Oddly, the design of church rugs requires a certain attitude. I am not talking about devotion or worshipfulness. No—the question to be posed is how the rug should “fit in” to a preexisting context. Many of the rugs we have looked at were originally custom-designed for a residential or commercial place- a living room, a library, an office, a board room. These acquisitions generally represented delight or pride in modern design, a certain level of taste or an assertion of professional status.
In designing church rugs, the challenge facing a designer was to enhance buildings which were already old—some very old—and perhaps to repeat forms of some outstanding features of the building to create a sense of visual unity. Rather than being one of the most important artistic things in the space, rugs might well take second or third place to an altar painting, the distinctive design of a pulpit, or a carved baptismal font.
During the 1950s and 60s, most Swedish textile designers designed at some point for churches— whether rugs, altar draperies, priest’s garb, or all of these. When we start to look at rugs designed for churches, it is appropriate to start with the work of Irma Kronlund, a woman from south central Sweden who spent virtually her entire career designing textiles for churches. We can see how she looked at elements of each church, or drew on traditional motifs in designing her rugs.
From the mid-1950s up through the 1980s, Kronlund designed for the Kronoberg läns hemslöjd, (County Crafts Association) headquartered in the city of Växjö, in Kronoberg county, in south-central Sweden. The archives of this organization hold sketches Kronlund did for some 20 churches but there were many more. These were for churches located around Växjö, some very close, but all within about a forty mile radius. Several of these churches still use the rugs she designed for them.
The church in Hemmesjö, just five or six miles east of Växjö, commissioned a chancel rug in 1954 from Kronoberg County Crafts Association. The chancel is the area between the altar and the congregation, often raised a step or two. It can be the area immediately around the altar, originally restricted to priests, or the area further out, often occupied by the choir. Swedish rugs for this area are called körmatta, or “choir rugs” so seem to be the ones more distant from the altar. The Hemmesjö church is a mid-19th century church, one which combined congregations from two different towns, and the location of the new church was about half-way between the two older ones.
Kronlund designed a rya rug for this church, her sketches illustrating four different options. The first design (shown below) was the one chosen, and is still in place in the church. Unfortunately the only image I have of this rug in the church itself, just shows a corner of the rug.
It’s also interesting to see Kronlund’s fourth proposed design for this church. She noted on her sketch that she had taken the motif from this design from the pattern of the iron forging on the doors to the Hemmesjö “gamla kyrka,” that is, the 12th-century Hemmesjo church building —the one this congregation was leaving behind. One has to assume that this pattern, though very handsome, was probably more attractive to the congregants of the original Hemmesjö church, than to those from the congregation with whom they were merging.
In Dädesjö, a small town about 20 miles north of Växjö, there is a whole church complex, with both an old church and a new one, church stables, parish hall, and a vicarage which is a large old red farmhouse.
The old church, like that of Hemmesjö, was built in the 12th century. While all that remains of the church is the original nave, this has a wonderful decorative ceiling from the late 13th-century, signed by the painter. The ceiling is considered to be one of the finest examples of medieval painting in Sweden, which depicts scenes from the birth of Christ in round medallions.This small space now functions as a kind of chapel.
The Dädesjö new church from 1792 is located right across the street from the remains of the old church. Representative of the Gustavian style of architecture and design, it has a high bright interior space. The 12th-century baptismal font with carvings of mythical creatures was moved across the road to this new church, as was the 17th-century pulpit, now re-hung as decoration on the new church’s side wall. Both the font and the pulpit provide a kind of continuity with, and commemoration of, the old church.
So there were plenty of decorative elements for Irma Kronlund to play with when she was asked to design a rug for the church in 1967.
The rug Irma Kronlund designed was a “relief pile” rug, that is, a rug which is largely pile, but is woven with lines or sections of flat-weave to provide definition. In the Kronoberg County Craft Association archives are eight presentation sketches for this rug, and they all use bright yellows and oranges, perhaps based on the rusty orange of the pew ends, or perhaps to bring out the red and orange tones of the altar painting. But sometime between these sketches and the weaving of the rug, there was a decision to use more toned-down colors.
Kronland took as her inspiration the form of the old paneled pulpit and the (now absent) steps leading to that. This was a design she used in several different churches with variation in color and placement of elements. Not on these particular sketches, but on another set of sketches with a similar design, she noted the pulpit architecture as her inspiration.
Here is a similar design from Irma Kronlund, but woven in a flatweave (rölakan) rug and in completely different colors-presumably designed for another Kronoberg county church. I have also seen a similar design in pink, again for a different location.
There is in place another flatweave rug -rölakan- for the choir area of Dädesjö church, which I have not identified sketches for, nor have a date for. It has an overall pattern of greeny-yellow, brown and red elements and and complements the colors of the rug under the baptismal font and could well be by Kronlund. But it would be useful to know who designed it and when.
There is also a third rug in the church, a very jazzy chancel rug, which sits behind a balustrade around the altar. This one is hard to see in photographs. Unlike the other two, it is striped bright orange and gold, and looks like it might have fit well with the original bright yellow design for the baptismal font rug, shown above. This design has a circle filled with hourglass figures, a traditional Swedish design, perhaps seen as appropriate to a church where people might be expected to focus on the good and godly use of their time. This rug is another for which the county archives have a sketch. The sketch dates the rug to 1978, toward the end of Kronlund’s time at Kronobergs County Craft Association.
There is an fun video of the interior of this church which really lets you see these three rugs by moving toward and away from the altar. Use the link below. If you turn the compass on the video to the right, you can also see the earlier Kronlund design for the baptismal font rug. A big thanks to the Swedish Churches website for (inadvertantly?) providing this nice video view of Irma Kronlund’s rugs in this church! Directions: click on the following link and scroll down to see photo of interior of church. Click on symbol in upper right hand corner to go “full screen,” then maneuver with arrows to move forward and backward. Use compass to turn to the right to see rug under baptismal font.
In looking though photographs and documentation on these very old churches, it is clear how recent—and in some ways how ephemeral—these church rugs are. Many the treasured architectural features of these churches would have been installed or made from 150 to almost 850 years ago, so the rugs can certainly seem less significant. But to those using these churches on a weekly basis, having a colorful and well-designed rug certainly adds much warmth to the space. And the contemporary design of the rugs adds yet another layer of history to each of these churches. Swedes sitting in church are exposed in those church buildings to several hundred years of material culture. Yet in their employment of these 20th-century rugs, they clearly embrace a certain aesthetic discontinuity and are willing to use design elements which represent their own historical period. It’s fun to see the inspiration and skill of the designers and weavers of rugs as another layer in the stories of each of these churches.
Bukowskis auction house, Stockholm
digitaltmuseum.se, Hemslöjdens Samlingar
Kronobergs County Craft Association archives. Permission granted to use photos from the Hemslöjd collection but Hemslöjden Kronoberg is the owner and has the copyright for all photos shown here as well as the (cropped) title image. Ägare av samling Hemslöjdsföreningen i Kronobergs län photo in the database Hemslöjdens Samlingar. Thanks to Monica Modig Rauden and Ulf Jansson at Kronobergs läns hemslöjd.
Reuterdahl, Magnus, “Testimony of the Spade” Blog post on runic texts and medieval decoration in old Dädesjö church at https://inventerare.wordpress.com/2007/04/23/runic-texts-in-dadesjo-medival-church/ read by me, 2-25-17.
Wikipedia and wiki commons
For photo of ceiling medallions in Dadesjo, |Description= Foto: Tor Svensson |Source= |Date= |Author=User Kemitsv on [http://sv.wikipedia.org sv.wikipedia] |Permission=Released under the GNU Free Documentation License.