Amazing Artwork of Habo Kyrka, Jönköping, Sweden

The stunning interior of Habo Kyrka was painted by two of Jönköping’s master painters, Johan Kinnerus and Johan Christian Peterson, along with their apprentices, Joachim Conrad Schwartz and Peter Edberg. For their work they were paid 1000 riksdaler. This sum included the artists’ providing their own paint, which they made from scratch. We think this amount would be about $55,000 US today, not a lot for three years of work from four people. Kinnerus’s style was old-fashioned and his colors generally dark. Peterson had a more modern style with lighter and brighter colors. As you look at the paintings you will begin to see who painted which scenes. The style of the art is called “Peasant Baroque,” an appropriate description for art that is simple yet dramatic.

The striking bell tower outside Habo Kyrka. See the even more striking artwork inside…

It’s almost impossible to find a spot inside Habo Kyrka that is not covered with paintings with meaningful lessons, all painted on the original wooden planks of the walls and ceiling. The ground floor has the Ten Commandments. The Apostles Creed is below the galleries and the Lord’s Prayer is above the galleries. The ceiling has important biblical scenes such as the baptism of Jesus and the Last Supper. In essence the entire interior of the church is an illustrated guide to Luther’s Small Catechism, which all parishioners were expected to have memorized. Given low literacy rates centuries ago, the very detailed paintings were exceptional visual aids for communicating religious stories repetitiously and helping parishioners to remember them and reflect upon them over and over. Luther said, “If anyone does not seek or desire the Lord’s Supper at the very least four times a year, it is to be feared that he despises the Sacrament and is not Christian.” All the parishioners had to do was look up each week to be reminded.

The Ten Commandments

Habo Kyrka’s illustrations of the Ten Commandments generally depict someone breaking the commandment, with a teaching example from the Bible. We needed help deciphering some of the commandments and Präst Andreas provided a thorough description of those where we were stumped, along with a helpful key to 18th-century German/Gothic lettering. (see below)

The 1st Commandment (“Worship no god but me.”) The illustration is Exodus 32, where after a long absence by Moses, the Israelites worshipped the golden calf. “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, ‘Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.’ “

Later: “The Lord struck the people with a plague because of what they did with the calf Aaron had made.”

The 2nd Commandment (“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for he who misuses His name shall not go unpunished.” At the end there is also a reference to the third book of Moses (Leviticus) 24:10. “Then the Lord said to Moses: ‘Take the blasphemer outside the camp. All those who heard him are to lay their hands on his head, and the entire assembly is to stone him. Say to the Israelites: “Anyone who curses their God will be held responsible; anyone who blasphemes the name of the Lord is to be put to death. The entire assembly must stone them. Whether foreigner or native-born, when they blaspheme the Name they are to be put to death.”‘”

How would these old-time stoners react to hearing OMG! on a regular basis?

The 5th Commandment (“Thou shalt not kill.”) Cain has murdered Abel. By the 1700s we can assume there wasn’t a whole lot of killing going on among the parishioners on a regular basis. The lesson of this commandment can go a bit deeper. Do not kill your fellow man’s (or woman’s) spirit with harsh words and deeds, for an actual murder is rarely committed without first having other negative thoughts and actions. Be your brothers’ keeper and bring goodness and blessings to their lives rather than pain or sadness (or death).

“Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The 6th Commandment. The text simply says, roughly translated: “You shall not commit whore (adultery or rape).” Below the text is a reference to the first book of Moses (Genesis) 34:26. This is the story about when Simon and Levi, sons of Jacob, killed Hamor and his son Shekem, as revenge for them defiling their sister Dinah. Without the Bible reference it’s quite impossible to guess, just from the image. (Despite the 5th Commandment’s rule “Thou shalt not kill,” there is a lot of killing going on for breaking the other commandments.)

If you break the 6th Commandment, expect to be put to death.

The 8th commandment. The text says, “You shall not bear false witness against your next. The story of Susanna.” (“Next” is how Swedes translate what we translate as “neighbor.”) We understand from the writing that the picture illustrates the story of Susanna, but there is no Bible reference, and this is quite a tricky one because the very interesting story of Susanna is found in the apocryphal addition to the book of Daniel.   

Susanna is saved. The ones who bore false witness? They were put to death.

The 10th Commandment (“Thou shalt not covet they neighbor’s wife or goods.”) This painting of Joseph, who was accused of rape by Potiphar’s wife, is an interesting selection for the commandment because she is the one coveting someone who is not her husband. Is it surprising that a passage with gender roles reversed was chosen way back in the 1700s? The illustration could also be appropriate for the 7th Commandment (“Thou shall not commit adultery.”) If you are a musical theater fan, you might remember the way “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” depicted this story of Potiphar’s wife. Art comes in all forms.

Joseph was imprisoned but ultimately redeemed because the Lord was with him.

Paintings on the ceiling

In the Last Supper or the Holy Communion, note the devil crawling in from the bottom and Judas heading for the door. This is the second time in Sweden we’ve seen Judas portrayed as departing, in contrast to his position seated at the table in da Vinci’s and other versions of the Last Supper. Note too the figure in green next to Jesus. With a clean-shaven face and somewhat feminine features, this figure aligns with the theory that Mary Magdalene rather than the apostle John is seated next to Jesus. What inspired the painter to make this representation?

At the Last Supper, Jesus said that one of them would betray him.

Jesus gives Peter the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19). This gives Saint Peter the authority to lead the church after Jesus ascends to heaven.

Papal authority continues at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City.

Jesus is baptized by Saint John. (Matthew 3:13-17) “Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Jesus is baptized by John. The Spirit of God descends like a dove.

The Apostles Creed* is below the galleries. Each section has an apostle with one of the 12 verses. According to medieval tradition each apostle wrote one of the verses. 

Präst Andreas shared some insight on the depiction of Saint Peter holding a key. Two words are written to the left of him: “Hiddekel” and “Phrat,” which mean Tigris and Euphrates, two of the four waterways that separated from the river that flowed up from the garden of Eden (1 Mos 2:10-14). The old Persian name for Hiddekel was Tigra, and this is the origin of the Greek name Tigris. In Arabic it is called Shatt Dijla. The twin rivers Tigris and Euphrates water the Mesopotamian plain. One theory is that the place where Eden used to be is now situated in the Persian Gulf and that it was covered by water thousands of years ago. The connection to Saint Peter here is not obviously clear, but there is a luscious fruit tree to the right of him, so most likely Saint Peter is standing in, or just outside, the garden of Eden, to which he has been given the key.

Saint Peter as depicted still holding the key to heaven. What is the significance of the deer? One looks like a unicorn but of course there are no unicorns in the Bible.

Doubting Thomas was so busy reading a book (today he would be looking at an iphone) that he didn’t notice the miracles surrounding him. When the other disciples said they had seen the resurrected Jesus, he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe”…Then when Jesus appeared he told Thomas to stop doubting and believe. “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” John 20:24-29.

The lesson: Have faith with or without proof positive of the Lord’s existence.

An additional bit of background: According to Präst Andreas and the church guide, when one of the artists was painting the devil in the “…but deliver us from evil” portion of the Lord’s Prayer high up near the ceiling, the devil said to the artist, “I am ugly but not as ugly as you have painted me. And now I will make you even uglier!” The painter fell off the scaffolding. He was injured and said he was not coming back because the devil had gotten him. The congregation was not happy because they had a contract with him to paint the entire church. A legal lawsuit ensued and the judge told the artist he had to honor his contract, so reluctantly he came back and completed the work in the church. Thank goodness for contract law!

When you’re painting the devil and a victorious Death is standing on the pulpit next to you, falling seems almost inevitable.

From Präst Andreas, here is the 18th-century German/Gothic style lettering guide. Of course, the words above would be in Swedish, requiring translation to English. If you can decipher anything more in the paintings , please share!

We visited Habo Kyrka in September, 2021.


*Apostles’ Creed (Evangelical Lutheran Worship)

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.*

On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

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2 Responses to Amazing Artwork of Habo Kyrka, Jönköping, Sweden

  1. Pingback: Church of the Day – Habo Kyrka, Jönköping, Sweden | Finger Lakes to Lavender Fields

  2. Pingback: From Göteborg to Uppsala, with stops along the way | Finger Lakes to Lavender Fields

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