Architect Peter Zumthor designed this memorial on an island in Norway to commemorate suspected witches who were burned at the stake there in the seventeenth century.
One of the darkest aspects of the history of law is the trial by ordeal, used by both ancient societies in contexts of initiation and Western legislation to deal with the unknown: as in the town of Salem, Massachusetts, where one of the bloodiest hunts of alleged witches took place, in the remote province of Vardø, Norway, a similar story was recorded.
Vardø is closer to Russia than Sweden, but in the county of Finmark alone, 135 people were accused of practicing witchcraft during the17th century, and 91 of which were found guilty an executed.
Those accused of witchcraft faced the water trial: they hands and feet were tied and they were thrown into the river, lake or a body of water. If the person floated they were declared guilty, given that water – a sign of baptism – rejected them. But if they drowned it was considered ‘God’s will’ and the victim’s death proved their innocence.
“People’s fear of the unknown can be the worst ally of the law; but light has many ways of multiplying.”
In 2011, the Queen of Norway unveiled a monument to commemorate the victims of those trials. The monument’s designers were artists Peter Zumthor of Switzerland, and French-American Louise Bourgeois. Known as the Steilneset Memorial, it was built on the site believed to be where the ordeal may have taken place.
It is a long beachfront corridor of 91 lamps, each of which illuminates a window and a commemorative plaque with the history of the Vardø verdicts; the other part of the installation is a black glass box with a chair and a lamp that burns permanently, surrounded by mirrors.
The memorial reminds us that elements as simple as water and fire can be instruments of human cruelty if they are used for judicial criminal codes, but they can also be tools for memory, dignity and even beauty.
Photographs by © Andrew Meredith