When I was a child, I had a scrap of frayed white damask someone had given me. I remember unfolding the little piece, about eight inches long, to examine it. It had a remarkable sheen and the patten seemed to shift as the light played on it. Of course I could not have described that. If asked about its attraction, I probably would have just said, “I like it—it’s pretty,” and folded it quickly back into my pocket to avoid further discussion. I could not have articulated the fact this kind of fabric was hardly one with which our family’s modest home with its mid-century furniture was decorated. But I could see even then that there was definitely something special about a damask weave. This blog post has let me pull out that long-ago memory and reacquaint myself with damask and other rich fabrics, and discover their use in Swedish churches.
The career of Anna-Lisa Odelqvist-Kruse gives us the opportunity to look at the work of a woman whose entire career was dedicated to the design of church textiles. Some 2000 textiles come from her hand. These are located in church parishes all over Sweden, but largely in the center and the northern areas of the country. The formats are varied: kormatta, or rugs for the area at the front of the church called the choir, or chancel; wall hangings small and large, hung either behind the altar or elsewhere; frontals, or antependium, which are a flat strip of drapery hanging in front of the altar itself; and garments called copes and garments called chasubles (mässhake, in Swedish), the richly decorative garb worn by priests over a simple white tunic during services.
The fact that the period of the 1940s-60s was the high point of Swedish church membership meant that there were many new churches built and many church renovations undertaken concurrent with this “golden age” of Swedish textiles. Odelqvist-Kruse was committed to making contemporary work which drew on the deep history of liturgical textiles, in symbolism, color and materials. Her unique vision as well as her desire to have her own work add to and celebrate the unique architecture and environment of each individual church made her a valued collaborator for many church architects of this period.
Odelqvist-Kruse spent some thirty-five years with “Libraria,” one of Sweden’s two most important firms specializing in church textiles, so this post is also a good time to look at both Libraria, and Licium, the firm where she started, a little more closely.
Although born in, and anchored by her professional work to Stockholm, Odelqvist-Kruse developed strong emotional ties to areas in Norrland, the far north of Sweden. This is not an actual governmental area, but something like “the midwest” or “New England”, in American terms. When she met her second husband, Sven Kruse, he was the priest of a parish church in Ramsele, a rural small town in Västernorrland County. Even before she met him, Odelqvist seems to have developed an interest in working with churches in this “northern wilderness.” In terms of geography, this is an area of forests, mountains and rivers, marked with a solitary beauty. Huge tracts of land are used for timbering, and while Norrland occupies about sixty percent of the land area of Sweden, it supports only about twelve percent of the country’s population. Since its churches are remote to the rest of the country, this post also gives us occasion to look at some of these churches which I have not visited (and at this point, feeling like I may never vist) personally.
Born in 1925, Anna-Lisa Odelqvist grew up in a middle-class household in Stockholm, with her father a detective sergeant. I know little about her childhood, but as a young woman she studied drawing and painting for several years at a private art school in Stockholm. She then switched over to spend two years, from 1946-8, at the state university for art, crafts and design just recently renamed “Konstfack.” In her last year at school she entered and won a city-wide competition to design a rug for a lottery. The prize for the competition was a prize indeed in post-war 1948 — an offer of a summer job at Licium, a well-known firm dedicated to producing church textiles. Although the rug shown below was acquired by Sweden’s National Museum in 1951, not 1948, I suspect that this was the one Odelqvist designed which won the earlier lottery-prize competition. The rug is made of cow-hair yarn, a durable old-fashioned yarn often used in Sweden in times of materials shortages. In either case, it is quite an honor for a young designer to be collected by the National Museum. (Ironically, this is the only piece of hers they have).
Licium had been founded in Stockholm in 1904, as appreciation for 15th, 16th and 17th century church textiles began to spark renewed interest in contemporary liturgical textiles. The studio’s founders were Mimi Börjeson and Agnes Branting. Branting (1862-1930) was a pioneer in this field, active in her own research into medieval textiles, tireless in exibiting the firm’s work, and a canny promoter of her ideas. She led the firm until her death in 1930. During the 1890s while working for Handarbetets Vänner, the Friends of Handicraft, Branting had begun to explore reanimating the use of particular colors for textiles associated with particular church holidays, and she continued this thrust at Licium. This had been Catholic church tradition but had fallen away in the Swedish protestant church. One of Branting’s primary objectives was to give Swedish church services a sense of dignified drama. Branting was an authority on old Swedish priestly garments. Having observed that Italian damasks had been used in medieval Swedish churches, Branting initiated contact with a Venetian weaver of silk- damask, Luigi Bevilacqua. Licium’s collaboration with the Bevilacqua weaving studio completely changed the look of Swedish priests’ garments, making them much richer in appearance and more ornate in their decoration. Other 20th-century Swedish firms designing liturgical garments rapidly began to use the Bevilacqua damasks as well.
Branting was also a gifted embroiderer. In 1928-9, she published an authoritative book on medieval Swedish weaving and embroideries. Called Medeltida vävnader ock broderier i Sverige, it was translated into English after her death.
One of Branting’s last and finest projects to conceive of a cope or cloak for the Archbishop of Uppsala Cathedral, Nathan Söderblom who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1925 for his work promoting ecumenical dialogue and cooperation. Branting envisioned the cope in collaboration with the archbishop himself, although the final artistic design was by Ruth Hallberg, another Liceum artist. It uses the Bevilacqua silk damask, and the embroidery is full of symbolism and gorgeous hand work work. Söderblom was criticized at the time for wearing such an elaborate garment; Sweden was still just getting used to the new ornate look of these robes, but the piece was certainly a triumph of Branting’s vision for priestly robes.
Joining Licium in 1948 for her summer job, Anna Lisa Odelqvist and stayed on for the next four years. She worked for Sofia Widen (1900 -1961) , who took over after Agnes Branting, and was head of the firm from 1930 through 1951. Like Branting, Widèn was a talented designer with her own subtle and delicate style. She endorsed Branting’s ideas about color, adhering to the formalized use of six colors to correspond with the church seasons and festivals in the Swedish church. These are white, red, purple (or blue), green, and black. Thus white is for Christmas and Easter; blue or violet for Advent (the lead up to Christmas) and Lent; green for the periods after Epiphany (Jan 6) and after Trinity (early June, so most of the summer) red is the color for Pentecost. Black was prescribed for funerals. Widen continued the use of Italian silk damask, and in fact designed some twenty patterns for the Bevilacqua atelier but also slowly began to encourage the use of quieter more natural materials like wool and linen in Swedish churches as well.
Odelqvist-Kruse mentions that she learned a great deal from Widèn, who was 25 years her senior, perhaps as much how to think about designing for churches as to actually do it. She absorbed Widén’s point of view that a design for some element in a church could not be just a beautiful object in itself, but it must “fit” and enhance the design of each individual church. Widén emphasized that a liturgical textile had an active role, interacting with the space for which it was intended.
Widen also subtly changed the shape of Swedish church garments. Instead of an older shape of the chasuble which had no real sleeves and was more like a front and back panel, she created the softly rounded shape which covered the shoulders and draped over the arms. This also created more surface area for Liceum’s designers to work with. Sofia Widén’s green (at least sort-of green) chasuble shown below shows one of the subtly-patterned Bevilacqua silk damasks called “Angel Musicians,” this one designed by Widén herself. The church motto, IHS, on the back embroidered panel has several meanings in Christian tradition. One is In hoc signo, or “in whose sign…”we conquer; the other is Jesus Hominum Salvator. (In Latin, I and J are the same letter).
As head of Licium, Widén was open to new ideas, welcoming, for example the idea of designing printed “profane” textiles under the Licium name. When Susan Gröndal joined the firm in 1938, she brought with her, skill in linoleum block cutting. During the next decade, other artists, like Tyra Lundgren were invited to contribute patterns for this new line of decorating fabrics. These were nothing like the firm’s liturgical textiles, but reflected much more of a modern ethos, and were handsome, graphically-bold prints. These were very well received, with one by Widén called “Stockholm” attracting particular notice.
On a Swedish auction website, I located a piece of printed fabric with Odelqvist’s name in the salvage. She apparently contributed this pattern with a midcentury palette and feel to the printed textile line while she was also at Licium.
But in 1952 Widén left Licium to found her own atelier. As well as continuing to do freelance designing of church textiles, she expanded further into designs for printed fabrics. These popular prints from her own firm, like those earlier ones from Licium, have Widén’s name in the salvage, but now the Licium name is missing.
Like Widén, Odelkvist also left Licium in 1952, to becoming director of a firm, AB Persson, which sold printed textiles as well as kits from which rugs —probably rya— could be made at home. Her role was to design these. She did not stay long, leaving within the year. Her next job was with another major supplier of Swedish liturgical textiles, a firm called Libraria, where she stayed for the next 35 years.
Libraria, the Stockholm firm which Odelqvist joined in 1952, had a curious history. It had grown in the 1920s out of a book publishing firm, which specialized in church art. Its first director was Agda Österberg (1891-1987), who ran the firm from 1926 until she moved to Varnhem in 1933. Österberg developed an expertise in finely-detailed embroidery working at Libraria, and that continued as a firm speciality. Österberg’s contemporary, Märta Gahn (1891-1973) was Libraria’s second director.
Under Gahn’s leadership the firm produced some 3000 priests’ garments, antipendium, as well as about 200 rugs for churches. Gahn was a very fine weaver, interested in the many varied ways to construct patterns within in the structure of the weave itself. She was strongly interested in damask weaving, and encouraged the use of fine Swedish linen damask for church textiles. She also emphasized the repair and conservation of old church textiles. Less interested in design herself, she strongly encouraged collaborations with other artists and crafts people, and worked to make Libraria a new center for craftsmanship in service of church art. Flowers and symbolic religious imagery were the primary embroidery subjects; human figures were rarely used. Gahn’s general style was more conservative and traditional, and she felt strongly that church textiles should relate to the local weaving traditions of each place. For Odelqvst this was probably an interesting design principle, after Widén’s emphasis on how textiles should work in the church environment itself.
When Odelqvist came to Libraria in 1952, she was only 27 years old. Two years later she became managing director as well as artistic director. In1969 Odeqvist Kruse became CEO of Libraria and remained in that position for eleven years; for the next 5 years, from 1980-85, she remained as artistic director. Her long tenure at the firm coincided with both a liturgical opening-up and new freedom in the style of church services, and in society in general. The definition of what church textiles could be evolved as she herself matured as an artist, so that it was an interesting time to be in this field. In her own work and as leader of the Libraria studio, Odelqvist-Kruse found new ways to design for churches, and new challenges.
In her doctoral dissertation about Odelvist-Kruse, Ulla Mo underlines that it was Odelqvist-Kruse’s desire to enrich church services by visually imparting a Christian message—through symbolism, color and imagery. Her embroidered or appliqué imagery was much more explicitly Christian with crosses, saints and other symbolism, although the presentation was decidedly more abstract than in earlier liturgical textiles. In fact, as abstract art became more socially acceptable, and since this period was the high point of new church building in Sweden, Odelqvist-Kruse often found herself designing for and with the architects of her own generation who were designing these modern churches. For many of these churches, she felt a very abstract art was called for, and these now seem like some of her most exciting works.
The first part of this blog post will look at Odelqvist-Kruse’s career through about 1965, examining the textiles she designed for several churches both old and new, during these years. This list is in no means comprehensive, but simply reflects what I have been able to document from a distance. The Ulla Mo dissertation, perhaps now a book, lists some 2000 textiles she designed, so what we will look at is just a fraction of that.
Odelqvist designed two or possibly three pieces for Robertsfors Kyrka in 1957. Robertsfors is located just about 4 miles inland from Sweden’s east coast on the Gulf of Bothnia, and about 35 miles north of Umeå, Norrland’s largest city. Just to give you a sense of geographic distances, Umeå is in turn about 400 miles north of Stockholm. It was originally an iron-mining community. In 1956 the church congregation had outgrown its existing 19th century building. To design their new church home, they hired Ivar Tengbom (1891-1968), an accomplished and senior architect, who since the 1910s and 20s, had been a proponent of modernity in a neoclassical dress, a kind of nordic classicism. The church has a very traditional form with steeply pitched roofs and white-washed walls inside and out. It its inside that Tengbom’s version of modernism shows, in the clarity of form, ample open space, unadorned windows, and in the modernity of its stained glass window (designed by Bo Beskow) and its light fixtures.
It is fascinating to see how different from each other the designs for the woven pieces are. The central piece needs forward movement and light; the tapestry becomes a kind of soft back to that pulpit, blending in color. The piece hanging on the front of the pulpit may also be hers but I haven’t confirmed this. But it has a similar feel in coloration, draws attention to the pulpit, and presents an explicit cross. and Anna-Lisa had married a Stockholm businessman in 1954, so at this point she signed her pieces A-L O E for Anna-Lisa Odelqvist Ekström.
The next year, in 1958, Odelqvist-Ekström came again to this northern region, this time to the Sollfteå region. The town of Ramsele and the Ramsele New Church would become very important to her. This rural inland church was where Sven Kruse was local priest to the town of some 1500 inhabitants, and where she and he would be married two years later. She continued to work in Stockholm for about 20 more years, but managed to live at least part of the time in this little town, going back and forth as needed, and out to site visits from both Ramsele and Stockholm. Having Ramsele as a home base also probably made doing work in the north more attractive.
About 25 years earlier, a Swedish artist, enamored of Lappland and the Swedish north, an artist named Helmer Osslund who had studied with Gauguin, painted a quiet view of the Ramsele environs. The painting captures the quiet beauty of the area.
Ramsele Old Church nearby had been in use since the 13th century, but more church space seems to have been needed by the mid 19th century. So Ramsele New Church was built in the mid-19th-century to plans by the architect Ludvig Hawerman. It is a simple structure with the nave supported by columns, a barrel-vaulted wooden ceiling, a gilded pulpit, and a handsome paneled and painted screen behind the altar. The sacristry, or robing room, is cleverly set behind the screen in a semi circular space, with a lantern—that is, a high window overhead.
Odelqvist-Ekström designed a very large flat-weave rug for the Ramsele New Church. This choir rug or kormatta been described as one of the most beautiful of Swedish church rugs. It certainly seems to pull together all the colors in the church, the greens and blues of the screen, pew ends and ceiling and the gold glints of the pulpit as well as the emphatically rust-colored hymn number panels and pews. But it also speaks, perhaps in the terms that Martä Gahn had emphasized, to the traditions of this locale itself. The rug is called the “Harrselekungen,” after a local thousand year-old tree.
It is frustrating, when we know how important this rug was to the designer, to not be able to find photographs which let us see it better. (Just as an aside, this is a frequent problem for me— most photographs are either from the backs of churches or of the altar itself, inconveniently ignoring any rugs in place!) But, we will come back to this church and its rug at the end of my second of these two blog posts.
In 1959, Odelqvist (she had now dropped the name Ekström) worked with the Libraria atelier on a red chasuble for the Pentecostal period for a new church located on an island in the Stockholm archipelago. This was Essinge Church on Stora Essinge, or Great Essinge Island. The church was designed by another important architect of the nordic classical school, Cyrillius Johansson (1884-1959), nearing the end of his life. Johansson had won a competition to design this church, which was begun in 1953, but in fact he died in 1959, five months before this church was dedicated.
I’m struck by the number of terrific Swedish architects, both the older generation who designed classic buildings and the younger ones, who designed very modern ones, whom Odelqvist-Kruse was able to work with. Given her talents, it was likely to have been a positive experience for them as well. But it would be fascinating to know more of these collaborations.
Esseninge church is a tall and severe brick-clad building. The interior has blue-tinged plaster and a high blue ceiling. The backlit glass sculpture behind the altar is by Einar Forseth, originally designed for another location, and installed later, in 1988.
The long runner beween the pews is red; the church pews are painted red, and the chasuble Odelqvist designed is a crimson damask. In this somewhat murky church, this vivid robe would offer a welcome contrast. Like her Libraria predecessors, Odelqvist continued to use the Bevilacqua silk damasks with their shifting play of light and shade on shiny and flat elements in the pattern. This garment however, shows how much more contemporary the patterned damask has become. It’s a pattern called “Angles” (Vinklarna). Since red is the color of Pentacost, the feast celebrating the disciples recieving the Holy Spirit after Christ’s ressurection. This was when they were all speaking in tongues, and toungues of flame are often used symbolically as they are here for this event.
The golden zig zag at the front collar also has a sense both of a startling descent and of things (a world order?) being cut into sharply, and changed.
The signature “KOMP ALO” or composed, designed by ALO, indicates that at this point Anna-Lisa had dropped her first husband’s name and gone back to using her own AOL initials.
The back of the chasuble is where most of the action happens. First –the colors! pale lavender set against red! Pretty great. Then the familiar symbolism of cross and flames. But also an arresting new reading of the cross as a sword, also rendered in lavender. And another of the cross as a kind of sun figure with rays of light, or perhaps spiritual illumination breaking forth from it. The small black outlines below the cross in Odelqvist’s visual vocabulary represent individual people. We see this shorthand figure with some frequency in her embroidered work.
In 1963 Odelqvist-Kruse received a commission from Värmland, west of Stockholm, a chasuble, priest’s robe, for the Karlstad Cathedral. This may have been the earliest work she did for one of Sweden’s most important cathedrals. Three to four years later, the cathedral would undertake a major renovation, but Odelqvist Kruse’s design for this robe feels like it anticipates the bright modernization of that church space. The church has gone through three city-wide fires in its history, and required complete rebuilding from the first two. The current large, neoclassical building with its Greek cross plan dates to 1730. It suffered further damage in a 19th-century fire and had several subsequent renovations. In a photo taken in the 20th-century prior to the 1966-7 renovation, the church interior looks decorous and a bit stodgy, although this may be just a view in hindsight or a result of the black and white photography. Odelqvist-Kruse’s chasuble by contrast, communicated a message of ongoing relevance and contemporaneity.
On the back of the robe, Odelqvist-Kruse uses the chi-rho symbol. In Greek, these two letters are the first letters of the name, Christ, so they are used to evoke and symbolize Christ. This is a good example of her own increased use of these Christian symbols which were less-used during earlier periods. The robe was worn on Easter day 1963, and to me, with all the scattered gold splendor, it seems to announce, in textile terms, “Christ has risen!” I don’t know what the fabric is used. If it is a silk damask, it has very little pattern. The patterns seem to be exclusive to the embroidery rather than in the background fabric.
1964 brought Odelqvist Kruse another important commission, one which would mark the beginning of a long collaboration with Uppsala Cathedral, considered to be Sweden’s national cathedral. This was for an archbishop’s cope, or cloak. It is an extraordinary beautiful and unusual piece of work.
Unlike earlier copes of silk damasks with an overall pattern, this one employs at least 4 differently-woven geometric silk damask patterns which are then assembled into one garment with subtle differences between the parts. The shoulder area and the long flowing side drapery present variations in pattern, but are similar in coloration. The back panel picks up some of the same-sized elements and colors as found on the other two, but is a bolder, more colorful abstract pattern. The patterns of repeated crosses in several areas are integrated with other horizontal and vertical elements and seem more like design elements than obvious expressions of Christian faith. The residual hood, or shield shape, however, is marked by a clear gold cross.
For me, this particular cope captures the genius of Anna-Lisa Odelqvist-Kruse’s early work. Her work has a kind of geometric rigor at this point, quite different from that of her predecessors at Libraria, but equally rich and spiritually exciting. It is also quite different than her more abstract later works.
The next blog post will look at more liturgical textiles done by Anna-Lisa Odelqvist-Kruse between 1965 and 1985. Stay tuned!
@anneosterlund.retro instagram account
Albertus, Sandra, pedagog, Karlstads domkyrka—email correspondence with about blue rug in front of altar 4/24/20 (not by Odelqvist-Kruse)
Berggrén, Inger and Per. Kyrkorna i Karlstads Pastorat och Deras Skatter, Förlag Per Berggrén, 2017.
Brunius, Jan and others, Svenska textiles 1890-1990 Bok förlaget Signum, Lund 1994.
Bukowskis, Stockholm auction house
Christian Today online publication, “Don’t call God “He”-Church of Sweden calls on clergy to use gender neutral language 24 Nov 2017,
Ekström, Anette, Fastighet och trivselvård, Bygdeå Församling, email correspondance with, confirming ALOK’s design of both körmatta and gobeläng for Robertsfors church. 4/23 and 4/24/20
English precis of Mo, Ulla, I helig skrud – en studie över Anna-Lisa Odelqvist-Kruses sakrala textilkonst – avhandling, Institutionen för konstvetenskap, Umeå universitet, 2003, serie: “Umeå studies in history and theory of art” – nr.6, found at
Franzon, Annika A guide to Uppsala Cathedral, Uppsala Cathedral, publisher 2016
http://www.himlenarhar.se/exhibition/?lang=en Online catalog of 2014 exhibition of treasures in Uppsala Cathedral
kyrkokartan.se, photos by Barbro Thörn, Åke Johansson, Gert Årnström and Janos Banan, as credited above
Martinsson, Åsa and Martin Eriksson. “The Chasuble its changing shape and color” in Väv magazine, 2009-3.
National Museum, Stockholm
Ridderstedt, Margareta, Veneziansk Sidendamast av svenska 1900-talskönstnar, via Rikantiksvarieämbet in pfd download from http://samla.raa.se/xmlui/handle/raa/8629
Ridderstedt, Margareta, Veneziansk Sidendamast av svenska 1900-talskönstnar, Rikantiksvarieämbet in pfd download from http://samla.raa.se/xmlui/handle/raa/8629
Stockholms Auktionsverk, Stockholm auction house
Svensk Kinnobiographical Lexikon, http://www.skbl.se
Svenska kyrkan websites for various churches. I have borrowed and attributed photos from several different parishes.
Swedish National Heritage Board, Riksantikvarieämbetet
http://www.queenmedia.se/kyrkor/karlstad/domkyrka/ Video tour of the Karlstad cathedral
von Platen, Anna-Johanna, of Inventaria.se, with appreciation for all of the photographs from Essinge church.
Västerbotten hemslöjd, publication on church textiles #4, 2012