Mapping medieval sculptures: Part 2. The burned Apostles at Ii

Postat den 23rd January, 2024, 09:45 av Sofia Lahti

Sofia Lahti, Tampere University

A little chapel existed in the village of Ii in North-western Finland already in the mid-14th century. In the 1470s Ii or “Ijo” was established as a parish, which grew to be one of the largest parishes in the region. According to local history, the parish church was built on an island in the Iijoki river, outside the current centre, and it was destroyed by raiders from the Eastern Karelian region at least three times during the 15th and 16th centuries, so it had to be repeatedly rebuilt.[1] However, still in the late nineteenth century, the Ii church reportedly had a group of six old wooden sculptures that had seemed to have survived there despite the series of attacks.

A group of members of the Finnish Antiquarian Society (Finska Fornminnesföreningen) visited and documented the Ii church in 1896 during their expedition of North Finland,[2] capturing “a group of wooden images” in what was perhaps the only photograph ever taken of those sculptures. In the same year, the Regional Museum of Northern Ostrobothnia was founded in Oulu (Uleåborg), and in 1899, the sculptures were donated to the museum. In 1929, the museum and the majority of its collections were damaged or destroyed by fire, but again, the sculptures miraculously survived. They were conservated and put on display. However, during the war in 1940, a new fire was caused by bombing, and this time the sculptures were finally destroyed.[3] Ironically, the Ii church was struck by lightning and burned down in 1942.

So, since 1940, the sculptures only exist as a catalogue entry in the regional museum. From the remaining information in the museum’s register, written in the 1910s by curator, ethnographer Samuli Paulaharju, they have been tentatively identified as Christ and four Apostles – Peter, Andreas, John the Baptist, and one unidentified apostle. The identifications are based on what is known of their attributes: a key, a diagonal cross, and a chalice. The unidentified apostle carries a book. The fifth sculpture had a cross and a globe in his hand, and this led some researchers to suggest he may have represented a king, perhaps St Olaf or St Erik.[4]

Until recently, it was assumed that the sculptures were medieval. This implied that they had survived the repeated attacks and fires better than the church itself, which seemed puzzling; the archaeologist Mika Sarkkinen suggested that they might have been successfully hidden by locals before each attack. [5] This seemed like a plausible explanation, knowing that devotional images and objects held a great emotional and social value in medieval communities and that there were efforts to protect them during the Reformation, for instance. Unfortunately, it turned out not to have been the case. In fact, whatever devotional art existed in the medieval chapel or parish church was most likely destroyed during the attacks.

The photograph taken of the “group of wooden images” in 1896 is mentioned in a list of all images produced during the expedition. Advised by art historian Leena Valkeapää, a specialist on the travels of the Antiquarian Society, I inquired at the Finnish Heritage Agency if any photograph of the “wooden images” had survived in their archives. The archivist’s answer was: yes and no – the old nitrate negative had deteriorated, but a print of it existed!

Viktor Sucksdorff, 1896: Wooden images from the Ii church. Archival print from damaged nitrate negative. The Finnish Heritage Agency. The print is not currently available for proper digitizing as the archives are being relocated.

The photograph immediately clarified what had puzzled both me and the museum professionals in Oulu: on a first glance, it was obvious that these were not medieval sculptures, but from the eighteenth or late seventeenth century. The attributes correspond to the written description in the museum register. The man previously registered as a king has no crown, but he is holding a globe with a cross on top, a globus cruciger, which identifies him as Christ. As described in the register, there is another Christ figure in the group as well, also holding a globus cruciger. He is surprisingly smaller than the Apostles and the other Christ, but clearly made by the same master or workshop. In other words, Christ appeared twice in this group of sculptures, but we do not know how the group was arranged; similar apostle figures are often attached on the pulpit, which might have been the case with these as well. Their height, 48 cm according to the old museum register, supports this hypothesis. In that case, the smaller Christ (35 cm) could have been placed on top of the pulpit. In any case, in 1896 the figures had already been removed from whichever structure they had earlier been attached to. In the photograph, they are accompanied by a gilt, winged putto angel head and an angel holding a horn or a trumpet; according to the old museum register, there were several more of each. The black and white photograph can be complemented with Paulaharju’s detailed hand-written notes in the collection catalogue: each of the figures had a tunic of a different color – green for St Peter, brown for St Andrew, light brown for St John, light blue for the anonymous apostle, and dark blue for the man now recognized as a second Christ. The written description also confirms that the sculptures are flat in the back, which would have been difficult to read from the photograph. This indicates that they were attached to an altarpiece or, plausibly, to the pulpit.

The earliest known written document that may refer to the wooden apostles is an inventory list of the Ii church from 1780, very vaguely mentioning a group of “church images”.[6] At that point, the apostle images were still relatively new, and the maker of the inventory did not think it was necessary to describe them. However, this also means that there is no clear evidence that the six sculptures were originally part of the Ii church interior. Despite the uncertainties, the approximate age of the Ii apostles is now defined – and thereby also their Lutheran context, which means that in the end, they were not inserted in the Mapping Saints database.

It is fortunately rare for objects to be destroyed in museums. Indeed, being registered in a catalogue can be considered a manner of existing, as art historian J.S. Ackley has observed.[7] For lost objects, that is even the only manner of existing at present.

Archival sources

MV, SMY = Finnish Heritage Agency: Photograph and archival catalogues from the Finnish Antiquarian Society’s expedition (thanks to archivist Natalia Riipinen and researcher Leena Valkeapää for help)

Regional Museum of Northern Ostrobothnia, Oulu: archives and collections database (thanks to researchers Mika Sarkkinen and Eija Konttijärvi for help)


[1] Kallio-Seppä, Titta 2011, Tietoja Iin kirkoista ja kirkkomaista kirjallisten ja arkeologisten lähteiden perusteella. Kallio-Seppä, Ikäheimo & Paavola (toim.), Iin vanhan haminan kirkko ja hautausmaa: Arkeologisia tutkimuksia, 34–43.

[2] On these expeditions, see Valkeapää, Leena 2018, Suomen muinaismuistoyhdistyksen taidehistorialliset tutkimusretket Suomessa 1871–1902. Tahiti, 8(1), 5–27. https://doi.org/10.23995/tht.69289

[3] Sarkkinen, Mika 2011, Illinsaari, Iin kirkko ja Pohjois-Pohjanmaan museon kokoelmat. Kallio-Seppä, Ikäheimo & Paavola (toim.), Iin vanhan haminan kirkko ja hautausmaa: Arkeologisia tutkimuksia, 46–47.

[4] Sarkkinen 2011, 46.

[5] Sarkkinen 2011, 46.

[6] Sarkkinen 2011, 46.

[7] Ackley, Joseph Salvatore 2014, Re-approaching the Western medieval church treasury inventory, c. 800–1250. The Journal of Art Historiography, Nr. 11, December 2014: 1–37.


Det här inlägget postades den January 23rd, 2024, 09:45 och fylls under archives

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