than a religious figure. Jón protested that his wife had been a religious figure, but to no avail.
Not too long ago, I paid a visit to Möðrudalur expressly to see Jón’s church. It looked like a typical Icelandic country church, only it was quite a bit smaller–the size of a single car garage. On the inside, there was room for maybe ten people. Anyone else would have to stand outside and commune with his or her Maker while being assaulted by the infinitely various Icelandic elements.
Jón had put his own painting of Mt. Herðubreið directly above the pulpit. On the mountain’s usually wind-blasted, snowy summit was an orchard of palm trees. Jón had also established a base camp of Giotto-style supplicants at the foot of the mountain. The main figure in the painting was Christ himself, who was sliding down Herðubreið’s steep slopes with arms outstretched.
Jón hadn’t bothered to give any of the supplicants’ faces. Christ was more fortunate and possessed a face. But Jón didn’t draw it. Rather, his half-brother Haukur did. “Haukur’s better at faces than I am,” Jón supposedly said. Haukur was a house painter in Akureyri at the time.
The more I looked at the painting, the more endangered Christ’s position appeared to be. I wondered whether Our Lord was going to end up in a heap at the bottom of Herðubreið, another mountaineering casualty. Then I recalled what Jón had told someone who’d voiced a similar concern: “No, he won’t fall down the mountain. You can’t see them, but I painted holes in the rock for his heels…”
Jón Stefánsson’s church in Möðrudalur is a monument to the human spirit. Even more, it’s a monument to human whimsy. And somehow it seems perfectly appropriate for a place that, situated just below the Arctic Circle, blows sandstorms…
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