Icons forever

Painting icons is an art in itself. You need to have a lot of patience and the technique is quite elaborate. Icons are painted with egg tempera – a combination of color pigment, egg yoke, water and a drop of vinegar – and they are, as you can imagine, full of symbolic meaning. Icons are often painted during prayer and are supposed to be filled with the holy spirit. For dedicated iconographers, it can take months or even years to finish an icon.

My grandfather Rudolf, the son of Dagny and Robert, decided to learn how to paint icons as he was struggling with heart disease and could no longer work like he used to. He had been working at the Hedvig Elonora Church in Stockholm for a long time – amongst others under Mr. Erik Bergman (the father of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman). Erik Bergman served as a priest in Hedvig Eleonora Church between 1934-1964 and was known to be very strict.

The octagonal Hedvig Eleonora Church was inaugurated in 1737. Today, it is a very inviting church with a summer café offering shade and a moment’s peace in the midst of the eastern part of the city.

My grandfather started working in Hedvig Eleonora in 1945. At the time, Rudolf had two sons (my father and his younger brother) and had suffered his first heart attack five years earlier. During the Winter War in Finland, he had volunteered as a paramedic. In 1940, he came back home again, significantly weakened by the harsh conditions not very suitable for a man with heart issues.

When he got a permanent position with the church in 1946, he also got access to an apartment overlooking Hedvig Eleonora. This opened up for old Dagny (76 years old by now) to live with them – which she did for 14 years (!), and for shorter distances between work and home.

My grandfather Rudolf was Dagny’s youngest, and the child she had been able to spend the most time with during her years as a missionary in China. He had not been sent to Sweden until he was around 14 years old. Instead, he had gone to the Swedish school on Kikungshan as a kid, and had spent summers and Christmases with his parents in China. He felt very close to his mother and it was a given, that he and my grandmother Edna, offered her a place to stay within family, when they got this roomy apartment in the middle of the city. My father remembered this period. He used to go into Dagnys room as a child, trying to talk to her, always finding her in prayers – often in her Norweigan mother tongue.

But Rudolf was in way over his head at Hedvig Eleonora. The work load was too heavy and the short distance to the church only made things worse, as he worked longer hours and was always reminded of everything needing his attention just across the street. Many back and forths later, he had a stroke and got sent on disability pension. This is when he took up painting – a mindful and destressing acitivity. In 1982 he went on a trip to Russia together with his son Gunnar, to study iconography.

He came back, filled with inspiration and painted many icons thereafter. He used egg tempera and worked carefully at gold leafing the backgrounds to make his subjects stand out and transmit that divine feeling. I remember being fascinated by his tools layed out on the living room table, and how meticulous he was when he went about his art.

A while ago, I came to think of the fact that my grandmother mentionend Rudolf had donated a couple of icons to the very church he had worked in – Hedvig Eleonora. I emailed them to find out if they still had the icons, and to my surprise I got a swift answer telling me the icons were indeeed on display in the church. As my grandfather was a man who loved children, I was very pleased to hear that his two donated icons were hung in the baptistery on the right hand side of the altar aisle.

Of course, I had to go there to see it for myself.

The aisle of Hedvig Eleonora Church.

Though I can see, especially one of the icons has not quite stood the test of time, I am very happy that they are on display here, as this church is quite popular for christenings. My grandfather was both a clerk and at times played the organ in Hedvig Eleonora, and I like the thought of him still being there, through his icons, watching over the children 🙂

Edit 21/6: Very kindly, the church has now looked through the books and could tell me that Rudolf donated both these icons in 1982. The left one is called “Christ, the ruler of all” and the right one “Mary, mother of God.” Very nice to recieve this information!

My grandfather was a trained organist and true mucisian at that. If he was feeling well, he would most likely sit by the piano in the living room, his long fingers dancing over the keys, making us all stop and listen – no matter how young we were.

Every Christmas he got out of bed (he had to lay still a lot due to his heart issues) and played the piano for a long time, enabling the rest of us to dance around the apartment to the traditional Christmas carols. My grandfather truly enjoyed seeing his family dance and laugh and spend time together at Christmas. He and my grandmother Edna loved bringing us all together, laying the foundation that I am building on today, as I am researching family history and rediscovering times passed.

Rudolf was not someone who boasted or talked about what he had accomplished, and the icons he donated to the church are also very anonymous – no name plaques or information to be found anywhere.

It’s probably the way it should be – I have not noticed iconographers getting a lot of attention anywhere, really. But I think I can take it upon myself to boast a little about this talented, generous and selfless man, and I will surely stop by Hedvig Eleonora more often now – knowing grandpa is represented just fine in the baptistry 🙂

My grandparents Edna and Rudolf. Wedding photograph. The true picture of undying love – they met when they were 1 year old in China, grew up, got married and always stayed with each other. True icons in their own way ❤ (The photo is colorized)

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