Wall-paintings in Finnish Churches in the ‘Mapping Saints’ Database, part 2


Vilma Mättö, Linnaeus University and University of Turku

In my previous blog-post, I introduced the major painting series that are preserved in Finnish medieval churches and listed some of their key features, namely the overlays and fragmentation caused by various factors. In this blog-post, I will discuss a few specific cases to exemplify how these features should be taken into account when analyzing the depictions of saints.

The fragmented nature of the material poses challenges. Each wall painting exists in relation to other images, formulating chronological or thematic entities, and associations with one another. The interpretation of the whole iconographical program gets more complicated when the material has been somehow altered or damaged (Aho 2023, 20). This can also hinder us from identifying individual motifs. For instance, in many cases it is hard to determine what saint a figure represents or even to recognize if a depicted person is a saint in the first place.

Sometimes, even though the actual image is mainly intact, but the identity of the portrayed person is still uncertain. The identification of a saint is made firstly with the help of related attributes. However, the attributes connected to each saint have varied depending on the area where the saint was venerated (Nygren 1945, 15–18). It is also evident that painters visualized saints in their own creative way and sometimes they might have confused saints with each other or simply made a mistake and connected a saint with the wrong symbols.


Painting of St Christina in the church of Hattula. Photo by Janika Aho.

Fig 4. Painting of St Christina in the church of Hattula. Photo by Janika Aho.


Because we lack contemporary written sources that describe and explain the content of the church murals – let alone the intentions of their makers – other pictorial reference material is a crucial aid in identifying the saints featured. For example, in Hattula church, St Christina of Bolsena is depicted with a knife, which is not her usual attribute (Fig. 4). Even so, the identity of this female saint is easily unraveled, since the closest comparable example in Lohja church shows Christina with another edged weapon, a small sword, and a more common attribute of hers, the millstone.


A pelican feeding its young with blood, symbolizing the sacrifice of Jesus, and depiction of St Christina of Bolsena at the lower right corner. Photo by Janika Aho.

Fig 5. A pelican feeding its young with blood, symbolizing the sacrifice of Jesus, and depiction of St Christina of Bolsena at the lower right corner. Photo by Janika Aho.


Some other good examples of the importance of comparative material are the paintings representing St Botolph of Thorney in the churches of Lohja (Fig. 6) and Hattula (Fig. 7). In Lohja, the east wall of the chancel shows a depiction of a bishop with a crozier and a mitre in his right hand. In earlier research, this saint has been interpreted as St Dionysius based on the assumption that the painting had later been restored incorrectly, and that the mitre in his hand was in fact an erroneous version of the Dionysius’ decapitated head (Nygren 1945, 102–105). In Hattula, the depiction of this saint is quite similar to the painting in Lohja, showing the saint in a bishop’s cope and with a mitre and crozier in his hands.


An unknown bishop, possibly St Botolph, depicted in the church of Lohja. Photo by Janika Aho.

Fig 6. An unknown bishop, possibly St Botolph, depicted in the church of Lohja. Photo by Janika Aho.


Later, art historian Anna Nilsén compared the paintings in Lohja and Hattula with the pictorial program of the Täby church in Sweden and noticed a resemblance between some of the motifs. In Täby church, St Botolph is correctly depicted wearing an abbot’s attire, but like in Lohja and Hattula, the mitre is with him next to his left shoulder. St Botolph of Thorney was indeed a well-known English abbot and a missionary in the seventh century (https://saints.dh.gu.se/person/45). But because the saint was occasionally informally referred to as a missionary bishop, he was sometimes depicted with a mitre and a crozier. As Nilsén has proposed, it is feasible that the painter was unfamiliar with the legend of St Botolph and therefore concluded that a saint portrayed with a mitre must have worn the cope as well (Nilsén 1986, 196, 203).


A painting in the church of Hattula that might be of St Botolph. Photo by Janika Aho.

Fig 7. St Botolph? A painting in the church of Hattula. Photo by Janika Aho.


Images of saints whose identity is uncertain or unknown are included in the Mapping Saints database along with all possible alternatives that the saint in question could represent. As noted above, the identity of a saint is sometimes possible to trace by finding parallel images, such as plausible models that the painter might have used. In fact, a common method is to examine the depicted figure’s posture, gestures, accessories, and other objects connected to the person, as well as observe the style and colour of the garment that the person is wearing. In addition, a pivotal step is to contextualize the image to determine how it relates to contemporary events and actions connected to the painting’s place of origin (Vuola et al. 2018, 59–64).

The Mapping Saints database facilitates this contextualization (about the context of the artwork see, for example, Räsänen 2009, 23–24). The user can quickly form an overall picture of how the chosen images could be connected to other objects, places, people, oral traditions, texts, feast days, etc. and for example, limit the search results to a selected time-period or region. Images like wall-paintings can be treated as objects that echo the phenomena of the past. But they can also be considered as subjects in themselves, in which case the context is rather built up around the image. Nonetheless, church paintings are not only products of their own time, but they also have their own autonomous rhetoric that is continually constructing our current culture (Liepe 2003, 415–417, 424–425).


Painting of St Botolph in the church of Täby. Photo from the Iconographic Index card.

Fig 8. Painting of St Botolph in the church of Täby, Sweden. Photo from the Iconographic Index card, courtesy of the Swedish National Heritage Board (Riksantikvarieämbetet).


By linking the digitized cards of the Swedish Iconographic Index (Sw. Ikonografiska registret) and re-digitized photographs of the World of Medieval Images project (Sw. Medeltidens bildvärld), the database provides a vast collection of visual data, and together with other material content and textual sources they constitute a good base for elaborating on medieval church art (see more Liepe & Ellis Nilsson 2021, 55–60). The Iconographic Index of Finland housed by the Finnish Heritage Agency has also been newly digitized and after its publication in the Finna portal will soon be complementing the database. Additionally, more photographs of the Finnish medieval wall-paintings will be published on another platform and, in time, also be made accessible via the Mapping Saints interface. The existing church murals being a fractured material overall brings its own challenges, yet they have a lot of research potential. Indeed, the Mapping Saints research resource compiles several kinds of scattered information that can bolster iconographical surveys and give support in interpretative problems, offering new possibilities and perspectives for the further study of church murals.



Aho, Janika. “Fragmentaarisuus Suomen keskiaikaisissa kirkkomaalauksissa: kolme esimerkkitapausta”, Suomen Museo – Finskt Museum, (2023), 19–40. https://journal.fi/suomenmuseo/issue/view/9079

Liepe, Lena, & Ellis Nilsson, Sara. “Medieval Iconography in the Digital Age: Creating a Database of the Cult of Saints in Medieval Sweden and Finland”. ICO Iconographisk Post. Nordisk tidskrift för bildtolkning – Nordic Review of Iconography, (2021), 45–63. http://ojs.abo.fi/ojs/index.php/ico/article/view/1745

Liepe, Lena. ”On the Epistemology of Images” ‒ in History and Images. Towards a New Iconology, Axel Bolvig & Phillip Lindley (eds.). Turnhout: Brepols, 2003.

Nilsén, Anna. Program och funktion i senmedeltida kalkmåleri. Kyrkmålningar i Mälarlandskapen och Finland 1400‒1534. [Stockholm]: Kungl. Vitterhets historie och antikvitets akademien, 1986.

Nygren, Olga Alice. Helgonen i Finlands medeltidskonst. En ikonografisk studie. Diss. SMYA, FFT XLVI:1. Helsingfors: SMY, FF, 1945.

Räsänen, Elina. Ruumiillinen esine, materiaalinen suku : tutkimus Pyhä Anna itse kolmantena -aiheisista keskiajan puuveistoksista Suomessa. Helsinki: Suomen Muinaismuistoyhdistys, 2009.

Vuola, K., Reijonen, H., Kaasalainen, T., & Saat, R. “Medieval Wood Sculpture of an Unknown Saint from Nousiainen: from Materials to Meaning”, Mirator, 19 (2018), 43–66.

Wall-paintings in Finnish Churches in the ‘Mapping Saints’ Database, part 1


Vilma Mättö, Linnaeus University and University of Turku

Medieval church paintings combine a wide range of material that can broaden our perception of how different saints were venerated – which saints were chosen to be immortalized on the church walls and how their legends were visually retold. In the former medieval diocese of Turku situated in present-day Finland, the pictorial compositions featuring saints exist in approximately 30 medieval churches. Throughout 2022, the Mapping Saints database was supplemented with saints’ cult manifestations that occur within this material. In this first blog-post, I will outline some major characteristics that the Finnish medieval church paintings have and continue in the next post by mentioning a couple of examples that demonstrate how these special features should be considered especially when studying the images of saints.

Out of over 80 preserved stone churches in Finland there are around 47 in total that have murals from the medieval period. Extant paintings range from single fragments or consecration crosses to extensive and detailed schemes recounting episodes from the Bible and other religious texts. The Finnish medieval paintings can roughly be divided into two main categories: the paintings made by painting workshops or individual painters who apparently have had some level of professional education, and the paintings that are plainer in their execution and have presumably been created by the construction workers of the church (Fält 2012, 11). The oldest wall painting series located in Finland are found in the churches of Jomala and Lemland, Åland, both dated to around 1300 (Hiekkanen 2020, 48–49). The majority of the Finnish medieval church painting series were executed in the latter part of the 15th century and in the early 16th century though and are situated mostly in Southwest Finland and Uusimaa.

Three major groups of professional workshops can be identified within the best-preserved painting compositions. The earliest works of these are attributed to the so-called Taivassalo Group, which was active in Southwest Finland from 1467-1490 and has painting series in, for example, the churches of Taivassalo/Tövsala, Kalanti/Kaland (Fig. 2), Laitila/Letala, and Parainen/Pargas (Aaltonen 1999, 14, 16). Characteristic of the Taivassalo Group’s paintings is the emphases on the Passion history and martyrdom legends, as well as a notable influence from mystery plays and theological literature like Speculum Humanae Salvationis. In addition, series showing the Apostles creed and various depictions of saints with adjoining coats of arms or portrayals of the donors are common in their work.


Image of St Erasmus wall-painting in Kalanti church. Photo by Janika Aho

Figure 1. The martyrdom of St Erasmus in the church of Kalanti. Photo by Janika Aho.


Another group of painting programs that show strong similarity with each other are found in the churches of Inkoo/Ingå, Espoo/Esbo and Siuntio/Sjundeå, all located in Uusimaa. The date of the murals in these churches is estimated to somewhere between the years 1510 and 1520. One distinctive feature of the paintings in the abovementioned churches is that the figures are depicted with their eyes closed, although otherwise the subjects differ among these three compositions. Typological scenes from the Old Testament are noticeable in Espoo and Siuntio, whereas the focus in Inkoo is on the New Testament with the addition of exceptional memento mori themed motifs. (Aho 2020, 37; Riska 1987, 161–167).

The painting series in the churches of Hattula and Lohja/Lojo were most likely produced by the same group of professionals in the 1510s. The church of Hattula is not only famous for its unique brick structure and having the status as a pilgrimage destination in the Middle Ages, but also for its eye-catching painting program that covers almost all surfaces of the interior and having survived time relatively well (Fig. 1). The pictorial compilation is rich with representations of over 50 different saints, including, for example, majestic sequences showing the miracles of the Virgin (Edgren 1993, 66–67). In Lohja church the painting series is also extensive with large-scale depictions of biblical themes and legends.


Image of Hattula wall paintings. Photo by Janika Aho

Figure 2. Murals from the first decade of the 16th century in the church of Hattula. Photo by Janika Aho.


Other painting series worth mentioning are those in the church of Kumlinge in Åland, made by an unknown painter, and in the church of Rymättylä/Rimito in Southwest Finland, attributed to the Swedish master Lars Snickare. Both of these mural series were most probably completed in the 1510s (Hiekkanen 2020, 182, Nilsén 1982, 20–41).

In one way or another, medieval art is always fragmentary. Wall paintings have been subject to many changes throughout the centuries. For instance, they have faced damage caused by the weather, being covered with plaster, white-wash, or new layers of paintings, being re-covered, or disturbed by enlargements of windows and other architectural constructions. The way medieval church paintings were treated after the Reformation has varied among countries. In Finland, the majority of wall paintings were left untouched in the early modern period but were eventually covered over at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries (Valkeapää 2000, 34–46).

Starting in the 1880s, all paintings were documented and restored. In those churches where paintings had been covered the century previously, they were first revealed under the whitewash, naturally exposing the fragile coat of paint to sunlight and interior heating. The restoration work in most churches followed conventions of the period, which included heavily overpainting and sometimes even changing the location of individual images by using copies of the original ones (Fig. 3). In many churches, it was decided to completely or partially re-whitewash some of the paintings after they had been documented, and it is difficult to estimate how many paintings still remain under plaster (Valkeapää 2015, 105–106; Fält 2012, 12).


Image of heavily restored wall-paintings in Taivassalo church. Photo by Janika Aho

Figure 3. Paintings on the east wall in the church of Taivassalo exemplify how heavy-handedly medieval church art was sometimes restored in the 19th century. This wall-painting composition shows representations of St Catherine and St Matthias at the upper section, both restored by densely overpainting, and at the lower part a scene depicting the martyrdom of St Barbara. This scene from St Barbara’s legend is a full copy made after the original painting which was initially located on the south wall but had to be demolished due to new window openings. Photo by Janika Aho.


Another important aspect in analyzing the paintings is that many churches have had more than one pictorial scheme overlaying each other. Even during the Middle Ages one church might have been decorated with two or more temporally separated image series executed by different makers, either by the new layer covering the earlier paintings or by placing the new ones beside the older paintings.



Aaltonen, Susanna. “Kalannin ryhmän kuusi maalaria”, SKAS 1 (1999), 14 –21.

Aho, Janika. ”Memento Mori Inkoon Keskiaikaisessa Kirkossa”. Tahiti 10 (2020), 32–55. https://doi.org/10.23995/tht.100180

Edgren, Helena. Mercy and Justice. Miracles of the Virgin Mary in Finnish Medieval Wall-Paintings. Diss. SMYA, FFT 100. Helsinki: SMY, FF, 1993.

Fält, Katja. Wall Paintings, Workshops, and Visual Production in the Medieval Diocese of Turku from 1430 to 1540. Helsinki: Finnish Antiquarian Society, 2012.

Hiekkanen, Markus. Finlands medeltida stenkyrkor, transl. Camilla Ahlström-Taavitsainen. Stockholm: Kungl. Vitterhets historie och antikvitets akademien, 2020.

Nilsén, Anna. “Kalkmålningarna i Rimito kyrka och deras upphovsman”. Finskt Museum (1982), 5–43.

Riska, Tove, “Keskiajan maalaustaide”, in Salme Sarajas-Korte (ed.), Ars: Suomen taide. 1. Espoo: Weilin + Göös, 1987.

Valkeapää, Leena. Pitäjänkirkosta kansallismonumentiksi: Suomen keskiaikaisten kivikirkkojen restaurointi ja sen tausta vuosina 1870-1920. Helsinki: Suomen muinaismuistoyhdistys, 2000.

Valkeapää, Leena. Vapaa kuin lintu: Emil Nervanderin elämä. Taidehistoriallisia tutkimuksia 47. Helsinki: Taidehistorian seura, 2015.