15 churches reflecting the Middle Ages in the Åland Islands
If you want to learn the history of the Åland Islands, you should take your time traveling around and visiting the churches. It may be of importance to remind you that they were erected at a time when all of Scandinavia still belonged to the Catholic church, with rich continental networks.
For centuries the churches have been the center of the parish. This is where the newborn were baptized, where the young were confirmed and couples married. At the end of their lives parishioners were buried in the surrounding churchyard. The thick silent walls, usually built in red granite, have innumerable stories to tell.
Except for the church in Mariehamn, which was built in the 1920s, there are no less than 15 churches, the oldest with a history from the 13th century. Twelve them are stone churches erected in the Middle Ages, while three more recent wooden churches have medieval roots. In addition to that ruins of two stone chapels remain, and several little wooden chapels along the sailing roots. Usually the churches are beautifully placed in the terrain, often close to the largest pre-historical graveyard in the parish and at medieval harbours.
What is special with the Åland churches? Among other things they are unusually thoroughly analyzed and documented scientifically. All medieval stone churches are preserved, and it is rare to find wall-paintings from the 13th century in these northern levels.
Five churches not to be missed
If your time is limited start with the following churches:
Finström church: The best preserved medieval building in entire Finland, probably from the end of the 13th century. Architecturally interesting, and two sculptures from the 12th century. Probably the main church of medieval Åland.
Sund church: The largest church in Åland, but only slightly larger than the nave of Finström, probably from the middle of the 13th century. The church has a beautiful setting close to the castle of Kastelholm, with royal connections. Fine wall paintings and sculptures from the 13th century.
Lemland church: From the end of the 13th century, with unusually well preserved early gothic wall paintings from the 1290s, describing among other things the Nicholas series. You must also admire the Lemland Madonna from the 1320s, one of the most exquisite Madonnas in entire northern Scandinavia. If possible her enigmatic smile is even more interesting than that of Mona Lisa.
Jomala church differs completely from the other Åland churches. It is probably a private church belonging to an aristocratic family, possibly the oldest stone church of the Islands. It was partly rebuilt in the 19th century, but in the tower arch fine wall paintings from the 1280s are still preserved depicting the Prodigal Son.
Hammarland church: from the 13th century, with its characteristic tower unusually placed on the southern side of the nave. If you arrive from Eckerö by car, this is where you must make a stop. The exterior reflects all the different building stages. In the interior the rare soaring cupola vaults represent an unusual construction in these areas.
The earliest medieval stone churches belong to the 13th century, while some of them were erected in the 14th and in the 15th centuries. An apparent economic growth at the end of the 13th century made it possible to erect a large amount of stone churches more or less simultaneously. The building activity continued on a smaller scale, uninterrupted, through the entire medieval period.
The chronology of the stone churches is not yet established in detail, but it seems as if the “mother churches” were finished before 1300, while the chapel churches belong to the 15th century. Finström church was also entirely rebuilt in the 15th century.
The churches were erected in easily split Åland red granite (rapakivi). Bricks are only sporadically used towards the end of the Middle Ages. Fieldstones were preferred to bricks for the vaulting of the naves. Local Ordovician limestone was used for the framing of windows and portals.
The wooden churches erected in the chapelries of Lumparland, Sottunga and Brändö after the Reformation all had medieval predecessors.
It is also probable that simple wooden churches preceded the Åland stone churches. In some cases remains of these early wooden churches have been documented in archaeological excavations.
Today Lumparland church, painted in white, is the appreciated goal for an excursion with its view over the waters of Kapellviken. Here you can also admire the beautiful gallery from 1760.
The artistic decoration of the churches is elaborate. The early Gothic wall paintings in Lemland, Jomala and Sund are considerably older than anything equivalent in the rest of Finland. The same is true of the wooden sculptures in Finström dating from the 12th century. In the church of sund the 5,06 m high crucifix is dendrochronologically dated to the 1250s.
For wall paintings and wooden sculptures the second part of the 15th century marks a time of new flourishing. The church of Kumlinge, for instance, has wall paintings entirely covering vaults and walls
Church ships or socalled “Votive ships” hanging from the ceiling are a usual sight in the Åland churches. In the church of Kökar hangs a real votive ship, implicating a donation from an endangered sailor who promised God a ship in exchange for life. In the porch of Sund you can admire a votive painting from 1671. The painting is the only one of its kind in Åland.