vaksala - the other sacred ruler of uppsala

Uppsala cathedral can be seen from almost every spot in the city, including Gränbyparken. During one of our strolls there, looking in the opposite direction, I came to a point from which a new tower became visible. In the north-eastern part of Uppsala, behind and between Gränby and Ärsta, stands the other sacred ruler of the city - Vaksala church. Uppsala cathedral took the south-western part - and most of the touristic interest. On the other side we encounter a sacred building, belonging to a different league, not less worth visiting.



As many other Swedish churches, Vaksala does not represent one consistent style. The construction started in the late 12th century, when the Romanesque style dominated in Scandinavia. However, process of building a church was a long one, taking several decades up to few centuries, coming in with new trends in architecture. Therefore when the choir was finished in the 13th century, it was knocked down soon after and rebuild in accordance with High Gothic style, which was then gaining popularity. The choir was broadened and the incomplete nave walls “grew” two meters more, just to match the new architectural style requirements. Barrel vault, which is a typical Romanesque type of vaulting, was changed into groin vault, later developed into rib vault, trademark of Gothic style. The latter was completed in the first half of the 14th century.

The tower is 76 meters tall and contains two bells, which until 1749 were kept in the belfry. Two porches, one in the north, second one in the south, were complete at the turn of the 15th century. The brick shed was build around that time as well. This century was essential regarding the church’s interior - Albertus Pictor stepped in (or his workshop) and left the magnificent wall paintings. He/them is/are responsible for the paintings in the northern and southern chapels. During renovation works from 1793 until 1795 the art on the walls was painted over, then discovered in 1929. It was impossible or restore their former glory, but they can still be admired. The most outstanding piece is the depiction of the Parable of the Ten Virgins, which can be found in the northern chapel. The motive itself is visible in one more place in Vaksala. In the same chapel baptismal font can be seen, sadly, not the original 14th century version, just its copy. The original was transported to Statens historiska museet in Stockholm in 1870. Probably, it was made by the same workshop responsible for the masonry work for Uppsala cathedral.

The parish that surrounds the church and the cemetery emerged in the 18th century.


Painting presents five wise virgins from the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (Mt 25,1-13). Ten virgins went off to meet the groom. All of them took lamps, but only five were wise and brought oil as well. At midnight the groom called out for the virgins. The foolish ones, who ran out of oil, asked the wise ones to share, but they refused. When the foolish virgins went away to get more oil, the groom arrived. Only the wise ones were present and prepared, therefore could accompany the groom to the celebration.

The parable was an eschatological theme: be prepared for the Day of Judgement.

It was one of the most popular parables during medieval times, very often used in Gothic art.

I’ve mentioned the renovation works in the late 18th century. From nowadays perspective their work might seem more like a devastation, but people back then just followed the current trends in design. The medieval sacred art and architecture took two major hits (at least in Sweden): first was due to the introduction of protestantism, as Luther promoted clean and simple interior, second came along with classicism, again, favouring white walls over any colour or decoration.

Before I move on to the most exquisite piece that survived until today almost intact, let’s make a quick overview of the early modern age and later inventory.


There are 26 altars, produced or sold in Antwerp, present today in Sweden. Vaksala altar is one of them, being at the same time one of the six largest altars in the country. I wrote “produced or sold”, cause even though the altar has the mark of the city of Antwerp, the whole piece seems to be an effect of Flemish-German cooperation. The corpus and the paintings on the outer side of the wings were made in accordance with the Flemish school, while the figures in the wings have more German influence. Generally, it is probable that altar was created in the Guild of Saint Luke, popular in the Benelux countries, associating painters and woodcarvers. The date of production is hard to settle, so usually the year 1500 or 1510 is given.

Vaksala altar has a triptych form - it consits of a corpus and one set of wings. Maybe it had another one, but the only information about it comes from Johan Peringskiöld’s book from 1710. The corpus is divided into six sections, presenting the Passion of Christ. Wings are divided into two sections, each containing four figures of saints. The outer side of the wings is covered with two paintings: one depicting the Martyrdom of Saint Ursula and the other one Decimation of the Theban Legion.

All the figures are gold-plated, including Jesus, even though his cloak should have been purple in the Crowning with Thorns section, according to the Bible. The storyline goes from the bottom left corner to the right, continues from the upper left. Seven events from the Passion of Christ were presented in six sections: Flagellation of Christ, Crowning with Thorns, Ecce Homo, Christ carrying the Cross, Crucifixtion of Jesus, Descent from the Cross, Lamentation of Christ. The figures in corpus are conveying a symbolic meaning, especially when it comes to the evil characters. Christ’s executioners have rolled up their sleeves in order to show the intensity of their work. At the same time their shoes are often untied, what stands for carelessness. They represent relentless, unjustified violence. In the Flagellation section Jesus looks young and weak, but has no visible wounds (according to Visions of Saint Bridget he received 5475 of them).

The figures of saint, standing in the tracery windows, miss halos and are gold-plated as those in the corpus. We find here Swedish saints, martyrs of the early Church and few unidentified bishops. In the left wing, on the upper row, starting from the left, there is St Barbara, St Bridget, St Olof and placed in the most honourable spot (first one to the right side of Christ) St Andrew. On the bottom row, starting from the left, there is St Laurentius, a pope, a bishop and St Botvid. Pope can stand for either Urban I or Sixtus II. The latter sounds more reasonable, taking into consideration the vicinity of St Laurentius, who was a deacon during the papal rule of the latter and died three days after him. Moving on to the right wing: bottom row, starting from the left, there is John the Baptist, a bishop with a beggar (probably St Martin), St Erik and St Catherine. On the bottom row, starting from the left, there is St Sigfrid, two bishops and St Ursula.

When you look at predella (the part on which the corpus stands), you see once again the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, just this time there is no visible groom. The wise ones stand on the right side and can be identified due to their lamps, held upwards. The foolish ones, on the left, do the opposite. They wait by the door, through which the groom should come and meet them. Note that even though there are ten virgins, only eight lamps, four per each side, are visible.


Entrance: free of charge

Opening hours: 9:00-15:00

How to get there: from Centralstation you can take busses number 118 (Läge A3, mot Lindbacken Gåvsta, stop Brillinge), 886 (Läge A3, mot Lejsta Alunda, stop Brillinge), 4 (Läge A2, mot Årsta Norra via Gränbystaden, stop Kamomilgatan).

Also, don’t forget to stroll around the cemetery. Another proof how well Swedes are pulling them off.