Monolitten i Vigelandsparken.
Foto: Nima Taheri / NRK

The hidden stonemasons

Gustav Vigeland received all the glory. Today, NRK can tell the real story of who actually built the national treasure of the Monolith.

In 1919, artist Gustav Vigeland has a grand, outrageous idea. He wants to build Norway’s largest and most intricate sculpture out of a single rock.

With the support of the City of Oslo and several private sponsors, he establishes a park in his own name with the 17 metre tall Monolith as its centrepiece. By doing this, Vigeland secures himself a place in history. He is celebrated as a genius.

The 14 year long process of physically sculpting the rock isn’t carried out by him, but by three stonemasons.

Their place in history is to be minimal. The stonemasons are forgotten. Until now, neither the public nor their relatives have known what happened to them.

NRK’s investigation shows that the job may have cost them dearly.

Monolittskuret i Vigelandsparken

THE THREE STONEMASONS: Outside the work shed in the Vigeland Park where the Monolith was built. From left: Dane Karl Kjær, Swede Nils Jönsson and Norwegian Ivar Broe.

Foto: Vigelandmuseet

A nearly impossible task

In 1929, a colossal rock weighing 280 tonnes arrives in Oslo. If the Monolith could speak, it might have used words resembling a 2022 reality star: «It’s been a journey».

Before arriving in Oslo, the rock has been blasted out of a mountainside near Iddefjorden, the birthplace of the Norwegian stone industry. It has been trimmed, washed and sent off by boat before traveling countless laps over land and sea, almost like a Tour de France or a festive minute-by-minute marathon TV event with extensive media coverage and spectators along the way.

Monolitten i steinbrotet

The 4th of April 1922 the Monolith boulder is blasted off from this mountain near Hov, Iddefjorden. Then around half of it is trimmed off to reach this size. Photo: Haakon Eeg-Henriksen.

Monolitt-steinen blir lagt på båt

After four years Vigeland finally gathers enough money to have the boulder transported to Oslo. The young engineer Eeg-Henriksen wins the tender to be in charge of the transportation. The first challenge is to get the boulder onboard the boat.

Båttransport av Monolitten

The boulder is transported on two barges from Iddefjorden to Halden. When the weather suddenly turns bad, they have to wait there before they can continue on towards Oslo. Photo: Haakon Eeg-Henriksen.

Monolitt-steinen blir frakta gjennom Oslo

The boulder is lifted ashore before it is hauled through the streets of Oslo with an average speed of 6 metres per hour. This final lap goes on from September 1926 to February 1927. Photo: Anders Beer Wilse/Oslo Museum.

Monolitten blir heva

The workers face another challenge when they arrive at the park in Oslo. Now the heavy boulder needs to be lifted to an upright position. It stays on the ground for about a year before the engineer erects it by means of a special iron construction.

Monolitt-steinen står klar til hogging

The Monolith boulder has reached its new home. Now the sculpting can commence. Photo Ruth Raabe/Oslo Museum.

Before a single cut is made, the Monolith has already cost around 100.000 Norwegian kroner. It has taken a year to get it to the park in Oslo.

The project is the antithesis to comforting sayings like «tomorrow brings another opportunity. One mistake and there is no way back. If the Monolith is going to be a beautiful sculpture with 121 figures, like Vigeland has planned, it has to be carved impeccably.

Gustav Vigeland i atelieret på Hammersborg, 1917

THE MAN WITH THE IDEA: Gustav Vigeland in 1917. We don't know much about what spawned the idea of the Monolith, other than him being fascinated by classical paintings of Judgement Day and the Resurrection.

Foto: Ingemundur Eyjolfsson / Vigelandmuseet

No pressure, then!

Vigeland himself has neither the time nor the expertise to carry out the carving. He scours the entire Nordic region to find the very best stonemasons. He finds the Swede, the Dane and the Norwegian.

The Swede

Nils Jönsson is the first of the trio to be hired by Vigeland. He is brought onboard as early as 1915, before Vigeland comes up with the idea of his own park.

Steinhoggar Nils Jönsson

NILS JÖNSSON: In a 1943 newspaper, he is portrayed as a bird you can hear but not see, as he shies away from cameras. Nevertheless, there is one photo on file in the Vigeland Museum’s archives.

Foto: Vigelandmuseet

Swedish Jönsson is born in 1886 in the Scanian town of Höör. He speaks with the characteristic uvular R. He grows up surrounded by granite and forests.

At 14, his father dies and he has to leave home and fend for himself. First, he is taken in as a farm hand, then he becomes a stonemason. After a few years in Stockholm and Copenhagen, he is heading for Oslo. He must have already become a competent stonemason, because the fastidious Vigeland eventually selects him to be his right hand at the atelier.

The Dane

Karl Kjær is next. He is hired by Vigeland right before the carving of the Monolith commences in 1929. The 25-year-old decides to contact Vigeland, as he has heard he is looking for stonemasons. In his application, he writes: «I would like to get out, to see and do more, so I hereby extend my request to work for you.»

Karl Kjær

THE DANE: Karl Kjær later in life, at his own open air atelier.

Foto: Privat / Lone Kjær

Before joining Vigeland, he has finished technical school and studied technical drawing. Furthermore, he has worked as an assistant to stonemason Anders Bundgaard who is famous for his work on the Copenhagen City Hall.

At arrival in Oslo his beret makes him stand out, a continental touch warming his balding head.

The Norwegian

Ivar Broe completes the trio, but he is no newcomer to the craft. He has been carving rock since he was six years old.

Familien Broe. Mannen til høyre er Ivar Broe, en av steinhoggerne bak Monolitten i Vigelandsparken.

THE BROE FAMILY: Around 1910. Second row from left: Alice, Wilhelm, Walther and Ivar. First row from left: Bolette, Erling, Carl, Kristine and Inga.

Ivar Broe is born into a family of stonemasons in 1892. He grows up in the same area as the Monolith rock, around the quarries of Iddefjorden. Several of his brothers also become skilled stonemasons. The family eventually moves to Oslo.

Once there, Ivar applies for the Oslo National Academy of the Arts. He is admitted to a modelling programme, which he completes in two years by taking evening classes whilst at the same time working for various stonemason companies in Oslo. Ivar is getting good grades and starts building up quite a reputation for being one of the best stonemasons. He is handpicked by Vigeland when Gustav Mod, a Swede who worked on the Monolith in the very beginning, falls ill.

Ivar Broes adresse

IN THE ARCHIVES: Ivar Broe’s address is written down on a note and handed to Gustav Vigeland. It ends up in his archive of letters.

Foto: Maren Kvamme Hagen / NRK

The Swede, the Dane and the Norwegian each fly through the ranks in the stonemason industry, from quarry to rough rock to tombstones. When they are selected to work on the Monolith in 1929, they have reached their peaks.

Do they tremble as they lift their hammers to give the boulder its very first blow?

The work begins

The trio comes together for the first time at their new headquarters, the wooden shed which has been built around the Monolith.

They don’t know it yet, but they will be here for the next 14 years.

They start by getting to know the rock.

A lot of people believe that brute force is the main factor when working with rock, but if you only use force you have lost. The rock is stronger than you anyway.

You have to be smart and consider what the rock is like on the inside. It is compounded by several active ingredients which give it various qualities. One side may be easy while another is more difficult. Stonemasons must keep this in mind all the time.

Ivar Broe knows that this particular type of granite luckily happens to be quite stable and less difficult to work with than other types of rock. It’s important to avoid surprises which might complicate plans along the way.

The stonemasons decide that the most suitable approach is to start from the top. They climb to the top of the stairs that surround the boulder. The stairs are divided into 11 levels in order for the stonemasons to move freely up and down while they work.

På innsida av Monolitten-skuret

THE STAIRS: This is what the shed looks like on the inside. The stonemasons have been moving up and down the stairs, hammer in hand.

Foto: Anders Beer Wilse / Oslo Museum

Now you might presume they start carving away. But no. On a sculpture like the Monolith, freestyle carving is a no-go. The work here is carefully planned out in a system aimed to emulate Vigeland’s model very precisely. It is made of plaster and extensively tagged with small punctuation marks for reference.

Monolittsalen hos Vigelandmuseet

THE MODEL: The all-important reference the stonemasons always have to follow. It is made in three parts in Vigeland’s atelier so it can be transported to the park afterwards.

Foto: Ivar Kvaal / Vigelandmuseet

The stonemasons measure the distance between the marks using a pointing machine. The device also helps them determine how deep they should carve.

Punkteringsapparat ved Vigelandsmuseet
Foto: Maren Kvamme Hagen / NRK

By transferring the exact measurements onto the rock, they ensure that in the end everything will work out according to plan.

Then they put a correctly sized chisel up against the rock. Finally they can start carefully tapping the hammer against the chisel. Small flakes of rock start to come off.

The carving has begun.

Life as a stonemason

In winter, they look more like polar explorers than stonemasons. Although there is a heater inside the shed, the freezing temperatures demand hats and coats made of sheepskin.

With every strike, dust is released into the air. The rock is transformed into a beautiful sculpture, but it can also be dangerous. Breathing mineral dust every day for years on end can cause serious lung disease and death. An old saying goes: «A stonemason rarely meets his grandchild.»

The three men keep their mouths shut.

Clonk. Clonk. Clonk.

The stonemasons continue working between 1929 and 1943. Slowly, blow by blow, they bring Vigeland’s vision to life. Here a foot, there a butt. They certainly develop an expertise and an eye for anatomy. Perhaps they secretly study the knees and nose wings of people they meet?

The three men are colleagues with the rest of the stonemasons, blacksmiths and plasterers who work for Vigeland in the park and the atelier. They refer to the Swede, the Dane and the Norwegian only as the «Monolith guys».

Vigelands arbeidarar

VIGELAND’S WORKERS, AROUND 1940: From right: stonemason Nils Jönsson, plasterer Roald Kluge, blacksmith Harald Laland, stonemason Vilhelm Broe, blacksmith Harald Hansen, stonemason Karl Emil Rasmussen, chief blacksmith Alfred Mikkelsen, blacksmith Finn Ø. Bentzen, janitor Christian Engh, stonemason Karl S. Kjær, stonemason Gustav A. Mod and stonemason Ivar Broe.

Foto: Vigelandmuseet

Kjær the Dane is talkative and sociable. Jönsson the Swede is the oldest, supervising the operation. Broe the Norwegian is a quiet, patient and industrious man.

In between all the carving they do have time for some fun. Stonemasons are well-known for having tremendous concord and solidarity. On behalf of the Vigeland team, Broe competes in the national corporate series of chess. They lose, but taking part showcases the sense of union between the workers.

Ivar Broe med familie

ROAD TRIP: Ivar Broe, in the middle, wearing a hat, loves the outdoors. His brother is one of the first people in Norway to own a car. The siblings drive around the country.

Foto: Privat / Broe-familien

An interview with Karl Kjær in 1943 concludes that the trio enjoys working together.«While carving, it kept giving us material for new thoughts and ideas,» the Dane says.

Increasing pressures

While it is rewarding for the three stonemasons to see their work progress, with every stroke they have ever more to lose.

Are thoughts like «We have worked flawlessly for one year, two years, ten years, we mustn’t make any mistakes now» going through their heads? Do they lie awake at night wondering if the next day will be the day they spoil Norway’s next national monument?

We don’t know. Vigeland makes his workers take a vow of silence. There are no diaries or private accounts to shed light on what happened inside the shed.

What we do know, is that where modern stonemasons can use superglue to fix small cracks, the Monolith guys have no Plan B. They have to do everything right.

Furthermore, Vigeland is known for firing people on the spot if they make a mistake. One of the brothers of Norwegian Broe, who is working on a different sculpture in the park, experiences this first-hand.

Interiør fra steinhuggerverkstedet i atelieret på Frogner, 1940-tallet, med Karl Kjær i forgrunnen

THE WORKSHOP: In between the various Monolith tasks, the stonemasons work on several other sculptures in Vigeland’s atelier. The photo shows Karl Kjær at the front, behind him Nils Jönsson, Ivar Broe and his brother Wilhelm Broe.

Foto: Johannes Stage / Vigelandsmuseet

That there is no set deadline for the work is, on the other hand, a factor which works to the stonemasons’ advantage. The City of Oslo, the Vigeland Committee and the private sponsors keep coughing up money in order for the work to continue.

The three stonemasons are allowed to work very independently and without disruption. Vigeland has faith in them. Sometimes he goes on holiday for two weeks without visiting the shed. When this happens, Swede Jönsson is charge.

This is all good and well. And necessary. Because stone sculpting includes the same challenge as any other work: Stress increases the risk of making mistakes.

Risk of getting sick

In addition to the increasing stakes, an almost invisible danger fills the air.

A stonemason’s main problem is his health. On one hand, splinters and fragments might penetrate the skin of hands and faces. On the other hand, there’s the dust. Granite contains quartz, a mineral which is so hard that it can cut glass.

Daily exposure to mineral dust containing quarts over a 10 year period can lead to a lung disease called silicosis, colloquially knowns as stone lung. The disease leads to reduced oxygen intake in the lungs. People with stone lung are more prone to other diseases as well, like tuberculosis of the lungs.

What’s more, quartz can cause cancer.

Monolittskuret, ant. april 1934.

THE MONOLITH SHED: How much dust is in the air inside?

Foto: Vigelandmuseet

The stonemasons lack appropriate protective equipment at this time.

NRK have asked Bente Elisabeth Moen, Professor of Occupational Medicine at the University of Bergen, to assess the working conditions of the three stonemasons.

– When working in a dusty environment containing quartz, the risk of silicosis increases the longer you work. 10 years of steady, daily exposure to dust is enough to contract such a disease, Moen says after having seen a picture of the shed

All three stonemasons are at risk of getting sick.


The 1930s are disastrous for Norwegian trade and industry, but the three stonemasons have a steady, paid job to go to. They also receive pay increases, and work contracts from the end of the carving period show that they now make more than the average wage in Norway. By relocating to the Western side of the city they are slowly moving up in the world, and they get a shorter commute to work.

Kjær the Dane is particularly lucky. He secures a property in Skøyensvingen 10 with a view of the Monolith. There he builds a house for himself and his wife, and eventually a child. Jönsson the Swede gets engaged late in life, and moves in with his fiancé. Broe the Norwegian gets married, leaves the flat he’s sharing with his siblings, and settles down with his wife.

Nevertheless, the gap between them and the artist Vigeland, whose residence has a tempered bathtub and whose workplace is funded by the City, is vast.

Leilegheita til Gustav Vigeland

THE ARTIST’S HOME: Gustav Vigeland’s living room. Today this is part of the Vigeland Museum.

Foto: Øyvind Andersen / Vigelandmuseet

The stonemasons work six days a week, which is standard at this time. A labourer in 1930 has on average 9 days of leave per year. After some time, the Vigeland Committee is discontinued and the City of Oslo assumes responsibility for the employees.

All the years of freezing winters inside the shed have left marks on the stonemasons. How deep will they be?

The Monolith is ready

As work on the Monolith is approaching the end, another challenge emerges. The Second World War . In 1940, Norway is invaded by Germany.

The stonemasons are allowed to carry on working, since the occupants alongside the City of Oslo give priority to Gustav Vigeland’s project. The powerful bodies fit nicely into the regime’s philosophy of art, and Vigeland lets the Nazi regime visit the park.

In 1943, the Monolith is finished and ready to be unveiled to the public. Will the much discussed sculpture live up to people’s expectations?

Monolitten med måse i forgrunnen
Monolitten med figurar i forgrunnen
Parken langt unna

You bet! According to newspapers, the sculpture is a masterpiece. Unique! The Miracle in the Frogner Park, it is called.

Vigeland does not get to experience the success first-hand. He dies shortly before the opening. But he is buried at the expense of the government, and publicly celebrated as a genius.

In a time of media censorship and nationalism, the newspaper Nationen writes: «Gustav Vigeland’s work is evidence that our people still is a young, creative people which is totally up to scratch.»

In fairness, even the stonemasons receive a few words of praise during the opening. Nationen writes that they are people of the highest qualifications.

Nevertheless, shortly after the opening, the stonemasons are forgotten.

The Monolith quickly becomes Norway’s most popular sculpture. Songs are made about it, and it is featured on TV and in cabaret revues.

All of this is in stark contrast to what happens to the stonemasons.


When the Monolith is finished, the trio continues working on other sculptures in the park.

In 1947, both Jönsson and Broe are admitted to Ullevål Hospital.

Ullevål sjukehus i 1933

THE FINAL STAY: Ullevål Hospital, here photographed in 1933.

Foto: Oslo byarkiv / Ukjent

Broe dies four days short of his 55th birthday; Jönsson dies at 61. None of them had any children.

According to official statistics, their life expectancy would be another 20 years. So what happened?

The eulogy in Halden Arbeiderblad states that the sad news about Ivar Broe was not unexpected. «Broe was a man of few words, a solid colleague, most honourable, an enduring friend. A man of the working class has passed away.»

Broe is survived by his nieces and nephew in Nittedal. According to them, the Broe family has always believed that their uncle suffered from stone lung.

Sigrid Unni Broe, Jan Erling Broe og Gretha Kristina Broe Nilsen

THE BROE FAMILY: From left: Unni, Jan Erling and Gretha Kristina Broe are Ivar Broe’s nieces and nephew.

Foto: Maren Kvamme Hagen / NRK

NRK have not been able to document that Ivar Broe had silicosis, but lack of documentation does not rule out that he did in fact suffer from the disease. The diagnosis was not included in the medical curriculum until after the war. One may therefore assume that there is a considerable number of unrecorded cases among stonemasons and similar crafts.

The death certificate released by the National Archival Services states that the cause of death was a type of cancer which has no verifiable connection to stonemasonry. Nevertheless, his family believes that a long life of stone cutting contributed to Ivar Broe’s premature death.

NRK have not been able to document stone lung in the case of Nils Jönsson either, but his official cause of death is lung cancer, which may be related to a life as a stonemason.

Before smoking made lung cancer a wide-spread cause of death, it was a rare disease which affected certain groups of workers dealing with dust and chemicals. On a general basis, Tom K. Grimsrud, Head Physician and Occupational Medicine specialist at the Cancer Registry, says:

– It is not possible to determine the cause of cancer in every single patient, but it can be considered on a scale of occupational divisions. It is often influenced by several factors. I think there is a pretty good chance that a stonemason who makes a living by cutting granite would get lung cancer approved as work-related.

Jönsson the Swede and Broe the Norwegian are both dead. Karl Kjær the Dane refutes the old saying that a stonemason never gets to meet his grandchild.

Foto: Nima Taheri / NRK

The grandchild

In 1958, Karl Kjær’s granddaughter is born. She grows up in the house with a view of the Monolith.

We track her down, call her, and invite her to meet us. The house in Skøyensvingen is no longer in the family’s possession, but Lone Kjær welcomes us into her kitchen somewhere else in Oslo. In her garden, little sculptures made by her grandfather are scattered around. We spot the head of a deer and the head of a woman.

Lone Kjær

THE GRANDCHILD: Lone Kjær is flicking through her photo albums in the kitchen while sipping coffee. Her voice is warm and gentle.

Foto: Maren Kvamme Hagen / NRK

As she speaks, she brings her grandfather to life. He was a nice guy who stayed in Norway for the rest of his life, but who always missed Denmark. He spoke Danish with a Norwegian twist, it almost sounded like the southern accents of Norwegian. He was fond of good food and drink.

But she also remembers something else: The fear of the stone lung.

Lone often arrived home from school to the sound of chopping in the garden. There, her grandfather sat working in his outdoor atelier. If she began to tell him about her day, prior to having caught her breath, her grandfather would admonish that she breathes with her mouth closed.

Did he say it because of a fear of dust?

In the 1960s, Kjær starts a kiosk in one of the small houses by the gates of the park. He sells chocolates and postcards, and proudly talks to tourists about the time he helped create the Monolith.

Kiosken utanfor Vigelandsparken

OUTSIDE THE KIOSK: On the right, Karl Kjær’s wife Nora with Lone in her arms. On the left, Nora’s sister and her husband. Karl Kjær is probably inside, busy working.

Foto: Privat / Lone Kjær

Later in life he makes a career as an independent artist. He takes part in the annual Autumn Exhibition, for instance. But he does not succumb to a lavish lifestyle. He keeps going to bed at the same time, eating the same things, and living thriftily.

NRK have found documentation confirming that Karl Kjær was diagnosed with stone lung in the 1960s. The doctor notes that the disease may have occurred before this time.

Nevertheless, Kjær lives a long life in the house with his grandchild and the rest of the family. He dies in 1988, aged 84.

Karl Kjær i hagen med barnebarnet

IN THE GARDEN: Karl Kjær and his granddaughter Lone Kjær outside the house with the view of the Monolith.

Foto: Privat / Lone Kjær

After NRK’s investigations, the granddaughter requests information about her grandfather’s cause of death and discovers it is pneumonia. This is not an uncommon cause of death for patients with stone lung.

– It is quite common for patients with silicosis to die from a respiratory infection because of their weak lungs. Generally speaking, a common cold could be fatal, says Bente Elisabeth Moen, Professor of Occupational Medicine at the University of Bergen.

Forgotten once again

Every year more than one million people walk through the gates of the Vigeland Park and up to the Monolith. The park is considered Norway’s most visited tourist attraction.

Monolitten med barn i forgrunnen
Foto: Nima Taheri / Nima Taheri

What would the stonemasons think? Did they want to be remembered?

They sign official papers as «Vigeland’s stonemason» or «cutter of the Monolith». The surviving families believe the stonemasons were proud of the work they did. Yet the stonemasons declined several requests for interviews while they were still alive. Stealing attention from the artist was not in line with a stonemason’s professional role.

Today, we might find it conspicuous how the stonemasons were left out of the story of the masterpiece they sculpted with their own hands.

Gustav Vigeland made a bronze sculpture of himself, holding a hammer and a chisel, which is located just inside the main entrance of the park. He also made sure to build a monument in gratitude to the City of Oslo and the investors.

No monument was made for the stonemasons.

Gustav Vigeland-statue i Frognerparken

THE SIGNATURE: In 1942, Gustav Vigeland planned a statue of himself for the main entrance of the park. The statue was erected in 1993 at the initiative of the Friends of the Frogner Park.

Foto: Nima Taheri / NRK

English translation by Henrik W. Johnsen.

Read the story in Norwegian: Den verkelege historia bak Monolitten


If you have any thoughts on the story, or questions, feel free to get in touch. Usually we publish articles exclusively in Norwegian, but this time we made an exemption, since the story of the stonemasons is not available anywhere else and The Monolith attracts a wide international audience every year.