Country Church (Gotland)

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The medieval country churches on the Swedish island of Gotland are stone churches that have hardly been changed by warlike or other destructive influences. They originated over a period of around 200 years and are similar in many ways.

Gothem, seen through the portal of the medieval rectory
Dense early medieval country churches in Denmark and southern Sweden. The various gray-brown shades indicate the average distances: dark under 2.5 km, medium 2.5–5 km and light 5–7.5 km.

There are currently 95 used churches on Gotland, 92 of which date from the Middle Ages. Of the at least 17 dilapidated or destroyed churches, 13 are in the main town of Visby . The oldest preserved church buildings are the asylum churches of Atlingbo , Fardhem and Stenkyrka mentioned in the Gutasaga .

History of the country churches on Gotland

Wooden churches

None of the wooden churches from the early days of Christianity on Gotland have survived. They were either bar or plank constructions . During restoration work on the Church of Hemse in 1896, large parts of a stave church from around 1100 were discovered, the western part of which was rebuilt in the Historical Museum in Stockholm . The Gutasage also reports that the first church that Botair from Akebäck near Kulstäde built was burned down. The remains of a stave church from nearby Eke were dendrochronologically dated to the same period. The foundation of a stave church under the church of Silte was also found during restoration work . Although there were no more wood residues, the entire foundation including the stone drainage could be exposed. Smaller limestone slabs were used on the inside of the church and larger stones on the outside. In addition, under the plaster of today's stone choir, on the side of the nave, traces of the roof of the previous church could be exposed. In addition, remains of wooden churches have been found near the churches in Guldrupe and Sproge .

Romanesque churches (1150–1250)

Triumphal cross and Madonna (left) in the church of Öja , Gotland
12th century baptismal font from Stenkyrka Church

Towards the end of the 11th century, some of the wooden churches were replaced by stone churches. Due to the different geology of the island and the easy degradability of the rock, limestone was mainly used as building material and sandstone in the south . The oldest Romanesque churches have pedestal-less walls and undecorated portals . Cut, almost seamlessly laid cuboids, profiled plinths and column portals follow later. The arched friezes end at the roof foot. The entrances to the nave and choir are in the south. The architecture is Nordic; Lund's cathedral was clearly exemplary. From 1164 AD the influences of the local Cistercian monastery of Roma become apparent, the decorative decoration is lost. The straight end of the choir comes up instead of the apse , and the three-window group ultimately merges into pointed arches. The oldest church paintings convey Byzantine impressions. Later, Swedish or French influences come into play. Due to the proximity of the raw material, contemporary stone sculpture is particularly represented in the baptismal fonts, which were also an important export item of Gotland and reached northern Germany via the port cities on the southern Baltic coast. The various workshops shaped the picture without knowing the majority of the artists. Ein Hegwald is considered to be the early master of stonemasonry on Gotland . Another feature of the era are the triumphal crosses , which, as imports from France, stand out clearly from the local stone sculpture. The cross of Öja and the Madonna of Viklau stand out below .

Gothic churches (1250–1400)

In the 13th century, most of the older Romanesque churches began to be rebuilt in the Gothic style. Often this ended with the redesign of the choir area. This could be caused by the plague in the middle of the 13th century, the civil war of the peasants against Visby in 1288 or Waldemar Atterdag's looting in 1361, but also for other reasons. The short, wide church interior with four vaults supported by a pillar in the nave became ideal. Larger churches had up to four pillars, which with the side walls supported nine vaults. In Lau there are even six pillars and twelve vaults. However, the churches often had two aisles. The apse-free choir was made wider and provided with three very slender windows. The towers of the churches were raised, had large sound openings and elegant galleries.

The south side remained the entrance side and was adorned with decorations, especially on the choir portals. Colonnets, acanthus painting , figure decorations on the capitals and tympanum stones decorated in relief shape the picture. The pointed gable field ( called Wimperg ), in which the resurrection or Christ as world ruler often appears as a relief, sometimes extends to the roof. The simple north portal, the female entrance, which sometimes comes from an older church, points to the gender segregation during worship. The walls are painted with sequences of images or twelve consecration crosses. The vaults and ceilings are decorated with tendrils and figures. In the triumphal arch and as triumphal crosses, Celtic cross-like ring crosses are shown, as they are still common today at midsummer celebrations. Another element is the still largely preserved, partly Byzantine influenced, medieval glass paintings.

In the transition period between Romanesque and Gothic, the influences on the country churches came from Visby, which is closely connected to the Rhineland and Westphalia , where many churches were built during this time that brought the West German art style to Gotland, which received its Nordic special form in the country churches. The Gothic architecture of the Visby church did not fully reach the country. In the 14th century, the "Master Egypticus" built churches ( Grötlingbo , Hablingbo , Väte ), which, despite the Gothic pointed arches, pay homage to the heavier Romanesque building lines and are among the highlights of island architecture. The style, also known as contragothic , can also be felt on the continent.

Late medieval churches (1400–1530)

During the Danish rule over the island, church art became impoverished. New buildings were no longer built. Conversions were done more badly than right. The interior decoration became artistically simpler, but more pathetic and expressive. The unknown artist known as the “ Passion Master ” or his workshop created many of the works, including the depiction of the Last Judgment in the church of Lummelunda . But also more advanced artists like the “ Othemsmeister ” (churches of Othem and Fide ), the “ Unionsmeister ” ( church of Barlingbo ) and a master reminiscent of the central Swedish artist Albertus Pictor ( church of Öja ) are represented. The winged altars made during this period are clearly North German imports. In 1521 the Linde church received an altar from Lübeck as a gift. The equestrian statue of Ivar Axelsson Tott, which stood in St. John's Church and is now in Gotland's Fornsal in Visby, is unique from this period .

Gotlandic peculiarity

Of the 94 country churches on Gotland, eight have a three-aisled, 37 a two-aisled and 49 a single-nave nave. With a share of two-aisled churches of more than a third, Gotland has a unique accumulation of this otherwise rather rare design.

Protestant churches

The Reformation brought hardly any changes, as the confusing church conditions did not initiate any new, established ideas. Only when Gotland became its own monastery at the end of the 16th century did a new development in church furnishings become noticeable. The pulpits were outstanding, the oldest of which (from 1548) has been preserved in the church of Grötlingbo . Others can be found in Alskog (1586), Fide (1587), Björke (1594), Rone (1595), Fröjel (1600?) And Martebo . The decisive artificial design of the pulpit and canopy took place until the middle of the 18th century, in which the walnut pulpit of the North German Baroque became a model for local artists. The pews and the mirrors of the bank doors are now also being designed. The church interior was redesigned to reflect the evangelical liturgy. The wings of the altars also became artistically impoverished into text panels with quotations from the Bible. From 1630 the sculpted and painted sandstone altars from Burgsvik spread across the island. 40 of these are still preserved, but most of them date from the artistically declining late period. The town painter Johan Bartsch, who lives in Visby, and his son of the same name created numerous altarpieces in the late 17th century. Gotland lost its artistic independence more and more after the annexation to Sweden in 1645. Vault painting ended in the 17th century and became ceiling painting . The architecture remained almost untouched by the change. The expansion of the communities due to the population growth in the 18th and 19th centuries was countered by building rood screens in the western part of the nave. The organs found their place on the rood screen.

Developments from the 11th to the 14th centuries

  • Stave church
  • Stave church with choir and apse (made of stone)
  • Romanesque stone church with apse
  • Romanesque stone church with apse and tower (in the west)
  • Conversions of various kinds
    • new choir
    • Extension of the nave and new choir
    • Romanesque new building and final Gothic tower
    • Demolition of the Romanesque tower and construction of a Gothic tower
  • Completion of the Gothic church

Curonian and Byzantine influence on Gotland

Byzantine influences on Gotland have not been transmitted during the first phase of the Nordic Middle Ages, which began in 1050 AD. Up until the middle of the 13th century, Gotland's culture differed significantly from that of the rest of the Baltic Sea, including that of the Swedes, where the pagan Sväerkönige ruled for a long time. Gotland, which remained independent, was presumably subject to tribute as early as the 9th century.

According to legends and sparse other references, Swedish rulers such as Ivar Vidfamne and Harald Hildenand tried to gain a foothold in Courland in the Baltic States as early as the 7th century , but failed again and again. In his “Vita sancti Ansharii” from 876, Rimbert , a student of Bishop Ansgar of Bremen , mentions battles between the Vikings and the Kurds in 855. The Varangian prince Rurik settled in Novgorod in 862 , which quickly became an important trading center. Thietmar von Merseburg mentions St. Peter as a church for western merchants as early as 1016.

A milestone are those of Lothar III. in 1134 the Gotlander privileges for trade with the Saxons and the union with Sweden in the middle of the same century.

As readings, in depots or in graves, there are some Kuro-Baltic influences on Gotland . Curonian weapons and jewelry from the 10th century reached Gotland. Swords, fibulas and decorative needles are documented. Utensils found in the vicinity of Klaipėda and Kretinga were otherwise found. A grave in Hugleifs documents the presence of cures on the island. These finds suggest more than just trade relations with the Baltic States. Among the utensils from the 11th and 12th centuries, it is especially the cross pendants and encolpies that follow Byzantine patterns.

According to legend, the island was forcibly converted to Christianity in 1029 by the Norwegian King Olav the Saint . But Christianity was only just beginning to be established around 1100. Christian customs and traditions spread, and plank and stave churches were obviously built by local craftsmen in Hemse and Silte (remains have been preserved here) as well as in Eke, Guldrupe and Sproge.

The first stone churches were built in Garde and Källunge , a little later in Atlingbo , Fardhem and Stenkyrka . In the church building of the early 12th century, apses appear in many places as choir closures. They seem to go back to Byzantine influences and were partly eliminated during the century, but mostly in the following period with the appearance of Gothic in choir conversions. The resulting special form of reconstruction, in which the newly built choir is higher than the nave, is called the Sattelkirche ( Alskog , Burs , Follingbo , Garde , Lye ) here, although the term is used differently in Central European architecture.

In the details, the churches of Garde and Källunge in particular clearly show Byzantine influence, which accumulate in the work of the unknown master, who was historically named Byzantios . Baptismal fonts and frescoes in the Byzantine style cannot be dated, but apparently come from his hand or that of the Semi-Byzantine. Other directions of influence were added and the short-term commitment of the Church of Byzantium was permanently suppressed. The completion of the construction of Lund Cathedral in 1145 brought masters such as Hegwald , Majestatis and Sighraf to Gotland. Her works differ fundamentally from the older contemporary native wood sculpture and the Byzantine works. In 1164 the Cistercian monastery Roma took over the hegemony on the island, and with that all influences of the Eastern Church died out.

Church ruins

Particularly noteworthy are the church ruins (Swedish ödekyrka ) of Bara in the parish of Hörsne, Elinghem in the parish of Hangvar and Gann in the parish of Lärbro, which all date from the 13th century and were mostly abandoned in the 17th century. They have undergone few renovations and, due to the lack of interventions in the architecture, give the impression of their construction time.


The church of Bara appears to have been destroyed in the middle of the 16th century. The ruin consists of a square, straight choir and a rectangular nave, on the western part of which, like the church of Anga , sits the tower. The entire structure seems to have been erected in one go in the middle of the 13th century. The long hall of the ship with the central column is preserved in the lower part. So much was preserved of the choir vault and the vaulted areas of the ship that they could be used as tent vaults. The choir portal is well preserved. The keel arch contour of the tympanum disk is unusual, but also occurs in Östergarn , Tofta and Sanda. The other portals are almost completely destroyed. In 1923 a comprehensive conservation of the ruins was carried out under the direction of the architect Sven Brandel.


An early abandoned church seems to be Elinghem , the destruction of which is mentioned in 1601. In 1680 the church, which is likely to date from the middle of the 13th century, is already described as "long in ruins". The ruin lies on a meadow and is surrounded by a two-meter-wide and 125-meter-long ring-shaped wall with passages in the northeast and southeast. Possibly this is a prehistoric castle (Swedish fornborg ). It has a square choir and a rectangular nave, but no tower. The exterior plaster on the south and west walls is well preserved. A low beveled plinth runs around the whole church. A threshold in the entrance door refers to the prehistoric custom of separating the sacred from the profane with a stone barrier. From the interior, the limestone altar integrated into the head wall has been preserved. The broken baptism was put together on the occasion of a restoration and conservation of the ruin in 1920 and stands on a high plinth in the nave.


The church ruins in Gann can be traced back to a church built at the same time, which was abandoned only a little later as Elinghem, but already has a tower. A plinth like the one in Elinghem surrounds the church and, slightly higher, also the tower that was built later. The central column of the once four vaults was moved to Fleringe in 1673 , which resulted in the collapse. The choir consisted of a barrel and a tent vault part. The ruins were restored and conserved in 1920. The capitals on the south portal are unusual, and the ornamental lime painting on the triumphal arch is remarkable.

More church ruins

The church ruins south of the church of Ardre in the parish of Ardre are known as Gunfiauns Chapel .

On Fårö by Gamle hamn are the ruins of St. Olofs Church , of which only the foundation walls have been preserved.

There is a ruined church near Sankt Olofsholm .

The church of the Roma monastery has been preserved as a ruin.

A large number of church ruins can be found in Visby.

See also


  • Marita Jonsson, Sven-Olof Lindquist: Gotland cultural guide. 1993, ISBN 91-88036-09-X .
  • Erland Lagerlöf, Gunnar Svahnström: The churches of Gotland. 1991, ISBN 3-89392-049-8 .
  • Ulrich Quack: Gotland: the largest island in the Baltic Sea; a Swedish province of particular charm; Culture, history, landscape. DuMont , Cologne 1991, ISBN 3-7701-2415-4 .

Web links

Commons : Category: Diocese of Visby  - collection of pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. The first Gotland churches were probably homestead churches that were built by wealthy private individuals. (...) There never seems to have been any intention to establish Gotland's own diocese. Initially, bishops who happened to be present consecrated the churches and cemeteries. It was later agreed with the closest bishop of Linköping that he would do visitations and other episcopal duties on Gotland every third year. It was incorporated into the Linköping diocese at the beginning of the 12th century.
  2. ^ Lennart Karlsson : Signums svenska konsthistoria, Volume 3 Den romanska konsten . Bokförlaget Signum, Lund 1995, ISBN 91-87896-23-0 .
  3. Carl Norman: Synpunkter concerned ground till stavkyrkan i Silte. (PDF; 1.3 MB) In: Fornvännen , 1976.
  4. RAÄ number Hangvar 4: 2