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Meeting Christ in the sun

15 April 2016

Traditional Sami culture, once quashed by Nordic society, is now enriching the life of its church, explains Caroline Levisse


Christ among the Sami: “Christ Ascending to Heaven” by Uuno Eskola, 1954, mosaic on the altar wall of Enontekiö Church, Finland

Christ among the Sami: “Christ Ascending to Heaven” by Uuno Eskola, 1954, mosaic on the altar wall of Enontekiö Church, Finland

FOR millennia, the Sami people have lived in Sápmi, a territory that spreads over the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, and Finland, as well as the Kola Peninsula in Russia. From the 17th to the 20th century, the Sami suffered the same fate as many indigenous people groups: stripped of their land rights, their way of life was systematically disparaged. Since the 1960s, however, the battle to preserve and rehabilitate their ancestral culture has intensified, which has led not only to an increased respect for Sami culture in society, but also a better dialogue with the church.

In Norway and Sweden, the Evangelical Lutheran Churches officially apologised for the active part they played in the process of “assimilating” the Sami culture in church practice. Councils have even been given the task of improving the Samis’ visibility in the Church, and developing a religious life that is respectful of Sami identity.

Some of the most significant measures concern Sami languages. Beyond working at improving and completing the translations of the Bible in several Sami languages, religious services are often held in Sami dialects. This is significant, as language is a cornerstone of Sami identity: traditionally, a person is considered to be a Sami when his or her native language is one of the Sami dialects.

As part of the politics of cultural assimilation, Samis have for decades been forbidden from using their native languages in public places, such as schools and churches. The result is a drastic decrease in the number of people speaking these languages and the extinction of some dialects. Unsurprisingly, language has been a key area of this minority’s fight for greater recognition.

In the dioceses that have a substantial Sami population, clergy have experimented with the liturgy in order to bring the Lutheran rituals closer to their congregants’ cultural identity. One approach has been to place greater emphasis on the natural world within church life, as much of the Samis’ original spirituality was rooted in nature. Given that that the world currently faces challenging environmental issues, such liturgical experiments are significant and might be fruitful beyond the Sami region.


IT IS in this context of opening up and experimenting that artists and craftsmen have begun creating liturgical objects, textiles, and church decorations. In Enontekiö church, Finland, for example, an altarpiece depicts Christ among Sami. The Sami in the piece are recognisable because they are wearing traditional clothes (called kolt, in Swedish): a tunic, often blue (although red, green, and yellow are also important Sami colours), ornamented with accessories such as belts, collars, and purses. Indeed, the Sami garment is without doubt the most distinctive symbol of this indigenous people and its colours have been used to create the Sami flag.

Another altarpiece depicting Sami culture was created by the Swedish artist Bror Hjorth for Jukkasjärvi church in Sweden. Installed in 1958, it speaks of the Sami’s religious history by depicting episodes from the life of Lars Levi Læstadius (1800-1861), a Swedish priest who led a Christian revival among Sami. On the left panel, Læstadius is represented preaching to a group of Sami, condemning alcoholism, which plagued their society.

Nowadays, the Church is calling upon Sami artists themselves to create ecclesiastical art. Jukkasjärvi church in Sweden, for example, has a pipe organ that was decorated by a Sami artist, Lars Levi Sunna. Installed in 1997, this commission is remarkable for its blend of Christian and Sami elements. Sunna used traditional materials, techniques, and symbols: the front of the organ’s casing is adorned with a large sun made of birch and reindeer antler, a direct reference to the ancient Sami belief in the sun as a deity. In the middle, Sunna has engraved a cross.

For the artist, this conflation of animist and Christian references is not problematic; he says simply that Samis carry their ancient religion “in their genes”. For the Sami theologian and priest, Tore Johnsen, the Sami culture supplies images that can bring believers closer to the Christian mystery by expressing it in a language that is their own: “We must meet Christ as the sun and the life-giving fire,” he writes.


DUODJI (sometimes called duedtie) is the term used by the Sami to refer to what we might call handicraft — a creative activity that results in a functional object — and it is a strong vehicle for the Samis’ collective identity. These days, when ecclesiastical authorities wish to give more visibility to the Sami, duodji are usually commissioned and considered to be more authentic than oil paintings or marble sculptures. For example, in 2013, during the communion service that concluded the Sami Church Days in Mo i Rana, the priest Bierna Leine Bientie used a specially made traditional wooden milking bowl instead of a chalice.

The ceremonial staff created in 2014 by Jørn Magnus Rivojen Langseth for the bishop of Sør Hålogaland, Norway, is another example of intercultural expression. In his design, Langseth, a Norwegian samesloyd (the Sami word for artist and craftsman), interwove Latin crosses and the Chi-Rho monogram with traditional triangular patterns that symbolise Sami ideals of flexibility and sociability.

In 2005, Hemnes church in Norway, commissioned Langseth to design a side-altar which was intended to speak of its engagement with the local Sami community. He created two candlesticks out of reindeer antler, a traditional Sami material, while his wife, Anne Grete Langseth, sewed and embroidered an altar cloth made of wool and reindeer skin with a traditional Sami technique that uses tin thread. A large Chi-Rho in the centre is encircled by other motifs which were inspired by pre-Christian rock carvings in Northern Norway and Sami shamanic drums. Two small rhombus shapes either side draw on Sami representations of the sun, and yet each branch has been extended to form a tiny cross.

Another important artist in this context is Britta Marakatt-Labba. A year ago, this Swedish Sami artist exhibited several of her textiles in Luleå Cathedral: albs, stoles and chasubles, and a bishop’s cape and mitre, as well as a cloth for a baptismal font, all made use of traditional materials, techniques, colours, and symbols.

There is much excitement about future projects. In 2017, for example, Trondheim Cathedral in Norway will be furnished with its own Sami altarpiece. The Swedish Sami artist, Folke Fjällström, won a competition to create a piece that would acknowledge the Sami community as part of the country’s Christian story. It is hoped that the altarpiece will be ready for next year’s Sami National Day on 6 February, which will also mark the 100th anniversary of the first Sami Congress.


Caroline Levisse teaches Art History at the Workers’ Educational Association and is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for Arts and the Sacred at King’s College

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