Sweden // The southeast //


St Birgitta specified that the Klosterkyrkan, easily reached by walking towards the lake from the castle, should be “of plain construction, humble and strong”. Wide, grey and sombre, the lakeside abbey, consecrated in 1430, certainly fulfils her criteria from the outside; inside it has been embellished with a celebrated collection of medieval artwork. More memorable than the crypt containing the tombs of various royals is the statue of Birgitta, now devoid of the hands “in a state of ecstasy” – as the description puts it. To the right, the poignant “Door of Grace and Honour” was where each Birgittine nun entered the abbey after being professed – the next time they would use the door would be on the day of their funeral. Birgitta’s bones are encased in a red velvet box, decorated with silver and gilt medallions, in a glass case down stone steps in the monks’ choir stalls.

The altarpiece here is worth a glance, too: another handless Birgitta, looking rather less than ecstatic, is portrayed dictating her revelations to a band of monks, nuns and acolytes, while around her, representations of hell and purgatory depict finely sculpted faces of woe disappearing into the bloody mouth of what looks like a hippopotamus. Other than Birgitta’s, a tomb to note inside the abbey is that of Gustav Vasa’s mentally retarded son Magnus. His grand, raised tomb is flanked at each corner by obese, glum-faced cherubs, but the most impressive feature is the remarkably lifelike hands raised in prayer on the likeness of Magnus on the top.

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