A talented mid-century designer with both a fresh eye and an appreciation for traditional textiles, Britta Rendahl spent a large part of her career designing for the Uppsala County Crafts Association, in particular, designing rugs for area churches. After design training, she seems to have taken a job here in 1954 (at age 27). Over the next 10 to 15 years, she designed rugs for many many of the churches in small towns around Uppsala, the important Swedish university city located northwest of Stockholm.
Tracking these rugs is complicated (particularly without visiting each of the churches in question!) There are archived sketches for many rugs, but finding photographs which confirm that these rugs are still in place in their original church is not so simple. Most church photos are predictably shot from the rear of the church to get a sense of the whole. Those photos which are taken from the front of the church are usually to show the altar area, and not any rugs. The rugs and other textiles are usually the least permanent church elements and probably attract less attention or encourage fewer visits than an ancient baptismal font or particular painted image. But for those using the church on a weekly basis, rugs provide both real and perceptual warmth, and certainly contribute to the pleasure of those using the space.
In the 11th century, before the arrival of Christianity, the city of Gamla Uppsala (Old Uppsala) was an important ceremonial site. Accessible by cart, sleigh and boat across nearby lakes and river, it was also a trading center known throughout northern Europe. Perhaps most importantly, it had a large pagan temple (described in literature of the time), in which sacrifices were made to Norse gods, Thor, Freya and Odin, as well as a burial ground and royal lodgings. With the arrival of Christianity, the temple was destroyed and replaced by a wooden church which became the seat of Sweden’s first archbishop in 1164. In 1273, that seat was moved to what is now Uppsala, a few kilometers south of the old city, and the construction of a major new church was undertaken. Despite a fire and reconstruction, the Uppsala Cathedral took shape over the next few centuries. At the same time, numerous churches began to spring up in outlying villages.
It is fascinating to look at several of these medieval churches around Uppsala— some of which have portions which date from as early as the 12th century—and to see how the architectural forms and colors of faded frescoed walls inspired Britta Rendahl’s rug designs for these churches in the mid twentieth-century.
In 1961, Rendahl did several sketches for a rug for the Litslena Church, located near the town of Skolsta, in Enköping municipality 35-40 miles southwest of Uppsala. Here are her two presentation sketches:
The Litslena church was built in the 1100s although the present exterior dates mostly from the 14th century. The church contains frescoed wall paintings, made around 1470 by an unknown artist which retain their original colors. It’s clear that Rendahl looked at both the colors of the frescos and the chevron-like shapes in some decorative elements in her own design for a rug to go in the choir, the area in front of the altar.
Having seen Rendahl’s two designs, I was eager to see if I could find a photo of the front of the church with a rug of her design in place. And I did—here it is:
You can see the problem—that the rug in this picture does not correspond to either of the two above designs. Hmm: back to the archives. Looking again, I found a 1962 sketch by Britta Rendahl for the rug shown in the photograph. Success!
Typically, when a design was selected, Rendahl crossed out the word Förslag (“Proposal”) and wrote over it “vävd,” showing that this was the design woven. Here, the word “vävd” is missing, but there is a line through “Förslag.” This is the design she proposed:
Here is a another, closer view of the rug in place in the church today. This is a view of both the altar and the Choir rug (“kormatta”) that allows Rendahl’s rich combination of light blue and burgundy colors to be appreciated:
In 1964, for the Björklinge church, located about 15 miles north of Uppsala, Rendahl again set out another proposal in two versions of a “Tree of Life” image, this time, for a rya rug.
This church, begun in the 14th century and rebuilt in the 17th century, also contains some wall frescos but it also has areas with un-decorated walls. In the chancel, where the altar is, the gold-painted ribs of the vaults and golden elements of the altarpiece and large shield-like elements on the wall play off the white walls. Rendahl seems to have chosen to pick up some of the aquamarine color of the decorative frescos, but to use soft gold shapes in an impressionistic pattern for her rug for this area .
When I went to track down this rug, the photographic evidence available was poor, but two things were clear—- that the first design shown above was the one chosen, and that the rya rug had been rejected in favor of a flat-weave (rölakan) rug. And in fact, in the archives were another few pieces of evidence— a working drawing in this pattern and yarn samples, neither labeled as being Björklinge, but filed together and recognizable.
Below are two somewhat dull photos of this rug. I suspect that those actually using this space find the rug quite richly colored and wonderful. To me, the large floral bunches along the edges—clearly 20th-century in their loose format— play off the protuberant and almost vegetal elements of the antique decorative pieces hanging on the side walls. And the varied colors of woven gold amplify all of the other gold-toned architectural elements.
In 1965, Rendahl designed another large rya rug, this one for another medieval church called Skederids, which is near a small town called Finsta, in Norrtälje Municipality, about 30 miles south-east of Uppsala.
Rendahl’s design, another Tree of Life design, combines a more modernist sensibility with an sympathy for traditional decorative elements, turning the tree’s blossoms into traditional Swedish red-heart shapes. The grey-green and soft red colors echo those found in the painted pews of this very simple church interior.
A tablecloth she designed the previous year, based directly on decorative motifs from the fresco decoration of another church, show how aware Rendahl was of the traditional decorative elements in these medieval churches.
The following photos show this rug in place, first from a considerable distance, and then in a blow-up, to show how luminous the light green-grey pile of the rug is when lit from the transept windows to the sides.
In the Upplandsmuseet archives, where a selection of Rendahl’s papers are organized, is a proposal from 1967 for a rya rug designed to be a “Dopmatta,” that is, to lie next to a baptismal font in the Danmark Church. Danmark is a rural town about 5 miles south of Uppsala, remarkable for its association with Carl Linnaeus, who was a parishioner there. The present church dates to the 14th century but has suffered fires and has been added to several times, notably with a steeple added in the late 19th century. The church contains frescoes by two different master painters from the 15th century.
Again, Rendahl is sensitive to color in these frescos, picking up the blues and golds and echoing if not the form, at least the idea of repeated similar elements in her rug design.
The baptismal rug is charming, but small, and one might think Rendahl would have designed another rug for the altar area. But this is where the sleuthing for Rendahl-designed rugs in this church begins to become much less conclusive.
One flat-weave rug, designed by Britta Rendahl and sold in 2017, has a pattern and colors remarkably similar to that of the baptismal rug shown above. That this rug might have been woven to a design originally made for this church is a tantalizing possibility. But it is only about 8’x 5’, probably too small for the choir space, and there is no photographic evidence that a rug of this design ever occupied this church.
The fact that this piece is signed also raises a question which I have not answered: whether the pieces she designed for churches were signed or not. Judging from other designers who worked largely for churches — I’m thinking of Irma Kronlund at Kronobergs läns hemslöjd– I think she probably did, but this needs confirmation.
Is there evidence that there ever was a rug was in the chancel in front of the altar of Danmark Church, particularly one by Rendahl? Several older photos provide documentary evidence of a pile rug in place by at least 1938, thus too early to have been designed by Rendahl. The design of this rug was quite traditional, and with motifs derived from the fresco wall painting. Two subsequent photos, from 1947 and 1952 show that the rug continued to be used in this space up into the 1950s.
The next photograph of the Denmark Church chancel was taken in 1958 to document and celebrate the installation of three new stained-glass windows that same year. These were designed by artist, Julia Lüning, for the three windows at the front of the church. In this photo there is a new flat-weave rug in place, whose design consists of bars of brown, tan, black, white. and grey-blue. If commissioned at the same time as the new windows, this flat-weave rug would have been designed and installed 9 years before the rug Rendahl designed for the baptismal font– which raises the question whether this choir rug was one she designed as well. Unfortunately the archives show no rug designed by Britta Rendahl in this pattern, although it is quite distinctive.
The same rug is evident in two recent photos, from 2011 and 2012. The second makes it clear that this is not just an overall pattern, but that there is a kind of lighter cross form in the center of the rug.
So—to conclude, there is a handsome rug in the choir area of Danmark Church, which may have been designed by Britta Rendahl about 1958, but more research is needed to confirm this, or to determine who did design it.
The four rugs shown here give a sense of how attuned Rendahl was to the architectural context for which she was designing. These are only four of some 25 or so church rugs whose designs are held in the Upplandsmuseet archives. And beyond this are the altar cloths, priest’s stoles and chasubles (woven and embroidered) which she also designed for particular churches. Future blog posts will look at other of her “secular” rug designs.
Even after leaving the Uppsala County Craft association, Rendahl designed frequently for area churches, particularly pictoral tapestries illustrating various New Testament passages. These are quite different stylistically from her earlier rug designs. One of these was for Burträsk church in the late 1970s, called“Lovely is the earth” or “Härlig är jorden.“
The rugs that Britta Rendahl designed for so many churches in the area around Uppsala during the 1950s-70s illustrate her lively design sense and acute color sensibility. Today we are unused to associating this level of original textile work with contemporary church worship, but we should not be so surprised to find many of these wonderful rugs in Sweden’s churches. The post-war period in Sweden was a high point both of church attendance and excellence in textile design, which meant that many of the most talented Swedish rug designers designed frequently for churches. In the case of Britta Rendahl, much of her best work may be found, not in major auction houses or museums, but in fact, in these local churches.
Arntsen, Ewa, “Textil skatt i Burträsk kyrka,” 10 June 2013, in Spira, News from Swedish Churches.
Bruun-Rasmussen Auctioneers, Copenhagen