14.12.10, Ringbom, Voice of the Åland Churches

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Benjamin Zweig

The Medieval Review 14.12.10

Ringbom, Åsa. The Voice of the Åland Churches: New Light on Medieval Art, Architecture and History. Åland (Finland): PQR Publishing, 2013. Pp. 164. ISBN: 9789525614428 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Benjamin Zweig
Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art

In The Voice of the Åland Churches: New Light on Medieval Art, Architecture and History (originally published in 2010 in Swedish as Åländska kyrkor berättar: Nytt ljus på medeltida konst, arkitektur och historia), Åsa Ringbom, Professor Emerita at the Åbo Akademi in Turku, examines the artistic and architectural history of a group of largely unknown but fascinating medieval churches on the archipelago of Åland. Composed of over six thousand islands, Åland sits midway between Sweden and Finland in the Baltic Sea. Today an autonomous Swedish-speaking region of Finland, the islands have historically straddled the geographic, cultural, and linguistic borders between Sweden and Finland. Åland's medieval art and architecture displays a confluence of styles that attest to a history of trade and contact between the islands and its mainland neighbors, as well as with the better known island of Gotland to the south and, farther still, northern Germany. However, the dearth of comparative historical sources have impended scholars from painting a clear picture of the churches' construction history and their place within the broader geographic and cultural context of the medieval Baltic.

Synthesizing two decades of painstaking archaeological research, previously published in the series Åland's Churches (Ålands kyrkor), Ringbom's book attempts to construct a broad but comprehensive cultural history of the islands through the physical remains of the churches. As stated in the introduction, she wants "to let the churches themselves tell the story of medieval Åland" (7). Foremost among her goals is to construct an "objective chronology" for the building phases of each church as a corrective to what she deems the more speculative chronologies previously put forth. To do this, she marshals numerous methods of interpretation throughout the book, including stylistic and structural analysis, dendrochronology, and mortar dating. Ringbom's intended audience for the book is as wide-ranging as the methods she employs, aiming at art historians, archaeologists, and those interested in the history of the Middle Ages in general and Åland in particular (4).

The book is divided into three large chapters. Chapter 1, entitled "Century by Century," (8-55) outlines the historical context and chronology of the churches from the initial building stages in the eleventh and twelfth centuries to the reconstructions and restorations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The bulk of the chapter attends to the construction and decoration of the churches between the twelfth and the fifteenth centuries. According to Ringbom's narrative, the first churches on Åland--more precisely on the main island or Fasta Åland--were a group of simple timber structures erected during the twelfth century, shortly after or during the introduction of Christianity to the area. If so, church building on Åland followed the same evolutionary pattern as that of Gotland and mainland Scandinavia. Although most traces of these wooden churches are now lost, a fascinating carved pine head--dubbed "The Giant Finn"--and an oak sculpture of Saint Michael have survived from the timber iteration of the church of Finström. The thirteenth century saw the first stone structures replace the earlier wooden foundations. The churches of Sund and Jomala were the first of the new stone buildings on Åland, and appear to have introduced stone vaulting to the architectural repertoire of the islands during the second half of the thirteenth century. Moreover, both churches preserve some of their original decorations and furnishings, including wall paintings depicting religious and courtly scenes, a triumphal crucifix in Sund, and stained glass fragments produced in Gotland in Jomala.

The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries witnessed the expansion of stone church buildings onto some of the smaller islands in the archipelago, the constructions of towers and porches, and an expanding network of trade. Indeed, Ringbom sees the fifteenth century as a time when Åland experienced an "economic boom," evidenced by the fourteen stone chapels and churches in existence at the end of the century, the use of brick, an expensive and prestigious building material, and the importation of painted and gilded polyptych altarpieces. During the sixteenth century, however, the introduction of the Reformation to Scandinavia seems to have halted new building construction. The following centuries witnessed a general decline in the upkeep of the buildings until the nineteenth century, during which time major renovations took place.

Throughout the first chapter, Ringbom persuasively demonstrates how the unknown builders and patrons of the Åland churches engaged with the larger artistic trends circulating around them, and presents an overall convincing account of the buildings' developments. She is at her best when she uses formal and structural analysis to support her arguments. Her frequent reference to the use of dendrochronology and mortar dating as analytical tools is not fully clear; possibly, one imagines, the result of wanting to avoid cumbersome technical and methodological description for the non-specialist. More broadly, her historical contextualization of Åland varies in its success. While she expertly connects a fragmented fourteenth-century liturgical manuscript to the church of Finström, her insistence on suggesting a relationship between the churches' paintings and sculptures and liturgical drama is less convincing, in part because Ringbom herself repeatedly states that there is no evidence to make such a connection. Similarly, a discussion of witchcraft in the seventeenth century seems out of place, as it does not connect to the material at hand in any clear manner (48).

The second chapter, entitled "Church by Church," (56-131) examines each individual structure. Organized in alphabetical order, Ringbom describes in erudite detail the history of the 17 medieval and post-medieval religious buildings. Each entry follows the same general outline: first a description of a building's exterior, followed by a discussion of the building's ground plan, its interior, building history, decoration (usually wall paintings and occasionally architectural sculpture), and an inventory of the remaining medieval artworks still housed in the building (altarpieces, baptismal fonts, etc.) Throughout this chapter, Ringbom showcases her unsurpassed knowledge of the broad history of Åland and the physical minutiae of the buildings themselves. Indeed, these entries are likely to remain fundamental reference points for English-language scholars who are interested in the art and architecture of medieval Scandinavia.

The third and final chapter, entitled "The Åland Churches Project and the Necessity of Interdisciplinary Research," (132-152) departs from the preceding chapters and describes the use of the mortar-dating method developed during Ringbom's two decades of research and alluded to earlier in the book. Put simply, the mortar dating method is similar to that of radiocarbon dating. During the process of creation, mortar absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere like organic material. When the mortar hardens, it effectively "dies," and radiocarbon--14C on the periodic table--begins to decay. The mortar can then be dated based on an analysis of the decayed amount of 14C in a taken sample. Ringbom chose this method as a means to date the buildings because mortar remains from every stage of church construction, and that it, alongside dendrochronology, would provide her with a scientific foundation from which to construct an "objective chronology" for the building history of the churches (134). Through this method, Ringbom argues that one can precisely determine the true history of the churches in the cases where reliable documents are lacking and where traditional forms of art historical analysis remain too subjective.

One wonders, however, how possible it is to establish a truly objective chronology through such methods. One must exert a healthy level of skepticism and recognize that even with such material subjective considerations come into the fold. Moreover, the high overlap of the dating results acquired through mortar analysis with those gleaned from dendrochronology--out of a set of thirty-eight mortar results, thirty-six agreed with dendrochronology (146)--leads one to ask how much more useful this method might be for art historians than similar ones already available? This querying is not meant to invalidate Ringbom's method, but rather to raise questions about both its present limitations and future possibilities.

Ringbom's admirable attempt to produce a book useful for both a diverse set of scholars and the interested public as described in the preface is also its greatest structural problem. Each intended audience might find itself somewhat frustrated with the book for different reasons. For example, medievalists might wish for a more specific discussion of Åland's place within the cultural and geographic context of the Baltic, and take issue with some of her broad characterizations of the period as one where "life was incredibly difficult, and people suffered unbearably from wars and disease," and where life was structured by "the all-encompassing hegemony of the Catholic Church" (7). Non-specialist readers might get lost in the detailed descriptions of the churches' architecture and, especially, in the book's final third chapter.

Overall, however, The Voice of the Åland Churches is a very welcome addition to medieval studies. In addition to being detailed and informative about a little-known but fascinating part of the medieval world, it is wonderfully illustrated with 188 full-color images, maps, a useful glossary, and a thorough bibliography. It might also serve well as an introduction for those interested in mortar dating. The art and architecture of medieval Scandinavia and the Baltic region remains a vastly understudied subject. By publishing the book in English, Ringbom helps assure that this material will be accessible to a larger audience, and will enable scholars to expand their geographic horizons to include the material and visual culture of the medieval far north.

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Author Biography

Benjamin Zweig

Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art