Terracotta Angel, c.1896
Watts Chapel, England

 Photo ©: Jeff Saward/Labyrinthos



Please note, the contents

of this website are

© 2016 Labyrinthos

unless stated otherwise.
Please contact us for permission to reproduce
any text or images

Labyrinths in Nordic Churches

John Kraft & Jeff Saward

Labyrinths in Nordic Churches

Another group of five labyrinths are found on the island of Gotland, including three executed in the form of graffiti. Only one of the church labyrinths on Gotland is a painting. A very interesting characteristic of this group is that the labyrinth painting and two of the graffiti are located on the dark ground floors of church towers. It would seem the artists had chosen places where the labyrinths could not easily be discovered and this might suggest that these labyrinths were not accepted as part of the original adornment of the churches. Possibly there was a magical or superstitious purpose behind them. The churches of Hablingbo, Lye and Ganthem are situated fairly close to each other and also close to Levide, where a remarkable labyrinth-inscribed stone cross was originally made, so maybe some of these examples have the same artist in common.

Decorated church ceiling at Fanefjord, Denmark

Photo: Jeff Saward

The two Norwegian labyrinths form the western group. What is most striking about their appearance is that they are not found inside the churches! The example at Seljord is painted on the west facade, close to the entrance to the church. The labyrinth at Vestre Slidre is to be found in the church doorway, on the exterior side. The location of both of these labyrinths might suggest that they served some kind of apotropaic or protective purpose. Labyrinths adjacent to church doorways are not found elsewhere in the Nordic countries.

The southern group includes twelve labyrinths in Denmark and two in southern Sweden. All of these labyrinths are fresco paintings, and they are all found on such exposed surfaces in the churches, that it is apparent that the labyrinths belonged to the official and accepted adornment of the building. The labyrinths at Tåning, Bryrup, Skørring and Nim in Jylland, Denmark, are situated in close proximity to each other and they are all of the same type with 16 walls. It is reasonable to guess that perhaps some of these labyrinths were painted by the same artist, or at least that one example has inspired another. A similar close relationship might explain the short distance of 7 km separating the labyrinths at Båstad and Östra Karup in southern Sweden.

Labyrinth wall fresco, Seljord, Norway

Photo: Jeff Saward

The eastern group consists of eight labyrinths in four churches in the south of Finland. They are all painted as frescos on the walls or vaults and are in no way concealed. The surrounding art makes these labyrinths particularly interesting. In a number of mediaeval churches in southern Finland the paintings are of an unusual style, with motifs that seems to be borrowed from the popular, secular art of the agrarian society of the time. The pictures are difficult to relate to the common collection of religious motifs found in the mediaeval churches of Scandinavia. There are demons, dogs, ships, mermaids, mounted soldiers in tourney, men blowing trumpets, etc. The four churches where labyrinths occur all have examples of this strange, seemingly non-religious church art. Anna-Lisa Stigell, who has studied them extensively, interprets the labyrinths as one of the elements belonging to this greater complex of church art.

Labyrinth ceiling fresco, Maaria Kyrka, Turku, Finland

Photo: Jeff Saward

Labyrinth wall fresco, Sibbo, Finland

Graphic: Jeff Saward

Back to Caerdroia Archive

Even if it is possible that the labyrinths, as well as the ships, tourneys and trumpet-blowers, were given some new, symbolic meaning when painted on the church walls, it still seems obvious that the labyrinth had been borrowed from local folk tradition without any significant transformation of its meaning. The girl really wanted to remind the church visitors of the popular jungfrudans in the labyrinth, not of a figure used as a more abstract symbol for some aspect of the new religion.

The church labyrinths in Finland seem to be a motif borrowed directly from the popular labyrinth games played at springtime. The examples on Gotland also have a flavour of popular beliefs, of magic with roots in earlier, pagan times. The Norwegian church labyrinths might have served as a protective sign, a use which also points more in the direction of old magic than to more the modern religious symbolism bought in from continental Europe.

The southern group of church labyrinths in Denmark is more difficult to analyse. While they often appear alongside Christian saints, biblical characters and scenes, the frescos in general would have provided a means for preachers to illustrate their sermons, a picture book for the common people, but the exact role of the labyrinth in this mix is unclear. However, it seems safe to assume that this group too has firm roots in local folk tradition. The classical or angle-type design that dominates among Scandinavian labyrinths in general, and is the only type known in the southern church labyrinth group, clearly reveals that the figure has been borrowed by the painters from local folk tradition.

If the idea of painting labyrinths in churches had been imported from the continent it is probable that the Danish labyrinths would have been influenced by the medieval or Chartres-type labyrinth design, found only at Grinstad in Sweden (shown opposite). But there are no traces of such continental designs in Denmark. The fact that all the church labyrinths in Denmark are wall frescos also hints that the idea has not been brought in from the continent, where wall paintings of labyrinths are not common at all. In fact, the church labyrinths in the territory of old Denmark gives firm support to the conclusion that the labyrinth motif was commonly known and widespread in southern Scandinavia at the end of the middle ages.

Labyrinth wall fresco, Grinstad, Sweden

A number of "Trojeborg" place-names suggest the former locations of turf labyrinths in southern Scandinavia. The labyrinth paintings in Danish churches give a hint that those turf labyrinths, of classical or angle-type, might have been in existence at that time. It is of course possible that a new symbolic dimension was added to the labyrinth when the motif was used on the walls of mediaeval churches, but it is difficult to find what such a transformation could have meant.

More obvious are the links to old local beliefs of heathen origin. Several of the Nordic church labyrinths seem to have had an apotropaic or else magical function. The Virgin Mary is mentioned alongside the labyrinth at Hesselager church in Denmark , and is also on the church bell from Horred, Sweden, but this is not enough to build any theory about a general connection between Nordic church labyrinths and the worship of Mary.

Likewise, ships occur in three of the four churches in Finland where there are labyrinths, there are also ships in the tower rooms of Lye and Hablingbo churches on Gotland, and what might be a boat or small ship is painted close to the labyrinth at Seljord church in Norway. One possible interpretation is that these depictions of ships could have served as votive symbols, but it is still difficult to see how these ships could build any bridges to the Christian symbolism from the continent.

On the contrary it is tempting to interpret the combination of ships and labyrinths as another typical Nordic phenomenon. The great majority of preserved stone labyrinths in the Scandinavia are situated on the seashore, often on small islands, far out at sea. It is known that they have been used for magical purposes, to control dangerous weather and to increase the catch for the fishermen at sea. This aspect of labyrinth magic could possibly explain the combination of labyrinth paintings and ships in churches. But in that case we must once again draw the conclusion that the labyrinth motif in Nordic churches has no obvious ties with the use of labyrinth figures on the continent.

Only at one location, at Grinstad church in Sweden, is it possible to trace an obvious, indisputable diffusion of continental influence to the Nordic church labyrinths. Here the labyrinth has obviously been based on the medieval or Chartres-type, but Grinstad does not belong to any of the above-mentioned groups, it is an exceptional example without parallels or close neighbours, the exception that proves the rule.

John Kraft, Västerås, Sweden
Jeff Saward, Thundersley, England


Bibliographic notes:

The labyrinths in Finland have been described and discussed by Anna-Lisa Stigell in "Kyrkans tecken och årets gång" in Finska fornminnesföreningens tidskrift 77, Helsinki, 1974. p.82-89.

The Danish labyrinth enthusiast Jørgen Thordrup wrote an article on Nordic church labyrinths in Iconografisk Post nr.1-2, Copenhagen, 1976, p.23-36, where he mentioned four Danish churches with labyrinth paintings, and more recently has published much fuller, illustrated documentation of the Nordic church labyrinths in Alle Tiders Labyrinter, published by Dixit, Silkeborg, Denmark, 2002.

Hermann Kern mentioned ten Nordic churches with labyrinths in his Labyrinthe, published in 1982, but this list was far from complete. The revised English-language edition of this work, published as Through the Labyrinth by Prestel, 2000, contains an up to date catalogue and additional notes provided by Jeff Saward.

Jeff Saward's Labyrinths & Mazes published by Lark Books and Gaia, 2003, also contains a summary of this important group of labyrinths, with a distribution map and colour photographs of the finest examples.

Note: This article, first published in Caerdroia 24 (1991), was originally written by John Kraft in 1991. This updated and revised edition, was re-written and produced by Jeff Saward for the Labyrinthos website, 2005, with thanks to, and help from, John Kraft and the late Jørgen Thordrup.

The painting from Sibbo church of a labyrinth with a woman at the centre is justly famous. It is surely a depiction of a springtime game, the "Jungfrudans" (virgin dance), which was still played in different parts of Finland and Sweden at the end of the nineteenth century, and in a few rare cases, even into the 20th century. The object of this game was that one or two boys should try to run or dance along the winding path of the labyrinth and bring out a young girl from its centre. This painting of a virgin dance was no doubt inspired directly from real life in the parish, not from any scholars who had learnt of labyrinths in foreign countries.

Location

Type

Design

Comments





Denmark




Bryrup

Wall painting

16-wall classical

Not currently visible

Gevninge

Wall paintings

12-wall classical

Two faded examples, above vault

Gylling

Wall painting

Classical?

Traces, not currently visible

Hesselager

Vault painting

12-wall classical

Very good condition  

Nim

Wall painting

Classical?

Traces, not currently visible  

Roerslev

Vault painting

16-wall classical

Recently uncovered, splendid  

Skive

 Wall painting

16-wall classical

Recently restored, but obscured  

Skørring

High on wall

16-wall classical

Traces of 2nd example

Tåning

Wall painting

16-wall classical

Not currently visible

Vissenbjerg

Wall painting

8-wall classical

Covered for protection





Sweden




Båstad

Vault painting

Classical

Poorly preserved

Ganthem

Graffiti on pillar

12-wall classical

Large, but difficult to see

Grinstad

 Wall painting

Medieval type

Unique design, early 1200's?

Hablingbo

Wall painting

19-wall classical

2nd unfinished graffito opposite

Horred

 Inscription

12-wall classical

Inscription on church bell

Levide

Inscription

12-wall classical

Churchyard cross, destroyed

Lye

 Graffito on wall

12-wall classical

Alongside Runic inscription

Östra Karup

Wall painting

Classical?

Only partially preserved

Sorunda

Vault sculpture

12-wall classical

Sculpted shield in vault





Norway




Seljord

Wall painting

12-wall + spiral

Unusual design

Vestre Slidre

Wall painting

12-wall classical

Well preserved





Finland




Sibbo  

Wall painting

12-wall classical

Central figure of woman

Pernå

Wall painting

12-wall classical

Faded but preserved

Korpo

Wall paintings

8-wall classical

2nd partial example

Turku, Maaria

Vault paintings

6/12-wall classic

Four labyrinths, splendid

Catalogue of Nordic Church Labyrinths
Destroyed and hidden examples marked in italics


Click the country names below to go to the detailed catalogues.
Return to this table via the "Back to Nordic Church Labyrinths" links at the foot of pages.

Click the country names above to go
to the detailed catalogues.

Return to this table via the
"Back to Nordic Church Labyrinths" links at the foot of pages.

Labyrinths in Nordic Churches

Reprinted from Caerdroia 24 - 1991 - pp.29-37
Revised and updated, 2005


The Nordic countries are rich in small parish churches with mediaeval wall paintings still intact. This is a marvellous hunting ground for the iconographer, and one particular motif that occurs on some of these church walls and vaults is the labyrinth. Some of these are in the form of graffiti, scratched on the walls, probably without permission; but others, painted as frescos on the walls or ceiling vaults by artists, were probably paid for by the parish or some wealthy parish member. To date, some 32 labyrinths at 25 locations have been recorded, including one example inscribed on a church bell and another (now destroyed) on a churchyard memorial cross.

The labyrinths in churches of the Nordic countries are never found in the floor pavement and their designs are also different from those commonly found in France, Italy and Britain. With only one exception, they are all of the old classical, or angle-type, a design that is quite rare in churches in central Europe. They were probably inspired directly from local folk tradition and there is no reason to expect a close relationship between them and the church labyrinths found elsewhere in Europe. Labyrinths built of stones and boulders were certainly widespread in Scandinavia at this time and it is difficult to say to what extent the church labyrinths are modelled on the stone labyrinths, or vice versa.

It would appear that the labyrinths in Scandinavian churches all belong to roughly the same period, as the majority of those that can be dated seem to be from the fifteenth century, with a few that may be a little earlier or later. But that does not mean that they all belong to one homogenous group. On the contrary, it would seem that there are four different geographical groups, with a number of different characteristics.