Mapping medieval sculptures: Part 3. The Virgin Mary stranded on an island


Sofia Lahti, Tampere University

In the collection of the regional museum of Kymenlaakso in South-Eastern Finland, a late-medieval wooden sculpture of Virgin Mary with her child is registered as “the Madonna of Lavansaari”. The sculpture is 94 cm high. The Virgin is crowned and holds the child on her left arm, and they both are facing forward. The child is holding an irregular semi-round object that may have represented a bunch of grapes or a pomegranate. The Virgin has lost her right hand, and the child’s feet are missing below the ankles. The sculpture’s back is flat, which indicates that it has originally been attached on a supporting structure such as a tabernacle shrine. The sculpture has lost its original polychromy and been re-painted at some point, probably in the seventeenth or eighteenth century. Much of that later polychromy is lost as well, but the figures’ skin (including their eyes) is painted in dark pink, and the Virgin’s clothes have remnants of red, white and green in their folds.

The sculpture has not been discussed or investigated thoroughly, but is mentioned briefly by the art historian K.K. Meinander (1908), who estimates the sculpture to be a North German work from the late fifteenth century.[1] This is the only known medieval sculpture surviving from the evacuated Karelian region. In the museum, which is located in Kotka and represents the Finnish region of Kymenlaakso, it is also the only object related to the medieval cult of saints in Finland.

Wooden sculpture from Lavansaari church. Photo: Regional Museum of Kymenlaakso.

According to the collections database of the museum, the sculpture had belonged to the parish church of Lavansaari, which was on the large island of Lavansaari on the coast of Karelia in South-Eastern Finland. The medieval population on the island was Swedish-speaking, but since the 1630s it was inhabited by Finnish-speakers until 1939, when Soviet Union forced the entire population to leave the island. After the war, the island has been Soviet and then Russian territory. The church was destroyed by Russians at some point after the evacuation.[2] In August 1940, the sculpture was deposited in the museum, while officially belonging to the national church administration.[3]

According to a history book by the local writer Vaalimo Hannula, the sculpture was in the church of Lavansaari until it was removed during a renovation or redecoration in 1787.[4] Where the sculpture was since then until it was evacuated and deposited in the Kymenlaakso museum in 1940 is unknown, but typically medieval sculptures were stowed away in bell towers, attics, or sacristies after having been removed from the actual church space.

A more difficult question is where the sculpture had been before the 1780s. The church of Lavansaari was built in 1783, and thus couldn’t be the original location for the medieval sculpture. Hannula claims that the sculpture had been donated to an earlier chapel on Lavansaari by another nearby parish, Koivisto.[5] However, Koivisto is not necessarily a more credible medieval location for the sculpture, considering that the first known church in Koivisto was supposedly built in the mid-sixteenth century, soon after the Protestant Reformation, and the sculpture clearly belongs to the Catholic Middle Ages.

In Lavansaari, local folklore in fact suggests that there had been an earlier, small wooden chapel built by either Spanish or English seafarers that ended up there by accident. For a long time, the wind wouldn’t turn for them to be able to continue their voyage, and while waiting, they built a chapel. As soon as it was ready, the sailors finally got a tailwind and sailed away. Their chapel was, as one version of the story goes, built from the parts of their shipwrecked boats, but placed on unreliable ground: the sand gave way, and the chapel gradually sank and fell.[6] In another version, the chapel fell as soon as a cross was placed on top of it.[7] Hannula has a more specific explanation: the church met its fate due to excessive cutting of forests around it. With no more trees keeping the quicksand in place, the sand rose and covered the church during a storm, and this caused the church to collapse. When other storms later lifted the sand around the old church place and revealed bones from old graves nearby, local people imagined a more dramatic story of villagers having died in the collapsing church.[8] There is no proof of the veracity of these stories, but they are clearly based on the local experience of the dry quicksand that is typical of large areas on Lavansaari. Archaeological excavations have been made in Lavansaari, but only some early iron-age structures or materials have been found.[9]

Stories of stranded seafarers were undoubtedly popular on the island, but they also bring to mind the stories of medieval sculptures or altarpieces miraculously carried by waves to churches. Local folklore has attributed this kind of provenance to the altarpiece of Kalanti/Nykyrko church in Finland,[10] but other similar stories are known from Sweden as well as Central Europe.[11] The story of the sinking chapel in Lavansaari does not include any sculptures, but one can always speculate. If there was some truth in the story of the seafarers, could they have brought the sculpture with them? In the Middle Ages, sculptures were routinely bought or commissioned to Finnish churches from Tallinn or Lübeck, for instance, and brought by boat across the Baltic Sea.[12] According to the story, Lavansaari was not the sailors’ intended destination, but they could have been on their way to Viborg, for instance, or Vehkalahti, which was the mother parish for Lavansaari earlier. In any case, if Lavansaari was populated in the Middle Ages, it probably did have a small chapel for religious gatherings. Another plausible explanation to the sculpture’s presence in Lavansaari is that it was moved from a nearby medieval church at some point after the Reformation, perhaps from relatively nearby Karelian churches in Kivennapa, Viipuri, or Vehkalahti. In any case, the presence of the medieval sculpture in the Karelian archipelago is unusual. In the Mapping Saints database, I first tagged it to an “Unknown place in Karelia”, but ended up creating an “uncertain” place on the map for the lost chapel in Lavansaari.

Archival sources:

SKS = The Finnish Literature Society: archives of oral tradition. Paikallistarinat: Uskonto (Local stories: Religion)

Regional museum of Kymenlaakso: collections database (thanks to chief curator Vesa Alén for help)

[1] Meinander 1908, 353. His estimate is repeated in e.g. Nordman, Carl Axel 1964, Medeltida skulptur i Finland. Helsingfors: Finska fornminnesföreningen, 641; Hyvönen, Heikki 1997, Karjalan luterilaisten kirkkojen esineistön kehitys ja erityispiirteitä. Rinno, Soile & Minna Laukkanen (toim.) 1997, Karjalan luterilaiset kirkot ja seurakuntien pyhät esineet. Etelä-Karjalan taidemuseon julkaisuja 18:1a, Jyväskylä, 312; Hiekkanen, Markus 2007, Suomen keskiajan kivikirkot. Helsinki: SKS, 612 (note 63).

[2] Koponen, Paavo 1999, Karjalan kirkkokummut. Helsinki: Tammi, 98–99.

[3] Snäll, Aila 1997, Siirtoseurakuntien esineistön sijoitus ja kirkkohallituksen toimenpiteet. Rinno, Soile & Minna Laukkanen (toim.) 1997, Karjalan luterilaiset kirkot ja seurakuntien pyhät esineet. Etelä-Karjalan taidemuseon julkaisuja 18:1a, Jyväskylä 1997, 501–540, 530.

[4] Hannula, Vaalimo 1947, Lavansaari: Historian pohjalle rakentuva kertomus “Suomenlahden selkäsaaresta”. Lavansaaren historiatoimikunta, 28.

[5] Hannula 1947, 26.

[6] Rinno, Soile 1997, Karjalan luterilaisten seurakuntien kirkot. Rinno, Soile & Minna Laukkanen (toim.) 1997, Karjalan luterilaiset kirkot ja seurakuntien pyhät esineet. Etelä-Karjalan taidemuseon julkaisuja 18:1a, Jyväskylä 1997, 132–133.

[7] SKS, Paikallistarinat: Uskonto.

[8] Hannula 1947, 26.

[9] Edgren, Torsten 1992, Lavansaaren Suursuonmäen röykkiöhaudat. Suomen Museo 1992: 5–20.

[10] Valkeapää, Leena 2016, Tietämisen tavat: Uskomustarinat ja tutkimus Kalannin alttarikaapin äärellä. Tahiti, 6(3). (; see also Räsänen, Elina & Leena Valkeapää 2021, Sukupuolten tulkintoja ja “venäläisiä tyyppejä” – Kalannin alttarikaapin varhaisesta tutkimushistoriasta. Suomen Museo–Finskt Museum, 120, 5–31. (

[11] Meinander, K.K. 1908, Medeltida altarskåp och träsniderier i Finlands kyrkor. Helsingfors, 341.

[12] On medieval art trade contacts between Finland and the countries south of the Baltic Sea, see e.g. Von Bonsdorff, Jan 1993, Kunstproduktion und Kunstverbreitung im Ostseeraum des Spätmittelalters. Helsinki: Suomen Muinaismuistoyhdistys.; Leskelä, Ilkka 2016, Trade and the known world: Finnish priests’ and laymen’s networks in the late medieval Baltic Sea region. Tuomas M.S. Lehtonen and Linda Kaljundi (eds.),Re-forming texts, music, and church art in the early modern north. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 69–96.

Mapping medieval sculptures: Part 1. Tracking wooden saints from Finnish museum databases


Sofia Lahti, Tampere University

In 2021, I set out to complement the Mapping Saints database with medieval sculptures and other objects related to saints from Finnish churches and museums. As the principle of this database requires, the objects have to be pinned to a physical place – either a specific church, even a specific altar, or a more general area in a diocese. The location data can be registered as certain or uncertain, and with movable objects such as sculptures, altarpieces or reliquaries, this uncertainty is extremely relevant.

Some of these objects are currently in churches – they may have stayed in the same church since the Middle Ages, or have been sold or donated from one church to another, or they may have been sold or donated to a museum and later on deposited again in the church. In many cases, the itinerary of these objects can be tracked from the nineteenth century onwards, but it is often impossible to verify their medieval location. Even if extant medieval written sources indicate the presence of a sculpture of the same saint in the church, it is not water-tight proof that the sculpture currently in that church is the same one. As art historian Katri Vuola has recently remarked, another challenge in trying to track the post-medieval itineraries of medieval sculptures in Finland is that the relevant sources exist in various different archives of parishes, museums and other actors, and are often not systematically organised.[1]

More than a third of the circa 800[2] surviving medieval sculptures in Finland are currently in museums, either on display or in storage. In most cases, the museums have documentation of their acquisitions from churches, but even among these, there are a few sculptures whose acquisition documents and other provenance data has gotten lost at some point. An excellent article was published last year by researcher Ninna Pulli about the acquisition history of the medieval sculptures in the Museum Centre of Turku. By combining and combing through various archival sources, she was able to track the acquisition processes of 43 sculptures out of the 54 in their collection.[3]

The National Museum of Finland and the Museum Centre of Turku have published good-quality photographs of their medieval sculptures or altarpieces online in the Finna portal for Finnish archives, libraries and museums. Several other museums are in the process of bringing their collections into Finna as well. Meanwhile, some museums have made accessible online versions of their collections databases, but there are also museums whose collections are not viewable online at all. I contacted the Finnish regional museums to ask for an access to their collections databases in order to see what kind of information they had registered about the medieval sculptures or other saint-related objects.

Screenshot from the Finna portal: a sculpture in the collection of Kymenlaakso museum, Finland.

While some of the objects are well documented and may have been studied by several researchers during the last couple of centuries, many medieval objects are registered without much information. Even some of the objects in Finna are published without some relevant information such as size or known provenience. During my postdoctoral period in the Mapping Saints project, I did not have the time to dig much deeper into individual objects, but new information is constantly produced by ongoing research, particularly by art historians like Elina Räsänen and Katri Vuola, who are specialists in medieval wooden sculptures in Finland.

In this series of four blog posts, I will introduce and discuss two examples of the challenges met when studying medieval images of saints in the collections databases of Finnish regional museums. It is important to underline here that the museums are not to be blamed for the challenges related to these cases; the challenges are simply results of uncontrollable past circumstances. Also, these cases are not representative of the Finnish material in general – on the contrary, both are unusual – but nevertheless demonstrative of some of the obstacles in the process. One essential thing they have in common is that there is hardly any provenience data. One of the cases concerns an extant image, while the other is a group of images that no longer exist; both examples are registered as belonging to a post-medieval church, but both of those churches have since been destroyed.  

[1] Vuola, Katri 2023, Esinefragmentteja hartaudellisesta menneisyydestä. Puiset polykromiveistokset Turun hiippakunnassa pitkällä 1300-luvulla. Helsinki: Helsingin yliopisto, p. 15.

[2] Nordman, Carl Axel 1964, Medeltida skulptur i Finland. Helsingfors: Finska fornminnesföreningen, p. 619.

[3] Pulli, Ninna 2023, Lahjoitettuja, ostettuja, toimitettuja Keskiaikaisten pyhimysveistosten hankinnat Turun kaupungin historialliseen museoon. Suomen museo / Finskt museum vol. 129/2022, p. 130–152.