This Whitsun, Södra Råda Church in Värmland will be inaugurated. The aim of the reconstruction of the burnt-down medieval treasure was to learn how a church was built in the 14th century
– We have learned a lot. Assumptions about working methods have been tried, but often unexpected problems have arisen. In this way, we have explored methods that are perhaps more similar to the original ones, says research leader Gunnar Almevik.
The small timber church in Södra Råda in Gullspång municipality was built about 700 years ago. In the choir, fantastic paintings from AD 1323 covered the walls, while the nave had been painted in the 15th century. During the 19th century, many medieval churches in Sweden were demolished, but Södra Råda was preserved until our time.
However, Södra Råda church burned down in 2001 through an act of arson. Soon after, it was decided that the church should be rebuilt with the same tools and techniques used when it was first built around the 1310s. The reconstruction became a long-standing research project for the Crafts Laboratory at the Department of Cultural Conservation at the University of Gothenburg.
During this Whitsun weekend of 2022, the church will be inaugurated. Following this, the project will be summed up in an extensive report.
– The research result consists of many discoveries about the construction and building process of such a medieval church. An important insight is the impressive time it entails to produce all the building materials with the tools and methods of that time. For instance, making over 20,000 shingles takes a couple of years, says research leader Gunnar Almevik.
The research project has also provided new knowledge about certain architectural features in the medieval timber church. For example, the reconstruction has shown how the building was designed to create spatial experiences and visual effects. In addition, the skews in the construction, such as the sloping gables and walls, were not as formerly believed, the result of decay and old age. Instead, they appear to be part of a conscious and original design intended to make the church appear higher and deeper.
The development of new methods and techniques after the 14th century was gradual. Following the Black Death, essential craftsmanship disappeared. Later, more rational building methods were developed, using more standardized dimensions and modules. New tools or materials also changed the construction. The building tradition is not a long unbroken chain.
Thus, in the 14th century, the saw was seldom used, which means the trees were not only felled and cut up into timber, but also turned into finished logs with this tool. As a result, it appeared that producing a six-inch-wide piece of finished timber for the wall took an entire working day.
– All-in-all, we used 220 logs, constituting the work of one man for nearly a full year. To a large extent, though, it was probably a communal enterprise where the farmers in the parish came together to carry out the workload, says Gunnar Almevik.
What a 14th-century church looked like has been documented before. In this project, the researchers focused on demonstrating how to build such a church and the processes involved: From how the trees were selected in the forest, the manual labour invested in turning the logs into the timber of the various kinds, to how the timber was stored while waiting for the builder to start the construction of the church.
– In the project, the craftsmen’s experiences and perspectives have been at the centre. The craftsmen were turned into skilled researchers. It may be claimed that the project has revived a cutting-edge competence, which has been lost, says Gunnar Almevik.
The research has also looked at and made assumptions about the construction sites at that time, including how to build scaffolding, ramps, and the heavy logs’ transport. Rarely such constructions have been archaeologically detected, and information has not been recorded in the historical sources.
– This is a milestone for us. The building of the church is finished and ready for inauguration. However, the church is as yet not decorated; also, the medieval cemetery awaits a restoration. There is a lot left to explore, says Gunnar Almevik.
Another job waiting to be done is a reconstruction of the well-preserved pall from the Late Middle Ages, which was later used as a cover for the altar.