We rented a car to make a scenic 500-mile drive across southern Sweden from Malmö to Uppsala. On the way we stopped near the little village of Habo north of Jönköping along Lake Vättern to visit their local church. What a delightful find! Built in 1723, this “Wooden Cathedral” contains amazing religious artworks.
The farm buildings we passed on our drive were painted bright red, with intact roofs, no swayback falling-down barns anywhere. From the outside, Habo Kyrka resembles these well-kept buildings, with solid construction and not a lot of ornamentation. We learned that a church renovation uncovered the baptismal font (from 1250) in a storage area and it contained traces of red, having been used to mix paint during maintenance of the building’s exterior.
The spire atop Habo Church is empty. A separate exterior tower was built in 1760 to hold the weight of three swinging bells, two of them from the 16th century. The bell tower’s structural design looks a bit like the tripods of the fighting machines in The War of the Worlds, but the tolling of the bells is quite lovely.
It was a perfect late summer Saturday morning and we arrived in the middle of a baptism ceremony, always a good sign that we have found an actual working church. (We were not the only interested tourists popping our heads in. Pardon the interruption!)
Notice the very busy walls and ceiling of the church, with religious paintings of the Catechism covering nearly every square inch of the interior. (More photos and info on the artwork of Habo Kyrka here.) The sanctuary has a lower level for families and an upper level for the young unmarried men and women, with the boys on one side and the girls on the other. Through the 1800s, families separated for services and all the women sat on the left “spinnside” and the men on the right “swordside.”
The lower part of the 14th-century altar depicts Jesus’s death and burial. With his resurrection at the top, Jesus holds the flag of victory. The two figures at the bottom are Moses carrying the Ten Commandments and his brother Aaron holding the sprouting stick. The clock is quite unusual in altarpieces. This one from 1750 only marks the hours—no minutes visible—with the boy above the clock striking iron cymbals with a hammer on the hour.
The 12 apostles are sculpted around the pulpit. Notice that each is depicted with unique characteristics and a personally identifiable implement, such as a square rule for James and a spear for Thomas. Jesus is in the middle and Death is at the top holding a scythe. Death may look victorious, but the sculpture of the risen Christ on the altar is higher in elevation than Death on the pulpit, providing important symbolism of resurrection.
An interesting feature of the church architecture is the presence of six private gentry boxes alongside the altar. From here the owners of country estates could observe the service after arriving via a private entrance. (The practice is not very different from VIPs using private suites at football stadiums today.)
Here is the view from one of the private boxes looking out to the pews, with today’s seating accommodating about 600 parishioners. Through the 1800s the church had seating for up to 2,000 people, primarily farmers and crafters. Did the gentry of old imagine that all these parishioners were looking at them when they faced the altar?
Behind the private boxes are rooms where the high and mighty would take meals with invited guests. This space has been converted to the children’s room and an area for preparations for ceremonies. Look carefully around the top of the room and you can see new copper pipes for a fire suppression system, a major fire protection project completed in 2006. It’s a relief to see the pipes because it would be a huge cultural loss if this church ever caught fire and was destroyed. Präst Andreas, in the photo, spoke with us after the baptism. He was absolutely wonderful in showing us all over the church and relating some of its history.
This is the upper deck seating for young unmarried men and boys.
Just across the way sat the young unmarried women and girls. A wink and a nod at Sunday services may have started many a relationship.
In this view toward the back, the woman below the altar is Queen Ulrika Eleonora the Younger holding different instruments. She was known to be a devout Lutheran. She loved music and played the clavier, although that keyboard instrument is not shown here. She was Sweden’s queen from 1719 to 1720, but then she abdicated to allow her husband Frederick I to take the throne.
The original pipes and façade from 1736 have been restored and placed in the 1962 organ.
The first religious structure at this spot is believed to have been built in the 12th century. The church standing here in 1622 had a different shape, with three towers (see the seal below). It was rebuilt later with its current architecture of late provincial baroque. Over time the Habo Kyrka site became a meeting place at the junction of seven roads. However, the center of town shifted several miles away when a railway was built.
Habo Kyrka is one of many pilgrimage spots for the Church of Sweden (Svenska Kyrkan). Whether you drive, bike or walk here, the church is a beautiful destination. Come for a peaceful respite, spiritual renewal or simply to appreciate the exquisite art inside.
Visited in September 2021