This is a church where there is a lovely mid-century rug, visible the moment you walk in the door. But it is also a church so utterly packed with other decorative elements, and associated with important Swedish history, that in this blog post the rug will not make an appearance until the very end. So if you find meanders into Swedish history and lots more information than you probably want about medieval religious belief, feel free to cut to the chase and read the last few paragraphs about the rug itself! But if you’d enjoy the ride getting there, here we go….
The Dannemora Church is located a little north-east of Uppsala. This church, of stone and brick, was built at the end of the 1400s, probably on the site of an earlier wooden church to serve the nearby Dannemora mining community. A rudimentary mine was in operation here by 1481, and by about 1700 there were about sixty mine workers and several hundred others working nearby in related jobs. The congregation of the church consisted of those associated with the mining operation and the community which grew up around that.
A Swedish painter, Elias Martin, captured a view of the mines in a pen and watercolor drawing sometime between 1780-1800. His drawing was the basis for a 1991 Swedish stamp, commemorating these mines which were historically very important to Sweden’s economy.
Martin also painted quite precise urban scenes with washy skies, including many views of Stockholm, where he worked, and like this one of the Uppsala Cathedral and surrounding city:
But the mine operations were a good deal more dangerous than Martin’s dramatic but somewhat romanticized images. The production of iron, much of it for export was one of Sweden’s most important industries from the 17th through early 20th-century. The Dannemora mines were a group of about 40 deep steep-sided quarries where iron ore was mined. These early but undated postcards capture something of their appearance and the treacherousness of the operation.
These mines produced the iron ore which initially supplied some 20 local fiery forges which turned the ore into bar iron. By the 1700s these mines were a major supplier of bar iron, first in Holland, then in England, and later to other Baltic countries, as well as France and Portugal. But Britain continued to be Sweden’s primary customer. Of the 25,000 tons of iron imported to England in 1730, 20,000 of those tons were Swedish iron.
During the18th century, ore from the Dannemora area, now refined by Walloon forges, was called Öregrunds iron, as it was shipped from Öregrund, a port town about 30 miles north east of Dannemora, on Sweden’s east coast. The Öregrunds iron was considered the best available iron during the 18th century. The Dannemora iron ore from this area supplied the raw material for much British steel used for weapons and tools, most of it made in Sheffield. Underpinning Sheffield’s importance during the industrial revolution and worldwide reputation as a steel city, was the high quality of this Dannemora iron. Subsequently, due to British import tariffs at the beginning of the 19th-century, sales of Swedish iron to England fell, although these losses were offset by the rapidly enlarging American market, and American became, until World War 1, the biggest consumer of Swedish bar iron.
In 1927 a strike closed the mine entirely for 8 years. The mine reopened in 1935. In 1955, a new mining facility was opened, enlarging capacity and production. This renewal of the mine undoubtedly provided the capital and enthusiasm for the 1956-7 renovation of Dannemora church, although the commission of its midcentury rug from the Uppsala County Craft Association had happened a few years previously. The mine continued operations until 1992, when it was closed, but the shift in world markets spurred a reopening in 2012, and the mine is still functioning today.
The church in Dannemora has an appearance typical to medieval churches in the Upplands region, particularly with its ragged stone walls, brick end gables with what are called “blinds,” a kind of inset plaster decoration of crosses and other decorative bands, and wood shingled roof. The small entryway, called an “armory”(“vapenhus” in Swedish) was added about a century later, at the beginning of the 16th century. Here men were expected to leave their weapons when entering the church, Another element apparently typical of many of these particular churches was the location of a window directly behind the altar.
The interior of the church is remarkable. The “longhouse” or in conventional church language, the nave, is separated from the altar area, called the choir, by a high pointed arch, and vaulted with extraordinary non-structural plaster star vaults. At the rear is an an organ loft with its own multiple star vaults. The plan which follows indicates the location of vaults. The solid black walls show the original plan with sacristry to the north (top) of plan and later entry vestibule (“vapenhus”) shown with cross hatching to the bottom. The altar stands at the east end of the church.
Every wall and surface is covered with wall paintings on the plaster. Everywhere are baroque curlicues containing little vignettes of saints or framing larger paintings. These larger frescos have widely varied themes. The wall painting, on plaster, dates from about 1520, and are from what is called the “younger” (ie more recent) Tierp school of wall painting. Tierp is a city nearby and a number of the churches in this area were decorated by painters from this “school” of painters.
It is impossible for me to give a complete summation here of these paintings (although there is a book devoted entirely to the subject!) The people depicted throughout and drawn from Bible stories and ideas, are of course in contemporary—that is early16th-century —dress. There are images of the life of Christ, Christ teaching his disciples, chasing the money changers from the temple, rising from his tomb, and his ascension into heaven. Oddly, some of these are given more drama and easy-to-see-while-sitting-in-church wall surface, probably the medieval equivalent of more “air time.”
Others illustrate ideas current in the medieval mind, as the three following photographs show:
The photo below shows the “Mercy Seat” (Nådastolen), a concept borrowed from the Old Testament and reconfigured to accommodate Christ. Here God the Father holds Christ the son. I can’t tell if that is the brilliance of the Holy Ghost shining behind, or just a curtain. God sits on his seat, the Mercy Seat, which was the lid of the ark of the covenant. It symbolized God’s heavenly throne, and left a space where God’s presence would appear and dwell with men, with angels on either side.
The image on the right below is probably an image of “Fortune’s Wheel,” an idea introduced by Roman philospher Boethius in his book, The Consolation of Philosophy, in 523 AD. This book was regarded as the second most important book to the Bible in shaping medieval ideas. The basic idea was that some rise and some fall with the turn of fortune’s wheel, and there was not much one could do about it. (I’m not sure what was consoling about this philosophy!)
Another wall has rather gruesome image of Christ’s blood spurting directly into a communion cup. This image takes the idea out of the realm of the metaphorical and makes it directly literal. Maybe too literal?
And then there are confusing images, obviously important for their position in the church (flanking a central Christ figure over the large arch which divides the choir (ie the altar area) from the nave, but not ones which I can entirely sort out. Sitting in the nave this would be high on the wall in front of you. To the left are figures ascending steps; to the right are figures descending steps. This could be something so simple as those headed to heaven and Christ, and those headed to hell, with a monster to the right, jaws open wide and sharp teeth apparent. But why are all the figures on the right carrying jars, and why do they have crowns which seem to be blowing or falling off their heads? And why are they all women, quite elegantly dressed? The ones on the left, whom I didn’t look at quite so carefully at the time of my visit, seem to all be equally well dressed and have their crowns or headgear on straight. You can see that there were many many images that would need quite a bit more time to understand.
Other paintings show Swedish saints. I’ll just say that I don’t know for sure which ones these are, or why they are in ships. The best candidates are St. Brigit (Birgitta), patron saint of Sweden and her daughter St. Catherine of Vadstena who lived in the 14th century, that is, practically yesterday, during the building of this church. The two women travelled together to Rome, and then made pilgrimages to various holy spots including Jersalem. It may be one of their journeys shown here. St Eric who was Swedish King Eric the IX, may be the figure in the other ship. He reigned only four years, from 1156-60 but he founded the house which ruled Sweden until 1250, and he is regarded as Sweden’s early lawgiver, and establisher of Catholicism in Sweden. He built the church at Old Uppsala and today his bones rest in a gold-plated sarcophagus in the Uppsala Cathedral.
These two paintings also contain several of the frequently-illustrated devils or misshapen beasts which populate the church walls. It seems apparent that the purpose of the paintings was to hold up models of holy behavior but also to remind congregants in quite graphic terms, of devils waiting to prey on those departing from the path of upright behavior.
Devils seem particularly nasty in the entry vestibule. One author, Stephen Mitchell, notes that the choice of these themes in this space was hardly coincidental. He notes that while Bible themes are explored inside the church building, the vapenhus represents “the transitional or liminal space between the outside secular world and the marked holy area of worship.” The church artists apparently wanted to make stark the choices before people, just as they left the church building, whether towards sinful consorting with devils, or to upright godly behavior.
At the time the main body of this church was built, Sweden was an emphatically Catholic country. It became gradually Protestant in the 16th century. Probably the most important images in Dannemora church however, reflect the church’s Catholic heritage, in particular its veneration of Mary. Ironically, the walls in this church were painted in the 1520s just at the moment that King Gustav I Vasa was steering the country away from Catholicism and toward Protestantism. In 1527, with the approval of the Swedish Diet, he confiscated all church property for the new state and made the Swedish church independent from Rome.
The largest and most significant image in the church is a detailed portrait of Mary standing and holding Jesus which is on the left-hand wall of the choir. This central portrait is surrounded by a three rings of 5 roundels each. Each roundel celebrates some moment in the life of Mary and Jesus. As far as I can tell, these groups of five “events” may correspond to prayers in the Catholic rosary called the Rosary of the Virgin (“rosenkranz madonna”), which has five stages of ten beads each, to help believers learn and remember these various different events. Catholicism also identified Mary with the rose, so there are decorative roses painted around the church both in bands and entwined in the portrait of Mary herself.
Unlike other Swedish churches with medieval wall paintings, many of which later generations of worshippers found offensive or stylistically out-dated, and plastered over, the Dannemora wall paintings were never plastered over. Church history notes that there was a “hard-handed” restoration, an intended enhancement, in the 19th-century, a restoration which was in turn restored, or rather reversed, in the 1950s in a way intended to remove the heavier over-painting and bring the painting back more to what it was earlier. From what one can tell from 20th century black and white photos, taken before the 1956-7 restoration, the 19th century painting dramatically darkened the church walls.
The 1956-7 renovation did more than soften the over-painted wall paintings. It also reorganized various church fittings and ornament, may have either duplicated or heavily restored several statues, and may even have created new ornamental architectural elements.
Several archival photos provide background for the large statue of Mary which is located on the left hand side of the high arch leading to the altar area. While the 13th- century statue belonged to the church, it was not displayed in this area before the renovation. Given the condition shown in the photo below, it was clearly either duplicated or heavily restored at this time.
The Victorian-style pews (visible in black and white photo above of the church interior) were also replaced in this renovation by more traditional box pews. Note absence in same photo of the wooden obelisks which we will see below.
Three major pieces were donated to the church in centuries following the wall-painting: a baroque pulpit from 1685, and both the carved altar centerpiece, and two wooden obelisks used to mark the entry from nave to choir, were carved 1730-31 by master wood- carver, Erik Lindh. The commission and installation of these during the 17th-18th centuries, undoubtedly reflected wealth being generated by the nearby mines. At an unknown date, both a rather inconsequential altarpiece (which contained but did nothing to enhance the 1730 altar centerpiece) and a heavy communion rail were added at the front of the church and Victorian-style pews and the obelisks were moved next to the altar.
The 1956-7 renovation was undoubtedly funded by the newly enlarged Dannemora mining in operation in 1955, but it also coincided with a wave of Swedish church renovations and modernizations across the country. In the case of this church, the architect, J Fåk, humbly seems to have made no effort to introduce modern elements from his own time period. His intent seems to have been, instead, to enhance as far as possible the medieval quality and baroque elements of the church. To that end this renovation reinstated the obelisks in their original location and respected the pulpit, but entirely reconstructed the altar area. The heavy 19th-century communion rail was replaced by rail consistent with new (old-style) pew design. The photos below illustrate these changes.
In this renovation, the older altarpiece (date unknown) was replaced by a lovely foliate baroque surround, entirely consonant with the painted walls. What is unclear is whether this was an earlier piece which was found, restored and installed, whether it was assembled from some other architectural woodwork in the church, or if it was an entirely new and highly sympathetic design by the architect of the renovation. The 19th-century window was also replaced with clear glass.
Sometime after the restoration, the obelisks were moved from their 1956-7 “restored” position just in front of the high archway back to where they had been after the 19th- century renovation, and were placed on the front wall of the church to either side of the altar. It is likely that the intent at that point was to make the church more open and more sympathetic to new liturgical approaches,
The mid-century rya rug which is evident in the choir as soon as you face the altar, was not however, a result of the church renovation. It was in fact in place before the renovation.
The composition of the rug dates from 1951, and justifies the reputation of its designer, Ingrid Skerfe-Nilsson. Skerfe- Nilsson had joined the Uppsala County Craft Association (Uppsala läns hemslöjd) as a 27-year old in 1945 as a young pattern designer out of school. She rose rapidly in the organization and became a designer in 1948, designing many many rugs, mostly rya, for local churches, homes, and for sale in the Craft Association shop. An embroidered message on the back of this particular rug reveals its origins: Skerfe-Nilsson designed the rug but it was knotted by the Dannemora church sewing circle — women of the parish working together to create this rug for their church. In 1952, Skerfe-Nilsson left the Uppsala County Craft Association to found her own atelier in Uppsala where she designed patterns and offered courses in the making of rya rugs (see previous blog post about this).
While she worked for the Uppsala County Craft Association, Nilsson designed two rugs for the church— one for the area visible in the choir and the other for the area just in front of the altar behind the altar rail. There are two rugs today and there are two sketches from the hemslöjd archives. Only one of the sketches, however, corresponds to the rugs in the church, which are very much variations on the same theme. If the sketches showed rugs of the same dimensions, I would think that — as was frequently the case — the hemslöjd designer had offered the church two options for a rug being proposed. But the sketches are different dimensions, which suggests that they were sketches for the two different rugs, It seems that the church preferred to use the first design for both rugs and chose to have Skerfe-Nilsson use her original first design as a model for the second one as well.
The grid of Skerfe-NIlsson’s rug design seems to reflect the irregular grid of images on the front wall of the church. And the blue-green tones of the rug tease out the blues from the wall paintings.
On the rear side of the choir area rug is an embroidered signature panel indicating that the rug was a git from the Dannemora church sewing circle, year 1951, composed (designed) by I Skerfe-Nilsson, Uppsala County Craft Association. This collective signature is visible in the two following pictures:
The rug designed to occupy the space behind the communion rail and in front of the altar uses the same elements but has just a single row of white squares. I am assuming this rug carries the same inscription on the back, but I did not check that at the time.
Rya rugs were very typical of the 1950s-60s. It is gratifying to see how gracefully Skerfe-Nilsson’s large rya “fits” with the Dannemora church which is such a superb example of a medieval Swedish Uppland church. The pile of the rug adds texture and perceptual warmth. And somehow the church’s extensive medieval wall painting and baroque architectural elements seem only enhanced by this quietly colorful and forthrightly geometric rug.
Dannemora church visit, 3/6/20. All photos are by me from that visit unless otherwise indicated. Many thanks to the Svenska kyrkan pastorat for arranging my visit and to the sexton for showing me around.
Encyclopedia brittanica https://www.britannica.com/topic/Church-of-Sweden
kykrokarten.se, photographs by Barbro Thörn used by permission.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Riksarkivet photos online via Wikimedia Identified Kulturmiljöbild, Riksantikvarieämbetet. These photos were provided to Wikimedia Commons by the Swedish National Heritage Board as part of the cooperation project Connected Open Heritage with Wikimedia Sverige.
Su, Minjie, “Sko-Ella: The woman worse than the devil” in https://www.medievalists.net/2018/07/sko-ella-the-woman-worse-than-the-devil/. Su quotes Stephen Mitchell’s book, Witchcraft and Magic in the Nordic Middle Ages, whose quote, I have used here.
twitter discussion on the cultural importance of the Dannemora gruvor