Painting and Painters

Most altar and decorative painting in historic Nordic American churches was not rooted in local folk tradition; rather, it was based on well-known works by formally trained Western European painters, or on popular European decorative painting styles. In the words of art historian Marion Nelson, these painting traditions are “not so much folk art per se, as an artistic tradition that has continued to have creative and symbolic significance for its national group” (Nelson 1994, 13).

Altar Painters

Nordic American churches often feature altar paintings as the sanctuary’s focal point. In so doing, they followed the precedent of the state Lutheran churches of their home country. (Notable exceptions included churches of the Pietistic traditions, such as Norwegian Hauge Lutheran, Finnish Apostolic Lutheran, and early Swedish Mission Covenant churches with their simple sanctuaries and worship styles that were a reaction against state Lutheran churches of Nordic Europe.) Paintings illustrated themes from the life of Christ and were copies of well-known European originals, especially by German or Scandinavian artists. Many congregations ordered these works from catalog companies or commissioned them from altar painters who had received varying degrees of professional training.

Interior Decorative Painting

Stenciling was a popular form of interior decoration during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Most artists are unknown; many were likely itinerant painters who learned through apprenticeship. The designs were shared among painters or copied from various trade publications and stencil design books of the period. For churches, stenciled decoration was both affordable and easily adapted to ceilings, borders, friezes, and columns typical to sacred spaces (Marconi 2012).

The Trondhjem Church Preservation Society uncovered stencil work and elaborate trompe-l’œil painting, dating to 1900, during restoration that began in the late 1980s. The decorative painting is believed to have been the work of Julius Holm, who had completed the church’s altar painting a decade before. Church records indicate that he donated his services, perhaps in hopes of drumming up business and establishing his credentials. The connection to the church likely came through Holm’s brother, Marcus, who served as builder.

Interior Decorative Painting

Stenciling was a popular form of interior decoration during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Most artists are unknown; many were likely itinerant painters who learned through apprenticeship. The designs were shared among painters or copied from various trade publications and stencil design books of the period. For churches, stenciled decoration was both affordable and easily adapted to ceilings, borders, friezes, and columns typical to sacred spaces (Marconi 2012).

The Trondhjem Church Preservation Society uncovered stencil work and elaborate trompe-l’œil painting, dating to 1900, during restoration that began in the late 1980s. The decorative painting is believed to have been the work of Julius Holm, who had completed the church’s altar painting a decade before. Church records indicate that he donated his services, perhaps in hopes of drumming up business and establishing his credentials. The connection to the church likely came through Holm’s brother, Marcus, who served as builder.

Written by Laurie K. Sommers
Preserving Nordic American Churches Project Manager, 2017-2019

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