Public Release: 

Biblical texts important sources of inspiration to artists

University of Gothenburg

In Continental Europe, the Old Testament Apocrypha has been one of the most popular and important sources of inspiration among artists. While apocryphal art is not nearly as common in Sweden, the images that do exist are unique in the sense that the apocryphal events most often have been depicted on tapestry wall hangings and in Dalecarlia paintings.

The Old Testament Apocrypha is a set of oftentimes quite dramatic texts that are not part of the Hebrew Canon. However, since Martin Luther felt they were important, they were usually included in old Swedish Bibles. Then the texts were gradually omitted from the Swedish Bibles in the 1880s, but the latest Swedish translation of the Bible once again includes the Apocrypha as an addition to the Old Testament.

Elizabeth Philpot has studied the developments of apocryphal images in both Roman Catholic and Protestant parts of Europe. Her research shows that the texts have captured the interest of artists for ages, from the catacombs in Rome up until the late 1800s.

In southern Sweden images can be found on tapestry wall hangings, and in the region of Dalarna in Dalacarlia paintings, a style not found anywhere else in Europe. Dalecarlia painting was a folksy style of art practised by self-taught peasant farmers in the region of Dalarna for about a century starting in the 1770s.

'One of my most interesting findings is that about 75 Dalecarlia paintings are based on apocryphal texts. The motifs are beautiful with nice colours, and often illustrate how the archangel Raphael was appointed guardian. Many paintings also bear the inscription "God be with you on your journey" in Swedish,' says Philpot.

Other Dalecarlia paintings depict the story about Susanna, who was falsely accused of unchastity. In Continental Europe during the Renaissance and the Baroque period, artists were mostly interested in painting Susanna in the bath with two elderly men.

'It was a good excuse to paint a naked woman in a biblical context,' says Philpot.

Another motif that is common in most of Europe is that of the Jewish heroine Judith holding a Syrian general's chopped-off head in her hand. In her thesis, Philpot hypothesises that such Apocryphal motifs were too violent, aggressive and sexually charged to appeal to most Swedish artists.

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