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Finnish Church Art - Maija Paavilainen
Finnish Church Art and Architecture
by Maija Paavilainen
The church building has at all times been a holistic work of art, which brings together the best that the age has to offer in terms of design, materials, and craftsmanship. The sanctuary is a space for encountering God, where the temporal comes face to face with the eternal. The church building is bound to its time and materials, but it strives after the eternal, the unity of Christendom, light, joy, and beauty.
A church is in itself a symbol: as the gathering place of a living congregation, it calls the people to encounter God. It is an open space and a place for quiet reflection, where artistic and liturgical components are in harmony with one another. A successfully built sanctuary is more than the sum of its parts. The purpose of all its visual elements is to create a space in a dimension beyond time, shutting out the external world. For architects, builders, artists, and artisans, building a church has been the ultimate opportunity to show their worth: at this moment they must join together the historic traditions of the Church and the expectations of the future. Contemporary church architecture presents the church building as a relation to light.
Finland’s geographical and political position in the territory between two cultural empires is reflected in the styles of church building and church art here. We are directly connected to the traditions of the medieval Roman Catholic Church, but have also been strongly influenced by the church architecture and image theology of the eastern Orthodox Church. Our church’s cautious and at times even negative attitude towards images arises in part from the fact that the Orthodox icon tradition was perceived as being typical of the eastern church.
There are no strict regulations for visual design in the Lutheran church: the relation to art is free. A crucifix or an empty cross emphasizing the resurrection is found on the altar of every church. The majority of altar paintings have themes related to Christ’s path of suffering.
The symbolic models which sanctuaries are patterned after are the temple of Jerusalem and the upper room of the last supper. The altar portion emphasizes the presence of God in the temple of Jerusalem as a place of prayer. The upper room in turn is symbolized by the altar’s connection with the Eucharist. When the last supper is chosen as the theme of the altar painting, it places a strong emphasis on Christ with his disciples being ever present in the gathering of the congregation: eternity in this time.
The role of church textiles is to lead the congregation into a more profound experience of the worship as truth, through a personal understanding of its promises and a sense of rejoicing in them. During the time of the Reformation paraments were seen as belonging to the Roman Catholic tradition. During the era of Lutheran orthodoxy (mid-seventeenth century) churches were stripped of all items of beauty. Neither church art nor church textiles fitted into the aesthetic of the age: bare walls were preferred.
The Finnish church textile tradition began with the artistically designed textiles made by the nuns of the Birgittine Order in Naantali. The only Finnish textiles remaining from medieval times are church textiles. Church architecture, forms, colours, spatial concepts, and details of furnishing provided the basic premises for designing paraments. Dora Jung with her life’s work has gained recognition for Finnish church textiles as art. These days people even dare to bring modern materials and techniques into the making of traditional paraments.
Stained glass windows
Unambiguous symbols are the mother tongue of the Christian faith: God is light; an encounter with God is looking to the light. In the architecture of most churches, light is brought in as a central element of experiencing the sacred.
Stained glass windows are a Christian art form which has no equivalent in other religions. In coloured glass the insubstantial becomes substantial; light receives colour and form. In accordance with the European example, medieval churches in Finland had small, clear leaded glass windows. They were either pre-fabricated in the artistic capitals of Europe or made locally according to an imported pattern. The Jugend period of Finnish architecture brought stained glass into commercial and residential buildings, and also brought window pictures back into church architecture. Functionalism soon followed, cleansing the churches of all that was useless. As the church was designed to fit into the cultural landscape, window surfaces were kept open to the natural surroundings. Since then stained glass has occasionally been fashionable. Semi-abstract bright coloured glass surfaces can easily bring to mind the symbols connected with different phases of the ecclesiastical year. For churches in inner city areas, stained glass windows can be used to set the church building apart from its disturbing urban surroundings.
Stone churches of Finland
Finland’s seventy-five medieval stone churches are among the most important points of reference in the cultural landscape and the settlement of the land. Medieval grey-stone churches with their paintings and sculptures have made an indelible impression on the soul of the nation. The counterbalance to the feeling of exterior immensity with these churches is their rich interior: a double or triple vaulted sanctuary with mural-covered plaster surfaces on the late Gothic star-formed arch work. The wall material used was natural stone, with brick only for the vaulting and surface work.
Turku Cathedral is our only medieval cathedral. It was built in the thirteenth century and consecrated for use in 1300. The Church of the Holy Cross in Hattula was built of brick in the fourteenth century, apparently as a joint venture between experts from the Baltic region and local artisans. Many original murals have been preserved in this church, as well as over thirty carved statues of saints. The churchyard also has its traditional stone fence and gateway structure still intact.
After the Reformation, wood was used as the primary building material for churches. The model which the master carpenters of this period followed in building wooden churches was the late medieval long church made of stone. Towards the end of the seventeenth century, cruciform (cross-shaped) churches, usually made of wood, became standard. This architectural form flourished and reached its peak in the eighteenth century. In their foundation structure, arch work, ceilings and floor plans these churches show clear Renaissance and baroque influences. The church was also connected with a bell tower, which most often stood separate from the main structure, with a baroque-style roof.
The rectangular sanctuary ceiling in the church of Tornio (built by Matti Härmä from 1684 to 1686, with the bell tower constructed in 1687) is made up of four wooden domes, two of which are exuberantly painted. The pulpit was carved by local carpenter Nils Fluur after a baroque model.
The old church in Petäjävesi (Jaakko Leppänen, 1764) is a cruciform church with arms of equal length and a steeply rising pitched shingle roof. The unpainted nave is covered by barrel vaults, which join in the middle to form a cupola. The western arm is linked by a passageway to a Renaissance belfry of traditional Ostrobothnian construction. The church has retained its original features and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Church painting revived slowly after the Reformation, with pulpits and altar rails tending to be the most prominent decorative details in churches of the period. In the eighteenth century paintings regained entry into the church space. Church artists known by name include Mikael Toppelius, who worked in northern Finland, and Margareta Capsia. Their altar paintings are individualistic, naively sincere illustrations to the Bible. Altar paintings from the period of Finnish autonomy (1809–1917) are idealized pictures of Christ, in which the characters are portrayed as beautiful in a classical way.
Hämeenlinna Church (L. J. Desprez, 1798) was built as a rotunda modelled on the Pantheon in Rome. The altar stood in the middle of the amphitheatre-shaped church, and the pulpit was above the sacristy door. For the church’s centenary, cross arms were added. A new bicentennial feature are the linen wall curtains designed by Irma Kukkasjärvi.
At the highest point of the island fortress of Suomenlinna (Sveaborg), an Orthodox garrison church was built in 1850 and consecrated in the name of Alexander Nevsky. It was subsequently converted into a Lutheran church: the original onion domes were covered by elevating the roof, and a cross was erected to replace the iconostasis. A lighthouse was built in the church tower. There is now a functional parish hall in the crypt beneath the church.
The red-brick church in Vaasa (C. A. Setterberg, 1869) is an example of English -style neo-Gothic architecture. The church has three altarpieces: The Institution of the Eucharist by R. W. Ekman (1861), The Adoration of the Angels by Albert Edelfelt (1894), and The Deposition of Christ by Louis Sparre (1897).
The facades of Tampere Cathedral (Lars Sonck, 1902 – 07) are of coarse-grained grey granite. In accordance with the ideals of national romanticism, the church was constructed as a unified work of art: all details of the architecture, painting, stained glass, and decor complement one another. A stone wall with a gatehouse surrounds the church and forms part of the architectural exterior.
In Tainionkoski church at Imatra (Yrjö Vaskinen, 1932) a temporary crucifix was initially placed on the altar. It was only in 1997 that Kristiina Uusitalo created an altar painting with the theme ‘Now we look as if in a mirror’. The painting depicts rippling water and bears a gold-tinted labyrinth on the surface as a symbol of eternity.
Erik Bryggman’s Chapel of the Resurrection (1941) in Turku respects the shapes of the surrounding landscape and melts harmoniously into its natural setting.
Reconstruction after the II World War
The Finnish churchyard always includes a war graves section maintained by the parish, with a monument to those killed in action and to those who found their final resting place on the other side of the border in Karelia.
In the post-war period of reconstruction, wood remained almost the only construction material available. Altar paintings depict the suffering Christ or people at work. Christ comes into the midst of people worn out by their toil and gives them his blessing. Work was the central aspect of people’s lives in the period of reconstruction; Christ was seen as a source of comfort, mercy, and understanding.
The altar wall of Rovaniemi Church (B. Liljeqvist, 1950) is covered by a fresco by Lennart Segerstråle, in which Christ is depicted on the crest of the local Ounasvaara fell. Christ is reflected in a water-spring from which the local people derive strength for the challenges of everyday life.
In Otaniemi chapel in Espoo (Kaija and Heikki Siren, 1957) the altar wall opens out into the exterior space, thus making the surrounding landscape and the changing seasons part of the worshipping space.
Orivesi Church, also by K. & H. Siren (1961), has its altar on the long wall of the nave. The nave itself, with its five arched support walls, gives the impression of gathering the worshippers in its lap in front of the altar. Kain Tapper’s semi-abstract wooden altar relief, The Rock of Golgotha, was initially met with some bewilderment by the parishioners, but has since come to be regarded as one of the most powerful altarpieces created by modern artists.
In Vuoksenniska Church at Imatra (Alvar Aalto, 1958) light and shade celebrate in a timeless whiteness. There are three crosses at the altar instead of a painting. The church space contracts and expands like a sculpture that can be entered. Of the 103 windows, only two are identical in shape. The windows and the lights are high up. Aalto himself designed the only element of colour in the church, a stained-glass painting near the level of the ceiling. The belfry with its smooth contours depicts an arrow shot downwards into the ground. Traditional belfries reach up towards heaven, but Aalto has designed a belfry in which God comes down to the people.
More than a church…
The Church of the Cross in Lahti (Alvar Aalto, 1978) is not only a bright and clearly structured church, but also a well-functioning concert space and conference centre. Aalto defined the church as Gethsemane, a garden of peace at the city centre.
Since the 1960s, churches have been built as multi-purpose spaces that can be used for a variety of parish functions. The elongated shape of the traditional church has been replaced by a preference for wide naves.
Tapiola Church in Espoo (Aarno Ruusuvuori, 1965) is an unadorned concrete structure representing brutalism at its barest. The interior wall hides a functional parish hall behind it. A windowed back wall is the source of natural light for the church space. The deep grey of the concrete emphasized the bright colours of the church textiles.
Kaleva Church in Tampere (Raili and Reima Pietilä, 1966) is a brightly lit space reaching upwards in the manner of a traditional Gothic cathedral; it is bordered by concrete gutters of varying design. Reima Pietilä’s semi-abstract, sculpture-like tree of life is the only visual detail apart from the paraments.
Temppeliaukio Church (‘The Rock Church’) in Helsinki (Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen, 1969), a cave church hewn into a rocky outcrop, emphasizes the eternal nature of stone and thus symbolizes the permanence of the values of the Church in the midst of the temporal and the volatile. The inner silence of stone is to be found in this church amid the hustle and bustle of the capital. The roughly hewn stone wall and the copper ceiling make up a powerful visual installation in themselves.
The luminous optimism and the upward-reaching elements of Juha Leiviskä’s churches create an impression of architecture as music: the sanctuary is an instrument played by light through the changing of the seasons and times of the day. At St Thomas’s Church in Oulu (1975), Hannu Väisänen has created a complete pictorial sequence. The altarpiece, painted in tempera colours, represents the vine of life as a symbol of unity. The works in the aisles and in the parish hall pursue the same theme, as do the church textiles, which are closely integrated with the pictorial sequence and rehearse the motif of five roses as a symbol of Christ’s wounds.
Männistö Church in Kuopio (Juha Leiviskä, 1992) is a terrace church located in a suburban development with prefabricated housing blocks. The reflections of light by Markku Pääkkönen on the altar wall are like fragments of a rainbow. A series of forty-five watercolours has been painted by Mirja Airas to honour Paavo Ruotsalainen: placed along the aisles, they illustrate the message conveyed by this Pietist preacher in his sermons. The silverware for the Eucharist also rehearses the architectural motifs.
The entire western church is going through a period of liturgical reform, which inevitably also touches our church. Various alternative masses have been developed, and a revision of the orders of service has just been completed. In new churches the altar can be designed with these reforms in mind, but in some older churches harmonious interiors have been mutilated by the introduction of lecterns into the choir and by a tendency to detach the altar from the wall.
The church architecture of Simo and Käpy Paavilainen grows out of the surroundings of the church. Olari Church in Espoo (1981) is protected from a nearby highway and service station: a high brick wall keeps out the noise of traffic and everyday life. Kontula Church in Helsinki (1987) was built next door to a kindergarten by a busy pedestrian route. The church’s open architecture invites the passer-by into the parish premises that can be entered from a long corridor. This passageway leads on to the altar of the wide nave, and indeed continues in Hannu Väisänen’s altarpiece with the empty grave of Easter morning at its centre.
Kontula Church represents postmodernism at its purest, with different layers of the Church’s history melting together: the shapes of Jewish tombstones, high and narrow Gothic windows, horizontal stripes in the manner of Siena Cathedral in the church wall, a mallow glow in the mortar of the inner walls as in Matisse’s Vence chapel, a medieval Gotland limestone altar, and a bronze angel by Kari Juva, perched on the ridge of the roof with a cross in hand.
In Sammonlahti Church at Lappeenranta (Riitta and Kari Ojala, 1993), the altar sculpture by Brita Flander, Living Water, consists of clear glass and flowing water inviting the worshippers for nourishment at the altar. The Estonian artist Rait Prääts created the four stained-glass windows, making ingenious use of the essence of glass on the one hand, and various cutting and corroding techniques on the other.
Hämeenkylä Church in Vantaa (1989–92) was conceived as a pictorial church. Martti Aiha and Silja Rantanen collaborated to create the various stages of the Way of the Cross. Silja Rantanen uses strong colours to bring out the background to the events, in a manner reminiscent of the depiction of Christ’s passion by Fra Angelico at the convent of San Marco.
In 1989 the Church invited thirteen leading artists to create an exhibition of modern art with the theme of Water. The exhibition was on display at eight different art museums for a total of more than a year. The aim of the exhibition was to restore an open dialogue between the Church and contemporary art after a long period in which there had been little contact.