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The amazing stories that altars tell

As a hobby, two women record sanctuary paintings

Although this multi-panel painting is not located above an altar, it nevertheless fits the description of an altar painting. The painting is located in the left transept of Nokomis Heights Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. Photos provided by Russ Tokheim

Altar paintings were a common feature of Scandinavia Lutheran churches built before the turn of the 20th century. Today many have disappeared. Two Edina, Minnesota, women are determined to preserve the memories of altar paintings photographically.
Thelma Johnson and Marian Aaker, friends living at 7500 York Cooperative senior apartments in Edina, have taken trips to photograph remaining altar paintings in churches in the Upper Midwest. Today, as part of their hobby, they have photos of about 175 altar paintings.
“Having a hobby of reading Norwegian American Historical Association books and collecting altar painting pictures has really been enjoyable. Collecting the altar painting pictures made me appreciate the work of the artists, the biblical stories portrayed in this way, and also the lovely churches with their beautiful chancel areas,” explained Johnson. “One recognizes the evidence of faith and dedication of the immigrants and their descendants in building churches to bring the Gospel to their congregations.”
The most popular depiction on the altar paintings is Easter morning. Other common scenes include Christ (alone), Christ in Gethsemane, the Ascension, Christ and Peter on the Sea of Galilee, the Good Shepherd, and Christ knocking at the door. While the themes of the paintings vary, each visually reinforces a message from the Gospel.
Today in addition to photos of these paintings Johnson and Aaker have detailed records of the locations of the churches with altar paintings, the artists who produced the paintings, and the themes of the artwork. Though they have taken most of the photos themselves, friends and relatives have contributed some. The two women have duplicate photo albums of their hobby, thereby preserving the memory of the altar painting tradition. They are unaware of anyone else in the Upper Midwest assembling photo records of the altar paintings that were once so common.
Ninety-one of the altar painting photos are from churches in Minnesota, 23 from Wisconsin, 20 from Iowa, and 15 from North Dakota.

Where have all the altars gone?

While many people remember altar paintings from their childhood churches, the numbers dwindled as church remodeling took place and liturgical traditions changed. In the latter case, pastors generally face the congregation rather than the altar, which was common in the past. The altars with high decorative backs that often contained the altar paintings didn’t allow the pastor to stand behind the altar facing the congregation.

Attired in their Norwegian bunads are Thelma Johnson, left, and Marian Aaker, who share a hobby of tracking down altar paintings in churches throughout the area.

When churches remodel and “modernize,” the altar paintings often have no logical place to be displayed.

When churches remodel and “modernize,” the altar paintings often have no logical place to be displayed, at least in the sanctuary. Some, however, have been framed and placed in other locations in the church, though the dramatic framing they enjoyed in the altars is lost.
Some of the paintings were done by well-known artists of the day. The two women’s research indicates that many times the artist was paid only about $25. So, altar painting was not a lucrative occupation even by standards of the day. In their searches for names of the artists, the two women often have to use a flashlight to search for the name which is usually on the lower left or lower right corner of the artwork.
This hobby requires quite a lot of research to find churches that still have altar paintings and make contacts so the two women can meet someone and enter the church to take photos. Many churches are locked during the week and contacts with someone who has a key are not always easy to make.
Some of the altar paintings in the Johnson and Aaker photo collection are unusual, like a triptych at Nokomis Heights Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Minneapolis, which was done more recently for an anniversary of that congregation. It is located in the left transcept of the sanctuary, and while it fits the description of an altar painting, it is not actually located above the altar.
When asked about unusual experiences in search of altar paintings, Johnson and Aaker responded, “In 2006 when we went to visit the Hauge Old Log Church built in 1852 near Blue Mounds, Wisconsin [in the Mt. Horeb area of Dane County], we were told that an irate neighbor objected to having the church within sight of his land. There may have been a lawsuit, we are not sure; but eventually this man built a large wooden wall at the edge of his field so he would not have to see the church from his land.”
Marian Aaker and Thelma Johnson are always looking for additional altar paintings to photograph for their hobby. Aaker can be reached at and Johnson can be reached at

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