Breathing new life into history

Imagine going into the remnants of a church dating back to the 12th century, taking out your phone, pointing it at the church’s roof — and being able to see how it looked when the church had just been built. In Gunnar Almevik’s research project, what once was reality can become reality again.

With his colleague, Jonathan Westin, he is documenting material from churches digitally with the help of photos and then building up 3D models of the churches. They can then place objects in the models and display their interpretations of how they think the churches might have looked and evolved over the years.
‘This model of the Hemse stave church on Gotland is built up using the 67 parts of the church that still remain’, he explains, displaying a finished model on his computer. ‘Churches arrived in Sweden with Christianity, and in the beginning, they were built with posts embedded in the ground and palisades as walls. As the centuries passed, however, the methods used to build churches were affected by several factors.

On the computer screen the church rises up. It has no windows, but on the other hand it has a three-metre-high door — which is only 80 cm wide. Almevik uses the model to show how light might have entered the building, forming a very distinct pillar of light in the church interior.
‘The goal is to be able to place authentic materials in the model. Then we can show things like lighting effects in relation to the architecture. Testing different things in the model becomes part of the research process.

The six different churches in the project were built over a period extending from the 12th to the 17th centuries. Over the centuries several big changes in how churches were being designed and developed occurred. The first big change occurred when Christianity became the state religion during the latter part of the 12th century and the stave churches were no longer built.
‘They began building churches of stone; the power of the church was “petrified”. But in certain areas the wood building culture lived on. In those places churches were built with timber instead, using tighter construction than the old palisade, or stave, churches. In the 14th century the Church was rich and strong, and church interiors gained larger windows and more paintings with biblical motifs. But when the Black Death struck in the 1360s, construction came to a halt and almost no churches were built during those years.’

It was not until the 15th century that building got under way again. Architecture became more advanced, and old churches received cross vaults and stellar vaults. Then the guild system also came into play, which led to more professional church construction. However, there was a decline in the number of churches being built, and it was only in the 17th century that construction picked up again.
‘Then we are into the Reformation. The churches have opened up between the chancel, where the altar is, and the nave, where the congregation is found. There are pulpits, pews and big windows that let in light’, says Almevik.

In the past, reconstructions of these types of settings have often been subjected to criticism. The reconstructions have been made in public contexts where the end-user of the research is a museum visitor or a public interested in history. As Almevik describes it, there has been a gap between the research information and the public.
‘The criticism has been along the lines of “how can you know that it looked like that?”’ Technology now makes it possible to pose questions to the image and to give form to and communicate different images. I can display my interpretation, but there can be several possible options. And the research reaches out to the audience. There are objects we have scanned that are located in secure rooms in Tumba, and, in this way, we make the source material available.’

In the process of documenting the churches, Almevik and his colleagues employ several scientific techniques. Using infra-red light, they can see things such as underpaintings, inscriptions that are not visible in normal light and windows that have been covered and sealed up.
‘In this way, we can approach a genuinely interdisciplinary research in which we put together different elements, both within our own faculty and drawing on the natural sciences and the human sciences.

Currently, our efforts are focused on building up a lab and making contacts. It is largely a matter of mastering the software and collecting information about wooden churches in the North to identify periods of construction, where churches were built and what techniques were used.
‘It’s basic research that allows us to make credible interpretations and predicate things in our modelling of the churches’, says Almevik.

Visualised medieval wooden building culture

Research project that runs from 2015 to 2020. Six churches in Sweden from the 12th to the 17th centuries are being documented and built up virtually. The models can be used in applications so that a visitor can go into a church, point a phone at a wall and on the phone, see how paintings and objects may have looked and been positioned in the church. Collaboration is under way with the Computer Game Development programme at the University of Skövde and at places such as the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm.