Written by Laurie K. Sommers, Project Manager, Preserve Nordic Heritage Churches Project, 2017-2019



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.


Professional painters first became active among Nordic American churches during the 1880s. Prominent artists included Swedish immigrants Jonas Olof Grafström (1855 – 1933), who painted for Augustana Synod Lutheran churches and eventually became head of the art department at Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois; Warner Elias Sallman (1892-1968), who was a member of member of the Swedish Covenant Church, now the ECC;  Norwegian immigrants August Klagstad (1866-1949), who eventually established an influential catalog company in Minneapolis; Herbjørn Nilson Gausta (1854-1924), who painted exclusively for the Norwegian Synod; Arne Berger (1872-1951), preferred painter of the Norwegian Lutheran Free Church; Andreas Pederson (who worked primarily for the Hauge or Norwegian Synod); and Norwegian American Sarah Kirkeberg Raugland (1861-1960), among the few women creating paintings during the period.  Like Klagstad, the Norwegian-heritage artists based much of their careers in Minnesota, especially the Twin Cities area. (Anderson 2001, 7)


Caption: Grafström’s “The Ascension” graces the altar of Zion Lutheran in Manistique, Michigan. Many Swedish Lutheran churches have a work by Grafström.  Photo by Laurie K. Sommers.


Caption:  Zion Lutheran also houses Norwegian American August Klagstad’s first painting, “Christ in Gethsemane” (1893). The painting was a copy of a work by celebrated German artist Heinrich Hofmann, which Klagstad painted from a black and white photograph of Hofmann’s work. Klagstad had been a member of Zion’s first confirmation class. Photo courtesy of Zion Lutheran Church, Manistique, Michigan.


The interest here is not professional artists but rather what art historian Kristin Anderson calls “peoples’ artists.” Anderson, who is one of the leading scholars of Norwegian heritage altar painters, divides peoples’ artists into three categories: would-be professionals who were employed in art-related fields; itinerant artists who lacked the skills of the professional; and local or regional artists who provided a limited number of works for his or her community (Anderson 1994, 210).


Julius Holm, born 1856, was a Norwegian immigrant who settled in Minneapolis. Holm falls into Anderson’s category of “would-be professionals who were employed in art-related fields,” in Holm’s case, as a photographer and decorator. Beginning in the 1880s, he worked with the John M. Locke Company–a painting and decorating firm — as a self-employed artist and portrait painter, and with the photography studio of Holm and Snesrud. Holm shared with professional altar painters the practice of painting enlarged copies of prints and photographs. “This would have been a part of his artistic training and background from his work in the Holm and Snesrud company, and he continued this practice as he worked on easel paintings” (Anderson 1994, 212). His career as an artist suffered fits and starts, perhaps because he was less skilled than some of his counterparts in the Twin Cities, although his painting “Tornado Over St. Paul” (1893) is in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. By 1911, when he painted “Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane” for (Old) Trondhjem Church in Lonsdale, Minnesota, his primary employment was in house painting and decorating.


Caption: Julius Holm’s “Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane” at Old Trondhjem Church, Lonsdale, Minnesota. Photo by Laurie K. Sommers.


Like Holm, Johannes or John O. Rindahl (1861-1923) exemplifies the self-taught local or regional artist who worked in the allied field of photography.  A Wisconsin native of Norwegian descent, Rindahl grew up on a farm adjacent to his family’s home church, Hardies Creek Lutheran in Ettrick. After attending nearby Galesville College, in 1888 he moved to a farm in the Red River Valley where he opened a successful photography studio in nearby Grafton, North Dakota. The business remained active for 33 years, including 15 years in partnership with Henry Ball.  In 1895, he visited Norwegian relatives and the great art galleries of Europe. The trip sparked his interest in painting, and upon his return he began to paint landscapes and altar paintings from his studio on Grafton’s Main Street. Most of his commissions were in the Grafton vicinity (Grafton, St. Thomas, Nash, and Our Saviour’s Lutheran) and Norwegian Lutheran churches near his home area in Trempealeau County, Wisconsin (South Beaver Creek, French Creek, Living Hope, and his home church of Hardies Creek, all in Ettrick; Fagernes in Blair; Zion in Galesville; and Tamarack in Arcadia). A gifted artisan, he was also known for ice sculptures and wood carving.


Caption: John Rindahl painted “Christ in Gethsemane” for his home church of Hardies Creek Lutheran in Ettrick, Wisconsin, likely modeled after a well-known work by the German painter, Heinrich Hofmann. Photo by Joshua Thomas Castaño.

Caption:  John Rindahl at work in his Grafton, North Dakota, studio.  Photo courtesy of Allan Rindahl.


Much less is known about Finnish-born miner Charles M. Alaniva (1863-1938). His one known work is the stunning “Ascension of Christ,” a 10-foot wall mural/painting he gifted to his church, Finnish Evangelical Lutheran in Lead, South Dakota, on Easter morning 1907.  Like many men in Lead, Alaniva worked for the Homestake Gold Mine, although he also installed wainscoting in local homes.  The latter suggests that he was a skilled woodworker as well as a miner, which may account for this rare foray into altar painting. After the congregation closed in 1962, the Lead Women’s Association obtained the church as Sweatman’s Art Memorial and, in 1963, moved it to its present location in Sinking Gardens. Alaniva’s altar painting is unusual both for its size and as a rare work by a Finnish-heritage painter.


Charles Alaniva’s “Ascension of Christ,” originally painted for his home church, Finnish Evangelical Lutheran in Lead, South Dakota. Photo by Carolyn Torma.


Like Alaniva, Matti Fredd of Hancock, Michigan (1845-1922), is another example of a Finnish worker-artist. Fredd was born to Swedish-speaking parents in the bilingual town of Vaasa, Finland. He studied to become a journeyman painter and traveled into Russia and Sweden, as well as Finland, plying his trade. In 1871, shortly after arriving in Hancock, he set up a commercial painting, decorating, and sign business. He also founded the weekly newspaper, Sven Tuuwa (later changed to Snkarin Maine), for local Finnish immigrants, who had come to Upper Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula to work in the copper mines. His painting business was so successful that he constructed a larger building at the corner of one of Hancock’s major intersections. Fredd completed two known altar paintings for the earliest Nordic heritage Lutheran churches built in Calumet and Hancock respectively. The first, “The Sower Went Out to Sow” is a large canvas painted for Calumet’s Scandinavian Evangelical Lutheran Church.  The completion date of 1878 suggests that it may be the oldest known Finnish American altar painting. The work is currently housed at the Finnish American Heritage Center at Finlandia University in Hancock. The second work, “The Transfiguration” (1895), was painted for the Scandinavian Evangelical Lutheran church on Quincy Hill in Hancock, a building erected in 1882 by Norwegians and Finns to serve their countrymen in the local mining community. This was an antecedent congregation to present-day Gloria Dei Lutheran in Hancock, which currently owns the painting.


Caption: Matti Fredd’s “The Transfiguration,” now owned by Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Hancock, Michigan, was originally painted for the city’s first Scandinavian Lutheran congregation. Photo by Laurie K. Sommers.



Jes Petersen Smidt, the Danish-born master wood carver discussed in the Woodworking section,  received altar painting commissions from ten Danish American congregations in eight states. Smidt doesn’t fit neatly into Anderson’s “people’s artists” category since his work covered such a large area. His mentor was the artist Lorentz Henningsen, who had studied art in Denmark and became an instructor at the Ashland (Grant, Michigan) and Danebod (Tyler, Minnesota) Folk Schools. Henningsen would later write that, during the 1884-85 winter session at Ashland, Smidt was his finest student.


Smidt created 13 altar paintings to place within his carved frames. His ability to work in both wood and paint, and his connections with F.S. Grundtvig, must have made him very desirable to Danish American congregations.  Smidt’s most productive period began in 1906, when the family relocated to West Denmark, Wisconsin (today part of the town of Luck). In 1937, he both designed the new church building, based on the traditional architecture of rural Denmark, and created the church furniture and altar painting. All were tragically destroyed by fire in 1985. Happily, a number of Smidt works survive, including fine examples preserved at three congregations who participated in Phase I of the Nordic Churches Project: Our Savior’s Lutheran, located in the Danish heritage community of Viborg, South Dakota (built 1911); Bethlehem Lutheran, in the historically Danish community of Askov, Minnesota (built 1914); and Luther Memorial Church, training ground for Danish Lutheran clergy at the historically Danish Grand View College (now University) in Des Moines, Iowa (built 1918). (For Smidt information see Pedersen 2011 and Pedersen n.d.)


Caption: Jes Smidt altar frame and paintings of “The Shepherd,” after an original painting by the noted Danish artist, Niels Skovgaard (a contemporary of Smidt’s) for the Bøvling Parish Church, Denmark. This unusual example of a double painting was done for Bethlehem Lutheran in Askov, Minnesota. Photo courtesy of the church.


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.


Caption: Julius Holm’s original stenciling at Old Trondhjem Church (Lonsdale, Minnesota) was concealed beneath layers of wallpaper, plywood paneling, and embossed tin. Restorationist Dan Tarnaveanu copied the designs and restored the original décor. Photo of an informational exhibit at the church by Laurie K. Sommers.


More typically, the names of these decorative painters are unknown today. This is the case at Zion Lutheran in Manistique, Michigan, where Kelly Whaley Restoration of Detroit recently re-created historic ceiling and sanctuary stenciling with grant funding from the Preserve Nordic Heritage Churches Project.  (Grant funding also supported cleaning and restoration of its historic Grafström altar painting, “The Ascension,” by Kenneth Krantz Conservation and Museum Services in Detroit.) Historic photos had revealed decorative painting—likely by an itinerant or local journeyman painter–that had been covered over by subsequent remodeling.  The conservators were unable to recover the original paintwork, so instead they re-created designs from the historic photographs and worked with the congregation to select paint colors that coordinated with the restored Grafström and the stained glass.



Caption: Kelly Whaley Restoration of Detroit re-creating the original painted designs at Zion Lutheran, Manistique, Michigan. The finished sanctuary uses paint colors designed to blend with the historic stained-glass windows. Photos courtesy of the church.


Religious symbols and pictorial views of the life of Jesus decorate the sanctuary walls of Jordan Lutheran, outside Browntown, Wisconsin. A large rosemaling (literally rose painting) motif frames the mural in the ceiling arch directly behind the altar. Rosemaling, an important form of Norwegian folk art, was rare in historic churches but common on utilitarian objects brought to America by Norwegian immigrants. Jordan Lutheran’s decorative painting dates to the 1910 chancel addition. The painter is unknown, but he or she clearly drew on popular stencil patterns, Bible illustrations, and scrolled rosemaling motifs. 



Caption: Jordan Lutheran’s amazing decorative painting, which dates to the church’s 1910 chancel addition, features murals, stenciled designs, and an unusual rosemaling motif. Black and white photo courtesy of the church; color image courtesy of the Wisconsin State Historic Preservation Office.


Another rare rosemaling example dates to the early 1900s at Old Muskego, the historic log church (built 1844-45) that, in 1904, was moved from a site near Milwaukee to the grounds of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. The Old Muskego church is the oldest surviving Norwegian church building in the U.S. and among the earliest historic preservation efforts by Norwegian Americans.  It contains rosemaling designs on the wooden altar surround that date to 1993-1994, when work from the earlier 1904 restoration was recreated. 



Caption: Rosemaling in the altar at Old Muskego (now housed at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota). Photo by Paul Daniels.


Since rosemaling experienced a revival beginning in the 1950s, Norwegian American churches have added rosemaling designs to their kitchen areas as an expression of ethnic identity. The paintings are typically paired with a common Norwegian table prayer that reads in translation: “In the name of Jesus we sit down at the table. We eat and drink in accordance with your word.”


Caption: Members of Roseni Lutheran in Beresford, South Dakota, pose below the rosemaling design in the church kitchen. Photo courtesy of the church.


The All-Knowing Eye or Eye of God at Old Trondhjem in Lonsdale, Minnesota was originally a reverse glass painting, a technique of painting on glass and then viewing the image from the reverse side. An 1899 photo clearly shows the Eye framed within a circular reverse glass-painted window on the church facade. The All-Knowing Eye is an old and widespread motif.  In Christian contexts, it is often found inside a triangle representing the Trinity or the Eye of Providence, as is the case in the U.S. Great Seal and one-dollar bill. Masons also adopted the Eye iconography, typically in association with a cloud design. The Trondhjem Eye, however, has neither triangle nor cloud, and both the painter and the church’s intentions remain a mystery. Because the Eye is such an unusual character-defining feature (we found no other example in our survey), Trondhjem Church Preservation Society has restored it twice, most recently with funding from the Preserve Nordic Churches Project. After conservators determined that no original pigment remained, artist and designer John Lindell used computer design to create a close rendition based on the original 1899 photograph. The artwork was digitally printed on a fade-safe panel and installed behind the newly restored circular window.



Caption: An 1899 photo of Trondhjem Church (Lonsdale, Minnesota) with the Eye of God in the circular window. The color images show the 2019 re-creation of the new Eye by John Lindell for Trondhjem Church Preservation Society. Photos courtesy of TCPS.