On Scandinavian painting traditions – aspirations, light, and mindset…. Part 1


Perfect image borrowed from Jörgen Larsson of jlfoto.com – thank you!

Although we have effectively turned the corner, with both the winter solstice and 2016 behind us, it doesn’t yet feel as if the light is coming back. At least not to me. But – you have to trust me on this – the experience of this from the vantage point of Oregon, is nothing compared to spending deep winter in Scandinavia! The most obvious adverse effect of spending the cold months in the Land of the Midnight Sun, is that the sun mostly is absent. It seems almost perpetually dark – it’s dark when you get up, it’s dark when you get to work, and although you may see a glimpse of daylight at lunch,  you can be pretty certain it’s dark again when you get to go home.

Utsikt över Bysjön, Åtvidaberg

Even midday, the sun never rises far above the horizon this time of year. Photo from a walk near Bysjön, Åtvidaberg, Sweden, in early February 2016, around 11:15 am. Other than a few shreds of blue sky and some yellow reeds along the shore, this is pretty much a study spanning the monochrome gray scale.

Out of this cold and rather dreary existence grew a mythology which differs from every other by offering no hope whatsoever, of an afterlife. As the great life giver, the elusive sun became an obvious target of worship, as the Norsemen stoically endured their allotted time on Earth. Modern Scandinavians know that the common winter depression caused by light deprivation can be treated by exposure to ultra-violet rays. Before the advent of modern technology however, people resorted to paint as a medium to chase away the ghosts of darkness, and bring light and warmth into their lives during the long, bitterly cold and dark winter months. And that, my friends, is the topic of this post. It seems appropriate, since I’m currently more or less housebound due to severe winter weather (and very grateful for electric lights, mind you.)

A modern day copy of what a viking long house is thought to have looked like. Isn't it interesting how much it resembles and upside down ship?

A modern day copy of what a viking long house is thought to have looked like, located in Böda Ekopark. Isn’t it interesting how much it resembles an upside down ship? Photo borrowed from Sveaskog’s website.

The Scandinavian tradition of decorating with paint stems back to the days of the Vikings – at least. Painted decor remained popular until the late 19th century, when gas and eventually electric lighting became common. We know that Vikings painted textile wall hangings and wove tapestries that in addition to providing cheer, also masked the underlying construction, and reduced drafts. They also adorned their furniture which, for the most part, was builtin. It wasn’t until the 17th century that freestanding furniture became the norm. Plenty of painted surfaces remain to be admired in churches, castles and manor houses. As for the abodes of the common, however, anything older than 400 years is anything but.

Around 1,000 AD – at the end of the Viking era , Sweden started becoming christianized. As the frequency of Viking raids tapered off, the first documented friendly, cultural  connection with the rest of Europe happened in 1152, when a Cardinal from Rome visited this relative outpost of civilization. The subsequent formal inclusion into the Catholic church obviously had an effect on the painted motifs. Mind you, the switchover was not a whole-hearted adaptation. For a long, long time, church decor manifested a parallel faith with an abundance of pagan symbols, interspersed with the Biblical scenes. I wrote more about mystical symbolism here, if you’re interested, but for the purpose of the spiritual arts seen in churches; let’s just say that rings were a common, if not ever present, symbol of the all-important sun.

Although the ribs of the dome are structural, they have been incorporated into and recede into the ornamentation - a magnificent sun cross that spans the entire ceiling. This is in Härkeberga Church, Sweden, and was painted by one of the foremost in his field - Albertus Pictor in the 1400's. Photo from Jocasta Innes book

Although the ribs of the dome are structural, they have been incorporated into and recede into the ornamentation – a magnificent sun cross that spans the entire ceiling. This is in Härkeberga Church, Sweden, and was painted by one of the foremost in his field – Albertus Pictor in the 1400’s. Photo from Jocasta Innes’ book ” Scandinavian Painted Decor”.

Church paintings were also meant to educate and enchant – a large scale Biblia Pauperum – an illustration based, block printed bible to convey the message to the illiterate masses. The images in Biblia Pauperum were heavily relied upon for inspiration for church paintings. Although several are known by name, the most famous – and one of the most prolific – of the medieval church painters that covered the Swedish countryside in polychrome, was a German man named Albertus Pictor (1440 – 1507). Walls and ceilings were coated in painted, storytelling vignettes and stenciled ornamentation. While his assistants carried out the repetitive work with templates and stencils, Albertus created scenes depicting motley groups of local figures dressed in their finest, crowned virgins, devils, fantastic fantasy creatures, and haloed saints, acting out tales from the Bible and from heaven, purgatory, and hell.


Image from the dome of Härkeberga church, painted by Albertus Pictor. Photo gratefully pilfered from Lennart Waara.


Jonah and the whale by Albertus Pictor in Härkeberga church. Photo borrowed from Lars-Olof Albertsson.


‘Death playing chess’ from Täby church. Photo by Håkan Svensson.

Elaborate illustrations of the Last Judgement were popular, where major donors and church patrons could be seen ascending to heaven, surrounded by angels and other members of the congregation. Similarly, the Damned were vividly illustrated with ghastly, hideously contorted faces, as they were dragged down to Hell where, no doubt, unthinkable torments would befall them.

Södra Råda church, 1494.

Södra Råda church, 1494. Photo from Wikipedia.

Occasionally, there were disputes over compensation. Proof of any such indiscretions exist to this day. Woe he who withheld payment – he would soon find his portrait not as part of the Ascension, but instead among the Damned.


You’d do best to stay on the painter’s good side! From Bromma church. Photo by Jinge off Bilderblogg.se.

Photo by Lennart Waara.

According to records, Albertus and his team completed one medium-sized church per year. Härkeberga church, by Albertus Pictor. Photo by Lennart Waara.

The medieval period of chromatic exuberance was relatively short-lived in Sweden. Around 1523 (which coincides with Gustav Vasa finally gathering the warring factions of the country under one crown) the Reformation reached Sweden. As a gesture of puritan revolt against ornamentation, many colorful  church interiors were soon whitewashed over, to adhere to the new Lutheran aesthetic. From that time on, color in churches was mainly confined to the ceilings.

This is what it could have looked like post-Reformation, after the illustrations on the walls had been whitewashed over. From Gökhems kyrka. Photo from Wikipedia.

This is what it might have looked like post-Reformation, after the wall illustrations had been whitewashed over. This is from Gökhem church outside Falköping, Västergötland. It is very likely that the ceiling appeared far more colorful when it was new. The mineral-based pigments often oxidized over time, which dramatically changed and muted their appearance.  Photo from Wikipedia.

Fads moved slowly in the Middle Ages, and fashions of all types took their time reaching the northern parts of Europe from the continental mainland. Despite the emergence of the Lübeck-based Hanseatic League , and the intense Germanic influence that followed, stylistic expression up north was usually quite a few years behind the rest of Europe. As trade relations flourished, and fortunes were amassed, the cultural interactions increased. By the mid-17th century, the folky naiveness of the nordic painters were rapidly falling out of favor, and the craftsmen were under pressure to imitate the greater realism and exaggerated, elongated forms of Italian Mannerism. It had been all the rage in post High Renaissance Italy, and in turn led to the dramatic and rather bombastic heroism of the Baroque period.

'Madonna and child' by Italian mannerist artist Parmigianino, from 1535-40.

‘Madonna and child’ by Italian artist Parmigianino, from 1535-40 is pretty much the epitome of Mannerist art. Note the long, languid forms, and unnaturally long necks and limbs. Photo from Wikipedia.

Samples from this somewhat transitional period shows that the Swedish church painters had obvious difficulty with the task at hand. Just like resourceful school-kids will enlarge the typeface and increase the spacing in an attempt to conceal any lack of substance in their writing assignment, the creative painters of this era would incorporate thunderous, rolling clouds to cover up weak or difficult spots like hands and feet.

Note the very long feet... Painting from Njutånger church.

Note the very long feet…  Painting from Njutånger church.

Another illustration from Njutånger church. The feet of the saint are covered up with large, rolling waves.

Another illustration from Njutånger church. The feet of the saint are covered up with large, rolling waves.

During the 1600’s, resulting in no small part from the brisk trading and international diplomacy, the Swedish court started frequenting the other courts of Europe more, and pressure to adopt the continental style increased. In order to fend off foreign competition, many craftsmen ventured south to be educated in the latest fashions and develop techniques in faux-painting, emulating wood graining, marbeling, plaster work, and grisaille. Inhabited by the powerful statesman Magnus Gabriel de la Gardie, Läckö Castle was the most influential Swedish house of the 17th century, and became instrumental in popularizing the newly imported heroic style. Riddarsalen (the Hall of Chivalry) was painted to resemble heavily applied plaster work – blue-gray grisaille on a deep red background, with trompe l’oeil mouldings and swirling Acanthus leaves (which, by the way would not survive a Swedish winter). To top it all off, a swarm of carved and painted cherubs were installed to dangle from the artfully coffered ceiling, to further emphasize the magnificient three-dimensional effect. The execution and effect of this painted ceiling was hugely influential. A few decades later, just about every home above peasant level had some kind of reiteration of it. Within a century, the style had become vernacularized.

Riddarsalen (Hall of Chivalry) at Läckö Castle. Note the wooden floor and the suspended cherubs, which added additional three-dimensionality to the painted coffered ceiling.

Riddarsalen (Hall of Chivalry) at Läckö Castle. Note the wooden floor and the suspended cherubs, which added additional three-dimensionality to the painted coffered ceiling. The herringbone pattern on the floor is significant in Scandinavian symbolism. You may read more about that here if you like.

Another simpler, but equally eye-thwarting decorative trompe l’oeil concept was used on a grander scale in this chamber at Nyborg Slot, Denmark (the Nyborg Castle). I think the three-dimensionality of its walls would have made M.C. Escher proud. This same pattern has since been emulated in marble flooring. Can you imagine the sensory effects of walking across that floor? I think it might make me dizzy…


Rather dizzying, don't you agree?

Rather dizzying, don’t you agree?

While many of the textures found in the vernacular painted decor of northern Europe represent quaint attempts to be like their southern counterparts, the Scandinavian condition presented several traits that eventually set its painting traditions apart:

  1. Light

    Photo from ‘Scandinavian Painted Decor’.

    For one thing the delicate, luminous quality of the light. As Jocasta Innes so eloquently put it in her book ‘Scandinavian Painted Decor’; “…entering low and aslant, it gives the simplest object a luminous, sculptural presence, and creates a lyrical chiaroscuro…”. It lent a softness to colors – a subtle, less harsh tonality than in the sunny south, that has been famously captured by artists such as the Skagen painters . Floors were rarely painted, but left bare to reflect the light. So were window sills and ceilings, too, in order to preserve and maximize this precious amenity. (Except, as you already know, in churches and other larger spaces aimed at creating impressions of power and reverence, such as castles and manor houses.)




Photo from ‘Scandinavian Painted Decor’.

2. Another factor was the near absence of access to the materials used on the European mainland, and the cost-prohibitively long distances due to Sweden’s geographic isolation, should the idea of importing them come up. While their southern European counterparts had the luxury of using the real thing, Scandinavia’s indigenous materials were primarily pine, spruce, oak, and birch, along with granite and gneiss – not marble and mahogany. Scandinavia only has one naturally occurring marble, and precious hardwoods are pretty much non-existent. To the ever pragmatic Swedes, it made more practical and economic sense to use indigenous materials, and utilize faux-painting to imitate the rather garish, contemporary southern opulence. The armies of skilled painters that roamed the Swedish towns and countryside in order to accomplish this, held a unique status in society. They were popular with both nobility, merchants and farmers, and enjoyed prestige and power beyond that of most other trades.


3. As mentioned above, the bare, scrubbed fir floor boards, were a notable use of local abundance. You will find that those wide, magnificent, fir boards bear witness to the richness of the original forests that used to cover the land. I wrote more about the prevalence of wood here. From the most stately of castles and manor houses, down to your average farm kitchen, those  floors are an essential component of the clean, blonde aesthetic Sweden is known for. They beautifully reflect the sparse, slanted, blue winter light, and the soft, worn, well-treaded wood serves as a foil for the artistic flair evident on walls and furniture.



Photo from 'The Swedish Room'.

Photo from ‘The Swedish Room’.

4. The same fatalistic, and rather austere temperament demonstrated in the Norse myths is displayed in Sweden’s comparatively muted decor. Swedes never did quite adopt the full flourish and extravagant opulence of the baroque and rococo aesthetic. Lines remained straighter, flourishes more restrained, and colors more muted. The most prominent color on the interior was a pearly gray. Others were mild pastels in chalky, matte textures. As we shall soon see, the 18th century eventually brings all these aspects together into a golden era of design.




The move from the rustling armory and mobilizing armies of the 1600’s into the considerably lighter, more carefree existence of the Age of Enlightment, seems a good place to stop, for now. More to come soon, on – among other things – the Gustavian era.


Historien om Sverige – Från islossning till kungarike by Herman Lindquist

Scandinavian Painted Decor by Jocasta Innes

Så målade man by Karin Fridell Anter and Henrik Wannfors

The Swedish Room by Lars Sjöberg, Ursula Sjöberg. Photography by Ingalill Snitt

Dalmålningarna och deras förlagor by Svante Svärdström

The Internet. A big Thank You to all I borrowed photos from. I tried to give credit where I could.


About annamadeit

I was born and raised in Sweden, By now, I have lived almost as long in the United States. The path I’ve taken has been long and varied, and has given me a philosophical approach to life. I may joke that I’m a sybarite, but the truth is, I find joy and luxury in life’s simple things as well. My outlook on life has roots in a culture rich in history and tradition, and I care a great deal about environmental stewardship. Aesthetically, while drawn to the visually clean, functional practicality and sustainable solutions that are the hallmarks of modern Scandinavia, I also have a deep appreciation for the raw, the weathered, and the worn - materials that tell a story. To me, contrast, counterpoint, and diversity are what makes life interesting and engaging. Color has always informed everything I do. I’m a functional tetrachromat, and a hopeless plantoholic. I was originally trained as an architect working mostly on interiors, but soon ventured outside - into garden design. It’s that contrast thing again… An interior adrift from its exterior, is like a yin without a yang. My firm conviction that everything is connected gets me in trouble time and time again. The world is a big place, and full of marvelous distractions, and offers plentiful opportunities for inquiry and exploration. I started writing to quell my constant queries, explore my discoveries, and nurture my curiosity. The Creative Flux was started in 2010, and became a catch-all for all kinds of intersecting interests. The start of Flutter & Hum at the end of 2013 marks my descent into plant nerd revelry. I occasionally contribute to other blogs, but those two are my main ones. For sure, topics are all over the map, but then again - so am I! Welcome to my blogs!
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4 Responses to On Scandinavian painting traditions – aspirations, light, and mindset…. Part 1

  1. I’m planning my first trip to Sweden either this year or next and will be researching my grandparents and their hometowns. This post is so inspiring, thank you so much!

    • annamadeit says:

      Oh how fun, Valorie! I started out thinking I could cram it all into one post, but soon thought otherwise. There will be at least one more coming on this topic – hopefully sooner than later. 🙂

  2. autopolis says:

    Great article, what an interesting aspect of art history that was totally lost on me. Interestingly, I can see the beginnings of a Scandinavian modernist bent on some styles influenced by Southern Europe. Thanks for the insight.

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