Magnus Enckell was a pioneer of Symbolism, and probably
the most important Symbolist artist in Finland. In fact, the 7th of
March 1891 is considered the date when the history of Finnish Symbolism
got its start: that is when Enckell arrived in Paris (Valkonen,
Kultakausi 56). However, Enckell’s significance was not recognised
straight away in Finland: at first, his paintings were considered
nothing more than sketches (Valkonen, Finnish 79).
Enckell was born in 1870 in Hamina, which is the same town where
Simberg was born. He also studied in The Finnish Art Society’s school,
but, like Simberg, was disappointed with the teaching there, and moved
to Paris to study at the Académie Julian. Right after moving to France,
he painted some of the most significant works of his career. Enckell
also travelled a lot in Europe. Seeing frescos especially in Italian
churches was important for Enckell’s oncoming work in Tampere Cathedral
(Kivinen 125). Some of Enckell’s most famous paintings are: Boy
Reclining (1892), Young Boy and Skull (1893), The Awakening (1894),
Fantasy (1895) and The Concert (1898).
Many of Enckell’s paintings portray nude boys and youths in
simplified surroundings. A very limited use of colours was
characteristic of his paintings at the beginning of his career. Later he
started using bright colours in his works. Enckell tried to capture
perfection and ultimate beauty in his paintings. With the nude boys, he
explored the myth of androgyny, but the paintings also have homoerotic
undertones. Enckell once wrote a poem about Antonius, the pet lover of
the Emperor Hadrian; The Ruler of The Roman Empire from A.D. 117 until
A.D 138. Antonius committed suicide in order to give the ruler his
vitality (Valkonen, Finnish 79). Enckell addressed his words to
“I, too, am your kin and swear you my oath: By your
memory - mystical, mysterious, eternal, exalted, despised, holy - by
all that you dream of, of beauty, of life, of unity, of love, of
sacrifice, of perfection…” (in Valkonen 79)
Enckell’s Artwork in the Church
Magnus Enckell designed the decoration of the chancel: he painted the
altarpiece and designed the stained glass window above it. Enckell
started his work in the church at the end of 1906, but he had been
interested in fresco painting for a long time: already in 1894, when he
was travelling in Europe, he had been very impressed by the frescos he
saw (Kivinen 125). In a letter to his friend he commented on a painting
he had seen in a cathedral in Frankfurt:
My dear God, I hope I will be trusted with a task like
that one day! 6 (in Kivinen
The Altarpiece: The Resurrection
Enckell understandably felt nervous before starting the huge work he was
trusted with: the altarpiece is over ten metres long, and almost four metres
high. Furthermore, Enckell had not done any frescos before. Fortunately he
could ask Simberg, who had also done his first frescos in the Cathedral, for
advice, because Enckell began painting after Simberg had already finished his
work in the church. When Enckell started the work in autumn 1906, he
discovered that he enjoyed the work enormously. However, he had to take a
break from it in April 1907: painting the huge altarpiece was apparently very
tiring. The painting was finally ready in May 1907 (Kivinen 128-129).
Enckell’s fresco got excellent reviews. The fresco depicts the
resurrection. On the left side, people are rising from their graves and
joining another group of people who are walking towards Heaven together:
the people’s positions and expressions in the group tell of
anticipation, and their faces reflect light. In the painting there are
different-looking people wearing all kinds of clothes: they represent
different races and nationalities of the world (Kivinen 128-129). One
hundred years ago this was a very modern idea.
Traditionally in an altarpiece there is a clear, visible Heaven with
angels, and/or Hell with the doomed. Although the resurrection in
Tampere Cathedral is depicted in an unusual way, it is possible to
recognise familiar figures in it. The man and woman walking hand in hand
in the front are thought to represent Adam and Eve. The woman with a
child in her lap is Madonna with the little Jesus (Kivinen 129, 132).
Enckell used a very narrow range of colours in The Resurrection.
There are mainly different shades of grey, light brown, beige, and
white. Although the colours in The Resurrection are very pale, the
painting is not spiritless at all. In fact, when looking at the
painting, one can get the feeling that there is a lot of energy in it.
The Resurrection logically completes the work Simberg started
(Stenbäck in Härkönen, 25). Simberg’s Garland, which is a symbol of
life, is situated among the seats of the Cathedral, where the members of
the congregation are. The floor of the church rises where the Garland
ends. There, a little nearer to the altar, is the black forest; a symbol
of death. After that, there is the altarpiece: The Resurrection.
As the Finns were striving towards independence, the Russians were
trying to tighten their grip on them and limit their national rights.
Hence, the atmosphere in Finland was very patriotic, and that feeling
was also reflected in all the creative work of the time. Before the
church was even completed, it aroused a lot of public interest. When the
church was finished, it became a monument of The National Romantic
The art in the church was at first received with confusion and
disapproval, which can be seen as evidence of its unique quality: all
art masterpieces evoke strong reactions.
Now, almost a hundred years
after the paintings were first exposed to the public, they have a firm
position in Finnish art. People know them and love them.
Still, now and
then, questions arise. Why are the boys naked? What are the skeletons
doing? What happened to the angel? The paintings have been accepted, but
they are still very much discussed.
With the hundredth year in the church’s history approaching, the
Cathedral is as interesting as ever: it attracts both new and old
visitors every year. And that is only natural: different elements meet
in the building in a unique but harmonious way, making it a remarkable
work of art in its own right.
Lars Sonck, Hugo Simberg and Magnus
Enckell, along with all the other people who contributed to the rise of
the church, have created a truly wonderful monument of Finnish art for
us to admire, cherish and be inspired by. Tampere Cathedral, indeed, is