The Plaster Saints

Svartsjö church is white both outside and in: the walls are white, the pulpit, the seats, the galleries, the roof, the window-sashes, the altar-cloth⁠—everything is white. In Svartsjö church are no decorations, no pictures, no coats of arms. Over the altar stands only a wooden cross with a white linen cloth. But it was not always so. Once the roof was covered with paintings, and many colored images of stone and plaster stood in that house of God.

Once, many years ago, an artist in Svartsjö had stood and watched the summer sky and the path of the clouds across the sun. He had seen those white, shining clouds, which in the morning float low on the horizon, pile themselves up higher and higher and raise themselves to storm the heavens. They set up sails like ships. They raised standards like warriors. They encroached on the whole sky. They placed themselves before the sun, those growing monsters, and took on wonderful shapes. There was a devouring lion; it changed into a powdered lady. There was a giant with outstretched arms; he laid himself down as a dreaming sphinx. Some adorned their white nakedness with gold-bordered mantles; others spread rouge over snowy cheeks. There were plains. There were forests. There were walled castles with high towers. The white clouds were lords of the summer sky. They filled the whole blue arch. They reached up to the sun and hid it.

“Oh, how beautiful,” thought the gentle artist, “if the longing spirits could climb up on those towering mountains and be carried on those rocking ships ever higher and higher upwards!”

And all at once he understood that the white clouds were the vessels on which the souls of the blessed were carried.

He saw them there. They stood on the gliding masses with lilies in their hands and golden crowns on their heads. Space echoed with their song. Angels circled down on broad, strong wings to meet them. Oh, what a host there were! As the clouds spread out, more and more were visible. They lay on the cloud-beds like water-lilies on a pond; they adorned them, as lilies adorn the meadow. Cloud after cloud rolled up. And all were filled with heavenly hosts in armor of silver, of immortal singers in purple-bordered mantles.

That artist had afterwards painted the roof in the Svartsjö church. He had wished to reproduce there the mounting clouds of the summer day, which bore the blessed to the kingdom of heaven. The hand which had guided the pencil had been strong, but also rather stiff, so that the clouds resembled more the curling locks of a full-bottomed wig than mountains of soft mist. And the form the holy ones had taken for the painter’s fancy he was not able to give them again, but instead clothed them in long, red cloaks, and stiff bishops’ mitres, or in black robes with stiff ruffles. He had given them big heads and small bodies, and he had provided them with handkerchiefs and prayer-books. Latin sentences flew out of their mouths; and for them whom he meant to be the greatest, he had constructed solid wooden chairs on the backs of the clouds, so that they could be carried sitting comfortably to the everlasting life.

But everyone knew that spirits and angels had never shown themselves to the poor artist, and so they were not much surprised that he had not been able to give them celestial beauty. The good master’s pious work had seemed to many wonderfully fine, and much holy emotion had it wakened. It would have been worthy to have been looked at by our eyes as well.

But during the pensioners’ year, Count Dohna had the whole church whitewashed. Then the paintings on the roof were destroyed. And all the plaster saints were also taken away.

Alas! the plaster saints!

There was a Saint Olof with crown on helm, an axe in his hand, and a kneeling giant under his feet; on the pulpit was a Judith in a red jacket and blue skirt, with a sword in one hand and an hourglass in the other⁠—instead of the Assyrian general’s head; there was a mysterious Queen of Sheba in a blue jacket and red skirt, with a webfoot on one leg and her hands full of Sibylline books; there was a gray Saint Göran lying alone on a bench in the choir, for both horse and dragon had been broken away; there was Saint Christopher with the flowering staff, and Saint Erik with sceptre and axe, dressed in a flowing brocaded cloak.

These saints were always losing their sceptres or their ears or hands and had to be mended and cleaned. The congregation wearied of it, and longed to be rid of them. But the peasants would never have done the saints any injury if Count Henrik Dohna had not existed. It was he who had them taken away.

When Count Dohna had caused his marriage to be declared null and void, instead of seeking out his wife and having it made legal, much indignation had arisen; for everyone knew that his wife had left his house only not to be tortured to death. It seemed now as if he wanted to win back God’s grace and men’s respect by a good work, and so he had Svartsjö church repaired. He had the whole church whitewashed and the paintings torn down. He and his men carried the images out in a boat and sank them in the depths of the Löfven.

How could he dare to lay his hand on those mighty ones of the Lord?

Did the hand which struck off Holofernes’ head no longer hold a sword? Had Sheba’s queen forgotten all secret knowledge, which wounds more deeply than a poisoned arrow? Saint Olof, Saint Olof, old viking, Saint Göran, old dragon-killer, the noise of your deeds is, then, dead! But it was best that the saints did not wish to use force against their destroyers. Since the Svartsjö peasants would not pay for paint for their robes and gilding for their crowns, they allowed Count Dohna to carry them out and sink them in Löfven’s bottomless depths. They would not stand there and disfigure God’s house.

I thought of that boat with its load of saints gliding over Löfven’s surface on a quiet summer evening in August. The man who rowed took slow strokes, and threw timorous glances at the strange passengers which lay in the bow and stern; but Count Dohna, who was also there, was not afraid. He took them one by one and threw them into the water. His brow was clear and he breathed deep. He felt like a defender of the pure Evangelical religion. And no miracle was performed in the old saints’ honor. Silent and dejected they sank down into annihilation.

But the next Sunday morning Svartsjö church stood gleamingly white. No images disturbed the peace of meditation. Only with the eyes of the soul could the virtuous contemplate the glory of heaven and the faces of the blessed.

But the earth, men’s beloved dwelling, is green, the sky is blue. The world glows with colors. Why should the church be white? White as winter, naked as poverty, pale as grief! It does not glitter with hoarfrost like a wintry wood; it does not shine in pearls and lace like a white bride. The church stands in white, cold whitewash, without an image, without a picture.

That Sunday Count Dohna sat in a flower-trimmed armchair in the choir, to be seen and to be praised by all men. He who had had the old benches mended, destroyed the disfiguring images, had set new glass in all the broken windows, and had the whole church whitewashed, should now be honored. If he wished to soften the Almighty’s anger, it was right that he had adorned His temple as well as he knew how. But why did he take praise for it?

He, who came with implacable sternness on his conscience, ought to have fallen on his knees and begged his brothers and sisters in the church to implore God to suffer him to come into his sanctuary. It would have been better for him if he had stood there like a miserable culprit than that he should sit honored and blessed in the choir, and receive praise because he had wished to make his peace with God.

When the service was over and the last psalm sung, no one left the church, for the clergyman was to make a speech of thanks to the count. But it never went so far.

For the doors were thrown open, back into the church came the old saints, dripping with Löfven’s water, stained with green slime and brown mud. They must have heard that here the praise of him who had destroyed them, who had driven them out of God’s holy house and sunk them in the cold, dissolving waves, should be sung. The old saints wanted to have their share in the entertainment.

They do not love the waves’ monotonous ripple. They are used to psalms and prayers. They held their peace and let it all happen, as long as they believed that it would be to the honor of God. But it was not so. Here sits Count Dohna in honor and glory in the choir and wishes to be worshipped and praised in the house of God. They cannot suffer such a thing. Therefore they have risen from their watery grave and march into the church, easily recognizable to all. There is Saint Olof, with crown on hat, and Saint Erik, with gold-brocaded cloak, and the gray Saint Göran and Saint Christopher; no more; the Queen of Sheba and Judith had not come.

But when the people have recovered a little from their amazement, an audible whisper goes through the church⁠—

“The pensioners!”

Yes, of course it is the pensioners. And they go up to the count without a word, and lift his chair to their shoulders and carry him from the church and set him down on the slope outside.

They say nothing, and look neither to the right nor to the left. They merely carry Count Dohna out of the house of God, and when that is done, they go away again, the nearest way to the lake.

They used no violence, nor did they waste much time in explanations. It was plain enough: “We the Ekeby pensioners have our own opinion. Count Dohna is not worthy to be praised in God’s house. Therefore we carry him out. Let him who will carry him in again.”

But he was not carried in. The clergyman’s speech of thanks was never made. The people streamed out of the church. There was no one who did not think the pensioners had acted rightly.

They thought of the fair young countess who had been so cruelly tortured at Borg. They remembered her who had been so kind to the poor, who had been so sweet to look upon that it had been a consolation for them to see her.

It was a pity to come with wild pranks into the church; but both the clergyman and the congregation knew that they had been about to play a greater trick on the Omniscient. And they stood ashamed before the misguided old madmen.

“When man is silent, the stones must speak,” they said.

But after that day Count Henrik was not happy at Borg. One dark night in the beginning of August a closed carriage drove close up to the big steps. All the servants stationed themselves about it, and Countess Märta came out wrapped in shawls with a thick veil over her face. The count led her, but she trembled and shuddered. It was with the greatest difficulty that they could persuade her to go through the hall and down the steps.

At last she reached the carriage, the count sprang in after her, the doors were slammed to, and the coachman started the horses off at a gallop. The next morning, when the magpies awoke, she was gone.

The count lived from that time on far away in the South of Sweden. Borg was sold and has changed owners many times. No one can help loving it. But few have been happy in its possession.