The Järfälla Kyrka, in the nearby settlement of Barkarby, dates from the late 12th century. It was built in the Romanesque style characteristic of the Uppland region at the time. Towards the end of the 13th century this ancient building was partly destroyed by fire, and another church was built in its place, in the Gothic style. The new roof was made higher and the nave lengthened. The chancel was refurbished with a Gothic ribbed brick vault, and a vestry was added to the north side.
Later, during the 15th century, it was refurbished again, acquiring the appearance that it has today: new brick vaults over the nave, and an enclosed porch at the south wall. This “vapenhus” (weapons room), was where the men left their weapons before entering the church. The south portal was fitted with a new door made from fir beams, and decorated with ornate iron mountings: ornaments shaped like animals and lilies, and rose-shaped medallions. Above is a “sun cross”, intended to protect those within against the powers of darkness without.
In 1825 the interior was refurbished yet again, and made lighter by the widening of the small apertures in the south wall, and with the addition of new windows in the north wall.
Further renovations took place again in 1927 and 1970.
I had no idea that such a venerable and beautiful church lay in our vicinity, and on the early autumn afternoon that I first went there, I immediately felt its quiet dignity, and the peaceful solitude of the large cemetery below.
I entered these sacred precincts through a white porch with a steeply-pitched, wooden-tiled roof and ornate wrought-iron gate. The tranquil garden was awash with golden sun-spangled leaves, trembling on the branches, and carpeting the spongy grass beneath my feet. The air was redolent with the tangy scent of moist earth and fallen leaves.
The cemetery is a fascinating memorial to the lives of the inhabitants of the area, from both long ago and the recent past. Each gravestone clearly displays the dates and names of those lying beneath – living testimony to such venerable Swedish families as the Ohlsons, Pettersens, Lindqvists, Gustafsons, Jonssons, Svenssons and Nilssons. Some also bear a short inscription. Flowers stand in vases or small beds before some of the headstones, as well as a few candle-lanterns, demonstration of the reverent respects paid by mourning loved ones.
Near the church stands a curious structure: a separate bell tower covered from top to bottom with thick wooden tiles, similar to others frequently seen on our trips around Sweden.
Alongside the church stands another unusual structure: the sandstone “Adlerberg Mausoleum”. This strange pyramid-shaped tomb was erected in 1762 for the Lord Chamberlain Olof Adlerberg and his wife Anna Sofia Gyllenborg, who formerly owned the Jakobsberg and Säby Estates. Access to this tomb is a complete mystery, though it is said to be through a secret passageway through an iron-ringed trapdoor set into the floor of the nave above.
I was curious to see inside the church, and to satisfy with further investigation my passion for churches generally – not only as repositories for magnificent works of art, but also for their unique stories.
As the main door at the south porch was locked, I gingerly tried the small vestry door at the side. To my joy it opened, and there I found young church warden Rickard, who kindly offered to show me around. As I was marveling at the beautiful organ, which dates from the 1960’s, and the ornate 17th century gilt-and-marble Baroque pulpit – complete with hour-glass set to limit the priest’s pontifications – the parish priest himself arrived. He was delighted to receive a South African visitor, and cordially continued my guided tour in fluent English with erudite passion.
He proudly showed me the beautiful altarpiece, placed there in 1825, an oil painting by an unknown artist depicting the scene during which the risen Christ shares bread with two disciples at Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). The altar is illuminated by a small round golden stained-glass window above, and gold-ensconced candles.
Fascinating, too, is the 12th century sandstone font, on which the decorations are an interlacing pattern of stylized animals and entwined winged creatures. On the base are the heads of three beasts and a ram. These pagan figures are believed to represent the powers of darkness which struggle to take hold of the unbaptised soul. They were evidently inspired by artwork from Gotland Island, and from textiles and metal-work from Roman times.
There is also a beautiful medieval wooden sculpture of St. Anne, (according to legend the mother of Mary), holding the infant Jesus and Mary in her arms.
The whimsical hymnal board (1758) is an oval wooden board held out from the wall by a golden arm, and upon which the hymn numbers are hung on nails.
As soon as the subject of music arose, its being my profession, the priest at once launched into the most beautiful Latin chant in a strong tenor voice. I sat in one of the pews, shut my eyes, and allowed the sound to wash over me as it resonated through the empty church. I stayed at peace, allowing only my senses free reign to enjoy ancient modal melodies and the musty scents of candle wax, ancient damp stone, and mellow-aged wood.
But that was not the end of the tour. The priest then took me into the vestry, and showed me a vast, beautifully wrought wooden chest containing about a dozen wide flat drawers. Within each lay priceless ancient treasures: beautiful black velvet and gold damask vestments dating from the 18th century, which are only brought out and worn on very special occasions. All are edged with gold brocade and emblazoned with various religious symbols richly embroidered with fine gold thread. Never before had I seen such magnificent ecclesiastical garb at close range, and touched the soft fabrics with careful reverence.
The cordiality and kindness of the native Swedes seems to hold no bounds. I frequently find myself blessed with the generosity of spirit and warmth of a nation sometimes deemed too closed, and “modern”. But sometimes I encounter a glimpse of the unique and special qualities of the Swedish psyche, and count myself blessed indeed to be a new citizen in this unique and beautiful country.