The path to Easter with altar paintings
MARY JO THORSHEIM
Altar paintings have graced Christian churches, worldwide, since ancient times when few people could read. Art scholars appreciate them as fine art and cultural treasures, whether or not they follow the beliefs portrayed in them. For Christians, they tell Biblical history in visual ways that are inspirational and educational. In rural America, another benefit of attending church was the opportunity to view fine art. As a gentleman who grew up on a remote farm said, “Where else could we have seen an original oil painting?”
Many adults may recall studying altar paintings as small children when they just endured a church service that seemed never-ending. Nevertheless, those images are often etched in memory. The paintings illustrated Sunday school teachings, and they may have provided a sense of mystery with their fascinating scenes and costumes from long ago.
The Biblical history of Easter and the events leading up to the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ has been a primary theme of altar paintings for centuries. It is sometimes said that the Easter story actually started with the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary when the angel Gabriel brought her the news that she would be the mother of Jesus Christ.
Although reredos, triptychs or paintings mounted within altarpieces have been displayed since early times, not all Christian churches or denominations have adopted the practice. Some of them use a table in place of an altar, and this simplicity of worship setting is intentional because of their theology regarding the Eucharist (communion).
Church altar paintings have been a central element in Nordic American worship settings. Over the years, some have been lost, but some have been saved and restored. It is probably not surprising that many of the altar paintings still in existence were used in Norwegian Lutheran churches, predominantly in the Midwest with its huge number of Norwegian immigrants. It seems to be somewhat surprising that other areas of the United States that had large numbers of Norwegian immigrants do not appear to have had similar history of installing altar paintings.
Although financial considerations may have been a primary reason, it may be more likely that a synod or denomination’s practices and policy did not allow using them. It seems difficult to find altar paintings in records from New York, Texas, California, or Washington state, for example. They are more commonly found in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, and North Dakota.
Lonsdale, Minn., is a farming community with commuting proximity to the Twin City area of Minneapolis–St. Paul. Located just west of Northfield, Minn., it is close to the campuses of Carleton and St. Olaf colleges. Lonsdale is the home of the Historic Old Trondhjem Lutheran Church, which has been lovingly restored. The Trondhjem Community Preservation Society and committees led the project. Nancy Halverson Norton is president of the society.
In 2019, a highlight of the completion of restoration work on the 1899 Old Trondhjem church was the re-installation of the altar painting, which had been removed for cleaning and repair. “Christ in Gethsemane” was painted by Julius Holm in 1911.
Julius Holm (1855-1930) was known for altar paintings in other Minnesota towns, as well. Christiania Lutheran Church, not far from Lonsdale, also owns a Holm painting. He worked as a house painter to have a steady income. Many altar painters had to hold other jobs.
One of Holm’s paintings of another subject has brought the most public attention to his artwork. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts owns the dramatic “Tornado over St. Paul 1893.”
Farther north in Minnesota, at the town of Osakis, Elim Lutheran Church is the home of another painting of the Gethsemane scene. In this 1965 painting, we see Christ praying in Gethsemane on Thursday before Good Friday. Erma Hammond directed us to this painting.
In contrast to most of the artists who specialized in altar paintings, this 1965 work was done by the pastor of the congregation. According to David Hagen, son of Pastor E. O. Hagen, his father created only three more paintings: landscapes from Norway. The Hagen family roots are in Hadeland, Norway.
Hadeland is located just north of Oslo, and in Oslo, we find an altar painting with connections to Minnesota. August Klagstad (1866-1949) replicated Norwegian artist Axel Ender’s painting of the Resurrection for Mindekirken, the Norwegian Memorial Church in Minneapolis.
The motif of this painting moves us along the Lent/Easter path to the conclusion of the Easter story. After the stone that had blocked the entry to the tomb was rolled away, we see the startled reaction of eyewitnesses as they discover that the tomb is empty. Jesus Christ had been resurrected from the dead. The crowd’s response was “Hallelujah! Christ is risen!”
This article originally appeared in the April 3, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.