Swedish Church Art from the Introduction of the Reformation in 1527 until the Synod in Uppsala 1593


  • Inga Lena Ångström Grandien




Swedish Reformation, Vasa-Period, 16th Century Sacred Art, Altarpieces, Mural Painting, Medieval Moralities, Iconography


This article is a survey of Swedish church art from the Reformation, introduced in 1527 by Gustav Vasa, until the Uppsala Synod in 1593 and
the beginning of Orthodoxy. The tolerance shown towards the old cult
objects was typical of the Swedish Reformation. At the same time, there
was an almost total cessation in the production and import of sacral art,
this mostly for economic reasons, but also because there was no need
for more cult objects. Especially toward the end of the 15th century, there
had been a large influx of such items to the churches. Only in the field of mural painting was there some activity after the Reformation, and about 20 (known) churches were decorated with murals from 1530 to 1590. However, their motifs remained very much in the Catholic tradition with one difference – non-biblical subjects such as saints (apart from St. George and St. Christopher) were excluded. Motifs from the Old Testament dominated and were often put in a typological context. Medieval moralities also lived on: Memento mori (Wheel of Fortune), Vanitas (Love of the Wordily Goods, the Good and Bad Prayers) and Devil-scenes (Shoe-Ella, Asmodeus). Several murals stem from the reign of John III (1567-92), the Vasa king most engaged in ecclesiastical affairs. In 1575 he forced the priests to accept an addition to the Church Ordinance, the Nova Ordinantia
Ecclesiastica, which aimed to persuade the Swedish Church to take a  middle position between Catholicism and Protestantism, a thought which is
reflected in murals from his time. It is, however, also here that we find proof that Renaissance ideas had come to Sweden: Vices and Virtues (Glanshammar), a painter’s self-portrait (Valö).
During the reign of his predecessor Erik XIV (1560-67), a large immigration
of Calvinists to Sweden had taken place. They had drawn the king’s attention to the Decalogue, according to which no images of God were allowed. A possible sign of Calvinist influence is a wooden tablet from 1561 in Storkyrkan in Stockholm, containing eleven quotations from the Bible (in Latin) that stress the importance of the sermon in the service. Also in 1561, the first known Swedish Reformation altarpiece was installed in Västra Husby, Västergötland, with a motif the Last Supper.

Thereafter, more and more new altarpieces replaced the old, but their motifs remained more or less the same as in Catholic times (with the above exceptions). A painted, wooden altarpiece from ca. 1600 in Gamleby, Småland, contains the period’s only known protest against Catholicism. In the main part there is a depiction of the Last Judgement, in the predella, all the Apostles are holding keys in silent protest against the Catholic Church’s teachings that only St. Peter was allowed to carry the keys to the gates of Paradise.


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Author Biography

Inga Lena Ångström Grandien

Dr. Phil., Docent, Inga Lena Ångström Grandien, Stockholm, formerly of the Department of Art History at Stockholm University and Dalarna University in Falun, has, among other things, specialized in Swedish post-Reformation art and the Renaissance and the Baroque in Sweden. Example of her articles include: “In the Name of God. Religious works
of art taken as war booty by Swedish troops in the Thirty Years’ War”, in On the Opposite Sides of the Baltic Sea (2007), “The Riddarholmen Church in
Stockholm as a Burial Church for Swedish Heroes from the Thirty-Years- War”(2009), and “The Making of a Queen. A Study of the Residences of Johan III of Sweden and Katarina Jagellonica”, in The Jagiellonian Court (2010). She has written many articles for the Allgemeines Künstlerlexikon, and a survey on Swedish art from 1945 until today, which was published
in Kunst im Ostseeraum. Greifswalder Kunsthistorische Studien, 6 (2015).