Church art by Norwegian-American artist continues to inspire – Grand Forks Herald

THOMPSON, ND – Sitting in the pews of many churches across the Midwest, congregation members see paintings of biblical scenes behind the altar every Sunday, but they may know little or nothing about the artist who created them.

Capturing the imagination and illustrating crucial moments in the life and ministry of Christ, Sara Kirkeberg Raugland painted altarpieces primarily for Norwegian Lutheran churches. It is estimated that she painted around 300 altarpieces between 1889 and 1916, all while raising two children.

Her paintings hang in churches throughout the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa and Nebraska, as well as in Illinois, Idaho and Washington, according to research conducted by Elaine Ask of Chatfield, Minnesota. Raugland is Ask’s great-great-aunt.

The altarpiece at East Walle Lutheran Church, rural Thompson, depicts the Crucifixion of Christ, with Mary and John as witnesses. The painting is about 30 inches wide and 7 feet high. In the foreground lies a sponge attached to a rod with which Jesus was offered sour wine – an element rarely, if ever, seen in such paintings.

Marsha Gunderson, a local historian who served on the board of directors of the former North Dakota Preserve, worked on a project to preserve the history of the cut churches. The project was created to help preserve old churches and provide grants to congregations to support those efforts.

In her historical scholarly work, Gunderson said she has seen “many church altarpieces, but this is one of the darkest and most gloomy,” both in artistic tone and psychological effect.

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Nancy Krom, left, and Marsha Gunderson, former chairwoman of the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission, compare notes on Sara Kirkeberg Raugland’s paintings. Raugland’s altarpieces are displayed in Lutheran churches throughout the Dakotas, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin.

Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Another Raugland altar piece, an oil on linen painting at Grue Lutheran Church, rural Buxton, is 6 feet high and 37 inches wide, Sally Friese Hoffman, of Fort Collins, Colorado, wrote in a church history. Hoffman, who grew up in Traill County, is working on the project to restore Grue Lutheran Church, which closed in 2020.

In 1897, when the Grue congregation was about to install the finishing touches — the altar painting — Raugland “was their artist of choice,” Hoffman said. “The record does not show how the decision was made,” but a simple explanation is that members of the congregation met her socially during the years she lived with her two brothers in nearby Cummings, North Dakota.

“(Raugland) likely hoped her painting of ‘Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane’ would please the congregation — perhaps even help ‘save’ a few souls,” Hoffman said, “but little did she know that, years later, the same painting. may actually help to save the church building from burning.”

The painting at Grue Lutheran Church, “Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane,” was a direct copy of the 1890 original by German artist Heinrich Hoffman.

“Like many other European religious paintings, it ended up in the United States, a quirk of fate that later saved it from destruction during World War II,” Hoffman said. “(It) was one of the most famous paintings in the world and was undoubtedly one of the most copied.”

A native of Iowa, Raugland was born in 1862 to parents who emigrated from Norway in 1848.

In 1882, nine years before her marriage to Carl Raugland, she joined her two brothers, Knud Anders Kirkeberg and Gunder Anderson Kirkeberg, in Cummings, North Dakota.


Sara Kirkeberg Raugland


In 1887, she left Cummings to study art in Minneapolis and, at some point, went to New York City to study paint mixing. In 1888, she was listed in the Minneapolis city directory as an artist, a testament to how quickly she gained skill and confidence, Hoffman said.

In the 1880s through the early 1900s, only a handful of Scandinavian artists were chosen to paint altarpieces for churches in the upper Midwest, and many of them eventually ended up in the Minneapolis-St. Paul’s area, Hoffman wrote, citing Laurie Sommers of the Nordic Heritage Preservation Churches Project as a source.

“(They) first became active among Nordic-American churches in the 1880s and, rather than creating folk art, they tended to copy popular European paintings.”

Kristin Anderson, a professor of art history at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, said artists of Raugland’s era “worked not only with their compatriots, but they also tended to sell mostly to private synods.”

Grue Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church was part of the Norwegian Synod, and most of Raugland’s paintings were placed in churches affiliated with the United Norwegian Lutheran Church of the American Synod.

The synod did not passively provide a network of Norwegian church contacts. He secured active endorsements, according to author Chrissa Gerard, Hoffman wrote in her story. Rev. Ulrik Koren, president of the synod from 1894, “was a supporter of art in an area known more for its agriculture”.

As early as 1853, Gerard said that Koren’s goal was “to make art part of the religious experience and … he encouraged hundreds of small rural churches to commission traditional altarpieces.”


Sara Kirkeberg, in a photo dated July 10, 1887


Another boost to her work came when Luther Seminary in Minneapolis placed one of her paintings in its chapel, presumably to be remembered by seminarians as they dispersed to their churches, Hoffman said.

Churches typically paid between $25 and $100 for each painting, and the more people in the painting, the higher the price, Ask said. The largest painting is 5 by 8 meters. Most of the paintings were vertical to fit into the standard altar space.

Raugland and her husband, Carl, who settled in Minneapolis, promoted her work in Norwegian publications and by producing two catalogs—in 1893 and 1899—complete with photos of paintings she had done for other churches.

Through these catalogs, Raugland advertised her paintings. A satisfied customer’s testimonial, translated from Norwegian, which appears in her catalog, says: «She paints whatever Bible pictures they want in the size they order. She guarantees her work in this way, that if the picture is not satisfactory, then it can be returned at no cost to the congregation. The painting is usually in a frame and therefore ready to hang as soon as it is delivered. If other biblical paintings than those in this catalog are desired, then the order will be accepted.”


Sara Kirkeberg Raugland and Carl Raugland, with their children Martha and Arnold


Raugland repeated her subjects in altar pieces dating from the late 1880s to the early 1900s, Hoffman said. Most were of a large figure, because smaller figures were harder to see from the back of the church – and the more people in the painting, the higher the cost to the church.

“Jesus and Peter on the Sea of ​​Galilee” was the most popular, she said, followed by “The Good Shepherd” and “Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.” Nearly two dozen churches chose one of three slightly different versions of “The Crucifixion of Jesus.”

Ask and her husband, Peter, have been on a mission to find and document Raugland’s paintings and have found about 120 of them, she said, “which is pretty cool,” considering the age of the paintings.

According to historical records, other places in northeastern North Dakota that have, or had, Raugland paintings include:

  • Bottineau – Bottineau City Museum
  • Carbury – Turtle Mountain Lutheran Church
  • Cummings – Highland Lutheran Church
  • Cooperstown – Trinity Lutheran Church
  • Edinburgh – Odalen Lutheran Church in Edinburgh (painting lost in fire in 2007)
  • Hatton – Bethany Lutheran Church, Goose River Lutheran Church (church burned in 1983) and Little Forks Lutheran Church
  • Honeyford – St. Paul’s Lutheran Church
  • Hoople – Park Center Lutheran Church
  • Kloten – Valley Grove Lutheran
  • Northwood – West Union Lutheran Church
  • Reynolds – Zion Lutheran Church (now Reynolds Lutheran Church) and Stjordahlen Lutheran Church (a parish of Reynolds but located in Hatton)
  • Thompson – St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church
  • Walhalla – Greater Pembina Lutheran Church (Lost is 2014 fire)

And, in northwest Minnesota, these places have, or had, Raugland paintings:

  • Battle Lake – Trefoldighed Lutheran Church
  • Fertile – Maple Lake Lutheran Church (two paintings, including one of Hitterdal Lutheran Church)
  • Fosston – Kingo Lutheran Church
  • Pelican Rapids – Grove Lake Lutheran Church

Some of her paintings were sent to missions in China, Hoffman said, and one is at the Heensasen Lutheran Church in Valdres, Norway.

Raugland was one of the few female painters of altarpieces and one of the earliest — male or female — to enter the field for which she is best known, Hoffman said.

“She was very talented at a very young age,” Ask said, noting that Raugland began sketching as a schoolgirl.

Ask isn’t sure how her great-great-aunt became interested in the altarpieces, but speculates that it was a popular medium.

“It was unusual for a woman to have a professional career as an artist at that time,” Ask said. “It must have taken a lot of courage. It was equally unusual to have her listing in city directories and to maintain a studio out of her home.”

Sara Kirkeberg Raugland stopped painting further pieces in 1918 after her husband’s death, but continued to create small paintings while living with her daughter until 1960 when she died aged 98.

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