Friday, 4 July 2014

Patterns from Paris

The other day, I was driving by the Church of St Lawrence at the Helsinki Parish Village or Helsinge in Vantaa, the northern neighbour of Helsinki, and decided to have a look inside. I’ve visited the church just once at a concert years ago. It must have been a late evening and I must have been sitting under the gallery because I was under the impression that the interior is rather gloomy dominated by dark wood.

Now that I had the whole church to myself, I walked around and the feeling was different. I even climbed the stairs to the gallery stretching on three sides of the church. With the white-washed walls and pillars leading up to the richly decorated vaults, the interior is simply beautiful and far from gloomy.

The Church of St Lawrence was built around 1460. It was located on the so-called King’s Road, the coastal road leading from Turku, the oldest and for centuries the most important town in Finland, to Vyborg and further to St Petersburg. Thanks to its convenient position it used to be the principal church for a vast area, including most of that of the present-day Helsinki.

In 1893, however, a fire stripped the church to the bones. A few items such as the altarpiece, brass chandeliers and liturgical vestments were saved but other than that nothing but the stone structures remained intact.

The church was repaired already by the following spring according to a plan made by architect Theodor Höijer from Helsinki. The result is a unique mixture of medieval and ‘Höijerian’ styles. The neo-Gothic windows date from that time and so do the galleries, pews and pulpit. The stained-glass window is a private donation made at that time.

But the jewel in the crown are the fabulous ornaments and floral decorations painted on the vaults. In the Middle Ages, the walls and vaults were decorated with simple paintings of humans and animals which were white washed after the reformation. The fire revealed some of those. They couldn’t be saved but were copied for the archives of the National Board of Antiquities.

Höijer’s solutions for the vault decorations are striking, almost too good to be true in a small country church like that. When I finally believed my eyes I couldn’t help wondering about their origin. Little did I know Höijer had patterned the stylized Gothic paintings after the decorative friezes of the Notre-Dame Cathedral of Paris!

I’ve been to the Notre-Dame twice but both times before the digital camera era. I do not have any recollection of any resembling paintings in the cathedral. It is such a huge construction full of details a humble visitor will be overwhelmed, afterwards finding it hard to remember anything of it precisely without photos. I must definitely start planning a new trip to Paris to pay a third visit.

The Church of St Lawrence is a very popular church for weddings. In fact, it is so popular that since 2009 the parish has arrange a special ‘Wedding Night’ when up to a few dozen couples will have a chance to experience an unpretentious church wedding. In recent years, this delightful practice has spread from Vantaa to several other parishes around the country.

(Carl) Theodor Höijer (1843-1910) was the leading Finnish architect of his time. Höijer’s designs represented mostly neo-Renaissance, his best-known work being the Ateneum Art Museum in Helsinki.

An earlier post of mine on another medieval Finnish church here.

Laurentius, the summer café by the Church of St Lawrence, opens at 11 am (closed on Mondays and Saturdays).

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