Medieval speaks to Modern: Erik Johan Lundberg with Barbro Nilsson

The Lundberg siblings were born in Malmö, in southern Sweden, Erik in 1895, and Barbro in 1899. They had two other brothers, but it was these two who were to have a profound impact on the history of architecture and design in 20th-century Sweden. Erik Johan Lundberg was an architect and occasional landscape architect, university professor, architectural historian, author, and for a time, head of the department in charge of restoring state buildings. He led the restoration of some 120 churches and quite a few other significant public buildings around Sweden. (He should not be confused with the Erik Lundberg covered in an earlier blog post who designed flat-weave rugs based largely on traditional motifs for a manufacturer in Skane).

0. Erik Lundberg older from Geni
Erik Johan Lundberg, Swedish architect, 1895-1969. Photo from

Barbro Nilsson, Lundberg’s sister, was an immensely talented textile designer who in 1942 became director of the prestigious Märta Måås-Fjetterstöm weaving atelier in Bostad. From 1947-57, Nilson was also head instructor at Konstfack, Sweden’s art school in Stockholm where she taught and influenced a generation of Swedish weaving designers.

Although this post is largely about her brother, Barbro Nilsson’s contributions to the history of Swedish mid-century weaving, both as an outstanding weaver herself, and as a designer and teacher, can hardly be overstated. Nilsson began studying weaving at age 14 when she was Barbro Lundberg. She studied first at Johanna Brunsson’s weaving school in Stockholm then studied at the Tekniska Skolan (which later became Konstfack, Stockholm’s college of art and design). She returned after her graduation from Konstfack to teach at Johanna Brunsson’s weaving school.

Barbro Lundberg married in 1928 and traveled to Rome with her young sculptor-husband, Robert Nilsson. Their son, Pål-Nils, was born in Rome, and when they returned to Sweden in the 1930s, Barbro was offered several commissions by her older brother, Erik, who was by then a recognized architectural historian and architect very much involved in church restorations. She designed not only rugs, but altar coverings and wall tapestries for a significant number of churches. In fact, many of the iconic Nilsson flat-weave and piled rug designs were originally designed for churches, and it is interesting to see these in that context.

This blog post will look primarily at Erik Lundberg’s own approach to architecture and then also at one example of the collaboration between Lundberg and Nilsson, a collaboration which enriched many Swedish churches, both large and small, located in various areas of the country.  A future post will look at other such collaborations.

Only some of the architectural renovations of Swedish churches undertaken from the 1930s up through the 1970s by architect, Erik Johan Lundberg included the addition of rugs designed by his sister, Barbro Nilsson. Lundberg was prolific in his restoration work, so there were many churches which he did work on which Nilsson was not involved in, and conversely, she had many commissions for commercial and institutional projects which he had no part of, but this post will look more closely at one of Lundberg’s church projects to which Nilsson contributed her own talents.

I think it’s useful to look briefly at Lundberg’s architectural career in order to better understand his aesthetic point of view. Although he was of an age to be caught up in the architectural modernism trending in the 1920s and 30s, Lundberg was drawn much more to historical architecture. He was fascinated by medieval Swedish architecture and drawn to the restoration of older buildings.

With one of his professors, Sigurd Curman, Lundberg helped define what building restoration, particularly of churches, meant in Sweden in the mid-twentieth century. Both men had a great deal of influence on the practice of restoration in Sweden both through their own work, and that undertaken by their students. One study cites Lundberg as generally having had seven or eight church restorations going simultaneously. Lundberg and Curman shared the point of view that restoration need not preserve all of what is found in an aging historical building but that the job involved saving what is most important and “improving” the overall fabric with modern interventions. This sounds like a sensible approach, but the question is always, who decides what is most important, and decides what gets erased? At this time, it was the architects in charge.

Lundberg himself had a very strong interest in medieval structure, particularly church roof trusses. He saw these in some way as proto-modern, that is, offering a similar kind of structural expression and articulation as architects were seeking in modern architecture of the time. He also believed strongly in the artistic imagination, allowing – as one of today’s modern critics of his work puts it – “the old to sound in the contemporary whole” (Bedoire 2013, p.298, quoted in Gullbrandsson). Note that this is not “the new to sound in the historic whole” but rather the reverse. So in cases where he was dealing with churches with at least some medieval fabric, Lundberg opted to keep and preserve the medieval structure of the churches, but to remove and replace with more modern designs those elements he considered architecturally undistinguished. He was also inclined to remove those architectural elements which had been added in styles that he found incompatible with the medieval. There was a very active process of selection as to what he considered aesthetically valuable in traditional work.

In the interests of disclosing my own stake in all of this, I can say that it was very much this kind of approach which drew me into architectural preservation work in the 1970s, because I felt that “cleaned-up” old buildings with modern interventions created a wonderful dialogue between old and new. It seemed to me that with many unrestored old buildings, people who had lived with them for so long, had stopped being able to “see” the architecture, and that by introducing modern elements, these elicited a fresh new view and appreciation of older buildings— and justified the buildings’ ongoing use. I still think all of this is true, but I can understand a more purist approach now, because if each generation of architects jettisons the pieces of a given building not to their taste, eventually little of the original will remain. Perhaps Swedish art historian, Göran Lindahl had the right answer in 1968, that “what is needed is a thoughtful maintenance technology, not a continuation in eternity of restoration to taste” (quoted in Robin Gullbrandsson, in English, p. 48).

Let’s look more closely at Lundberg’s 1963 restoration of Söderala church, done near the end of his career. This church is located some 100 miles north and 15 miles inland from Gävle, which is itself north of Stockholm in the province/county of Norrland. Söderala church is a large and very old building, probably built between 1150-1180. It is one of a group of churches from the Sigtuna region which share stylistic characteristics: a central square space made by cross arms intersecting the church’s nave and located below a central tower; having apse spaces in the choir area, generally semi-circular, and the use of a local grey building stone. The church is also famous for having a gilded bronze weathervane of Viking design from its earliest period.

0.Söderala weathervane from pinterest
Söderala church gilded bronze “Viking” weather vane in dragon design. I think this is now in Norrlands museum, but am not sure.

The Söderala church had had several significant renovations before Erik Lundberg was involved. There were two18th-century renovations (1711-1712, and 1746-52) which gave the original church new balconies and an overlay of neoclassical architecture style. Another project was undertaken in 1903-4 after a roof collapse. At that point the church sought to “restore” newly discovered medieval wall decorations—extensive painted ceiling and wall murals from the 16th century of biblical figures and biblical texts in very eroded condition— which had been painted over during the 18th century work. Erik Lundberg’s renovation in 1963 was the most recent, and perhaps the most far-reaching “restoration”— an enormous intervention which is still the subject of debate among parishioners, architectural historians and contemporary architects.

Before the 1963 renovation the exterior church facades had a plastered or stuccoed neoclassical flat finish. The 1963 renovation removed this finish to reveal the medieval stones beneath, and closed a number of windows which had been added in the 18th century.

1.Ingrid Swartling Kulturmiljöbild, Riksantikvarieämbetet Söderala_kyrka_Wikimedia commons-_KMB_-_16000200039296
Söderala church, photo by Ingrid Swartling. Kulturmiljöbild, Riksantikvarieämbetet via Wikimedia Commons.
1a Eyvind Unnerbäck Kulturmiljöbild, Riksantikvarieämbetet Wikimedia Söderala_kyrka_-_KMB_-_16000200039317
Söderala church, Removal of neoclassical rendered surface around entry area. Photo by Eyvind Unnerbäck. Kulturmiljöbild, Riksantikvarieämbetet via Wikimedia Commons.
2.Söderala kyrka, 13 maj 2012. Foto- Åke Johansson.
Söderala church, Photo by Åke Johansson via, May, 2012.

Inside the church, the 1963 renovation was equally dramatic. As the following 1926 photograph and second later 1958 photograph show, the interior of the Söderala church during the early to mid- 20th century, had many elements which had been added during the 18th century: a baroque pulpit, baldachin (canopy over the pulpit), and altar piece, a classical balustrade around the altar, round windows in the apse, paneled balconies in both of the cross arms of the church, interior walls of the church which were given a wall surface approximating stone blocks, and traditional candle-lit chandeliers. And yet, because in the 1903-4 renovation the ceiling paintings had also been restored, the ceiling itself had a medieval character.

3.Soderala kyrka lansmuseet gavelborg 1926 via digitalt museum XLM.U01422
Söderala church, 1926 photo from Länsmuseet Gävelborg via Item reference number: XLM.U01422; photo by Gustaf With Reimers.


4.S;derala kyrka 1958 länsmuseet gävelborgXLM.FLYG1260
Söderala church, 1958 photo from Länsmuseet Gävelborg via Item reference number: XLM.FLYG1260

Lundberg’s 1963 renovation stripped away the balconies, the pulpit and altar piece which gave the church back its original vertical character. The round windows behind the altar were filled, and the wall surface brought back to a more rough-cast plaster, so that the entire focus of the space is much more dramatically on the medieval painted surfaces.

5.Söderala 2003 by Åke Johansson via KK
Söderala church, 2003 photo by Åke Johansson via
5a.Söderala_kyrka_construction -_KMB_-_16000200039401
Söderala church construction photograph during 1963 renovation. Kulturmiljöbild, Riksantikvarieämbetet via Wikimedia Commons.

The organ, previously at the rear of the church, in one of the balconies, was relocated to one of the church’s side arms, and was replaced by a much smaller and more modern instrument.

6.organ at rear wikimedia Söderala_kyrka_-_KMB_-_16000200039370
 Söderala church construction photograph during 1963 renovation. Kulturmiljöbild, Riksantikvarieämbetet via Wikimedia Commons. Note balconies “interrupting” the windows.
7. Söderala Barbro Thorne #3
Söderala church, photograph after 1963 renovation, photo by Barbro Thörne via, used with permission.
6a.. Söderala_kyrka_ Kulturmiljöbild, Riksantikvarieämbetet wikimedia-_KMB_-_16000200039385
 Söderala church, photograph after the 1963 renovation. Kulturmiljöbild, Riksantikvarieämbetet via Wikimedia Commons.

Photographs from the 1903-4 renovation show the precarious state of the 16th-century plaster wall and ceiling paintings once surface paint had been removed. I don’t have much information on how much of what is visible now was actually retrievable, and how much was guesswork on the part of the restorers at the time, although clearly these restorers had great familiarity with 15th- and 16th-century paintings in other churches in churches in the Uppsala and Norrland region.

8.Soderala church berfore renovation photo from Kulturmiljöbild, Riksantikvarieämbetet via wikimedia commons Screen Shot 2018-07-22 at 8.55.11 PM
Söderala Church, photo of unrestored wall painting, probably ca 1903. Kulturmiljöbild, Riksantikvarieämbetet via Wikimedia Commons.
9. Kulturmiljöbild, Riksantikvarieämbetet via wikimedia commons Screen Shot 2018-07-22 at 9.04.20 PM
Söderala Church, photo of restored wall painting of area shown in photo above.. Apparently the risen Christ (see stigmata) is blessing local Swedish animals. Kulturmiljöbild, Riksantikvarieämbetet via Wikimedia commons.
9a.Hilding Mickelsson HMM50553
 Söderala Church, photo of restored wall painting of area shown in photo above, probably ca 1950s. Photo by Hilding Mickelsson via Collection reference number HMM50553.

Apparently however, some of the images found were considered “inappropriate” and after being photographed, were painted over (or perhaps given clothing?) I suspect that the photograph below is the “very naked” female referred to in multiple sources, which was then painted over. One could understand the fuss, given her insouciant display of her body in church!

9b.Kulturmiljöbild, Riksantikvarieämbetet via wickimedia commonsScreen Shot 2018-07-22 at 9.02.35 PM
Söderala Church, photo of unclothed female nude painting. Kulturmiljöbild, Riksantikvarieämbetet via Wickimedia Commons

Also relocated in the 1963 renovation were two vertical towers in wood or metal which marked the entry into the altar area. These (and the rug which had previously occupied the altar area) were relocated to a corner of one of the two cross arms of the church. Not only did this removal signal a more contemporary theological position of “open” access to the altar, but it also allowed Lundberg to mark the altar area with his own contemporary architectural forms.

10.Söderala_kyrka kulturmiljöbild, Riksantikvarieämbetet via wikimeia commons before renovation
Söderala Church. Photo of altar area before 1963 renovation with neoclassical detail and filagreed obelisks. Kulturmiljöbild, Riksantikvarieämbetet via Wikimedia Commons.
10a.Barbro Thörne comment pyramids have been displaced to choir arms
Söderala Church. Photo of church cross arm after 1963 renovation showing relocation of obelisks and original altar rug (designer unknown). Photo by Barbro Thörne, via; used with permission.

Having closed the round windows at the apse end of the church which were not original to the 12th-century church but which were probably added in the 18th century, Lundberg designed a semicircular wooden screen ornamented with abstract metallic elements (possibly painted) which gave a sense of enclosure to the new altar table. While up close this screen may have seemed oddly gashed, and not really beautiful, from a distance it was a simple enough form yet its surface presented a kind of modernist sparkle. The earlier balustraded altar rail was replaced by a lower and visually quieter wooden rail and leather kneeling cushions.

17.Söderala screen Kulturmiljöbild, Riksantikvarieämbetet via wickimedia commonsScreen Shot 2018-07-22 at 9.06.43 PM
Söderala Church. Photo of altar area with modern wooden screen after 1963 renovation Kulturmiljöbild, Riksantikvarieämbetet via Wikimedia Commons.


17a..Söderala_kyrka wikimedia _-_KMB_-_16000200039391
 Söderala Church. Photo of altar area modern wooden screen after 1963 renovation. Kulturmiljöbild, Riksantikvarieämbetet via Wikimedia Commons. I wonder if the priests’ robes were designed by Barbro Nilsson, but I don’t know the answer to this.
18a. IMG_7508 (1)
Söderala Church.Detail of wooden screen behind altar. Photo by Jonas Asplin; used with permission.
18, Söderala kyrka from Sveska Kyrkan website
 Söderala Church. Photo of new altar area after 1963 renovation. Photo from Svenska Kyrkan website.

As he did in a number of his other renovations, Lundberg found a way to use the newly-restored height of the old church. In this case he made much more dramatic use of an existing sculpture of Christ by mounted it on a cross made of simple boards, and placing it high above the altar area. Like the boards used to make the crucifix, the materials used both for the pews and in the altar area also had a kind of rough simplicity, but the result was dramatically “modern,” and definitely emphasized the affinity Lundberg saw between the medieval and the modern.

11.Söderala_kyrka_Christ statue via Wikmedia commons-_KMB_-_16000200040143
 Söderala Church. Photo probably ca 1904 of various sculptures (church-owned, I assume) of the crucified Christ. Lundberg chose one on right for mounting as the church crucifix in his renovation. Photo from Kulturmiljöbild, Riksantikvarieämbetet via Wikimedia Commons.


12.Hilding Mickelsson HMM52658
 Söderala Church. Photo of new crucifix made up of old sculpture mounted on simple new wooden cross. Photo by Hilding Mickelsson via, collection number HMM52658.

Lundberg introduced modern designs for other church furnishings: the pews and the pulpit. This pulpit was not well received by the congregation; they felt it was too “bulky” and in 2016 requested that this be replaced. I don’t have current information on the pulpit.

 Söderala Church. Photo of the ends of the pews showing Lundberg’s interpretation of the medieval: the pews show direct expression of their construction with dovetailed hymn racks and wooden pegs. Photo by Jonas Asplin; used with permission.


20. Söderala Barbro Thörne
Söderala Church. Photo of the altar area showing blue pulpit. Photo by Barbro Thörne via; used with permission.

Barbro Nilsson’s rug designed for the choir area in front of the altar is a large coral-red rug, evident in several of the previous photos, whose color echoes some of the more vivid tones of the restored wall paintings. Its motifs are constellations of small irregular stars in subtly differing shades of grey and white, and zigzags in brown and creamy white. The woven shapes are not direct copies of the motifs found in the mural paintings, but the rug as a whole has a similarly hand-crafted quality to the softly-colored patterns used as borders and frames for the painted images on the ceiling and walls. Nilsson’s rug is one of the few large areas of color in the church and it warms the altar area both visually and in a tactile way as well. Like many of the architectural elements her brother designed for the Söderala church, Nilsson’s rug doesn’t try to imitate old patterns or forms but offers a refreshed contemporary version of these. It perfectly complements her brother’s architectural intentions. The “Söderala” rug was later made in a blue version as well, for another location.

Söderala Church, Barbro Nilsson flat-weave “Söderala” (“rölakan”) rug, woven by Märta Måås-Fjetterström atelier, 1963. Size guesstimated at approximately 11’ x 16.’ Photo by Jonas Asplin, June 2018, used with permission.


Söderala Church Barbro Nilsson flat-weave “Söderala” (“rölakan”) rug, woven by Märta Måås-Fjetterström atelier, 1963, showing BN initials. Photo by Jonas Asplin, June 2018, used with permission.


16.Söderala IMG_7500
Söderala Church Barbro Nilsson close-up view of flat-weave “Söderala” (“rölakan”) rug, woven by Märta Måås-Fjetterström atelier, 1963, showing BN initials. Photo by Jonas Asplin, June 2018, used with permission.

One of the most exciting aspects of most of Lundberg’s restorations are his lighting designs. This church is no exception. His fine lighting solution here is to combine multiple lovely freeform electrical lighting fixtures made of brass sheeting with the original chandeliers which with the advent of electric light, were familiar and atmospheric, although outmoded. There was no confusion as to which was which, but since the church never had electrical light, the modern fixtures were entirely appropriate additions.


Söderala Church, Erik Lundberg-designed suspended “tent-like” brass lighting fixture accommodating several light bulbs. Photo by Jonas Asplin, June 2018, used with permission.
 Söderala Church, Erik Lundberg-designed suspended three-sided brass lighting fixture  with reflectors and accommodating multiple light bulbs. Photo by Jonas Asplin, June 2018, used with permission.
23.Söderala Kyrka photo Barbro Thörne
 Söderala Church showing Erik Lundberg-designed “tent-like” lighting fixtures used to illuminate nave of church. Photo by Barbro Thörne via, used with permission.

The Erik Lundberg 1963 renovation certainly recaptured the wonderful original interior space of the Söderala Church, and gave the altar area a crisp new design and focus, Whether it was strictly “necessary” to remove architectural features which had been added in the 18th-century, is unclear. But the church now has a kind of wonderful serenity which was not as apparent previously. This is in no small part due to the fact the renovation revealed the elegant simplicity of the church’s massive high walls and extensive painted ceilings, and that Lundberg added many handsome architectural and furnishing elements, including the rich new rug by his sister, Barbro Nilsson which are a lively modern complement to the medieval fabric.


24. Söderala_kyrka_- Kulturmiljöbild, Riksantikvarieämbetet via wikimedia commons
Söderala Church, Photo showing church in full use shortly after 1963 renovation (extra seating placed in the center aisle!). Kulturmiljöbild, Riksantikvarieämbetet via Wikimedia Commons. by Hilding Mickelsson b efore 2002HMM52640
Söderala Church. Photo of apse of church with crucifix, new apse screen, pulpit and Barbro Nilsson rug. Photo by Hilding Mickelsson via, collection number HMM52640

As his work at Söderala makes clear, Lundberg’s approach to his church renovations was essentially a process of selecting what he thought were the most significant elements of what was there; eliminating other features he judged to be architecturally distracting; adding modern elements “sympathetic” to the particular architecture of each church; and using color judiciously. Most of the churches he renovated are well maintained and still appreciated by their congregations. Yet while they appreciate the kind of architectural clarity and simplicity which he brought to his projects, some architectural historians, congregants and enthusiasts of church architecture are unhappy that pieces of many old churches were lost or overwritten by Lundberg’s renovations. Today a word often used to describe much of Lundberg’s approach is “controversial.” One element about which there is not controversy, however, is the beauty of his sister’s rug, and the way it entirely complements the building’s architecture. But it is worth remembering that it was Lundberg’s own career which initially opened church doors to Nilsson and lead to her extensive work in the design of church textiles, including many wonderful rugs.

—Jonas Asplin for photographs and discussion about Soderäla kyrka


—, geneological research site

—Gullbrandsson, Robin, Abstract of article, “Medieval Roof Trusses in Churches of Northern Småland,” Lund Archaeological Review 19 (2013), pp. 77–94 in online journal, which cites both Fredric Bedoire’s Restaureringskonstens historia (2013), and Göran Lindahl (1968).

—öderala kyrka

—, thanks to Åke Johansson and Barbro Thörn for their photos. Express permission was given by Barbro Thörn to use copyrighted images.

—, online biographical dictionary of (some) Swedish artists

—Märta Måås-Fjetterström workshop, Båstad, Sweden

—Moller, Viggo Sten. En Bok om Barbro Nilsson, Bokförlaget Trevi, 1977.


—Salin, Bernhard, Förgylld flöjel från Söderala Kyrka 1921 article found online; source unknown.

—Slutrapport 2010 – Kulturhistorisk inventering och karaktärisering av kyrkor och begravningsplatser i Linköpings stift

—Stockholms Auktionsverket

—Wikimedia Commons, particularly collection of Images of the Cultural Environment from the National Heritage Board, Sweden (these are labeled as Kulturmiljöbild, Riksantikvarieämbetet)



Please reference as follows:

Whidden, Anne, “Medieval Speaks to Modern: Erik J Lundberg and Barbro Nilsson” theswedishrugblog (7/25/18);; accessed (day/month/year)

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