Finnish-born artist Berndt Abraham Godenhjelm (1799-1881) was commissioned to do a fairly substantial painting of the transfiguration of Christ for the altar of the Lutheran church in Alaska in 1839 ... which happens to have been the first Protestant church on the West Coast of North and South America.
Godenhjelm was residing in St. Petersburg, Russia, at the time he was given the commission by Czar Nicholas I, and Evangelical Lutheran Church was in Novo Archangelsk (Sitka), Russian Alaska, the capital of Russian Alaska and headquarters for the newly established Lutheran Church in the North Pacific. The painting was meant to give inspiration to the employees of the Russian American Company who lived and worked there.
The altarpiece was shipped on the same ship that brought Uno Cygnaeus (1810-1888), the first pastor of the congregation, and Arvid Adolf Etholén, a Swedish-speaking Finn who was to be the governor of the colony.
Godenhjelm's "Transfiguration" is typical of Scandinavian aesthetics in the first half of the 19th century. Said to be one of the best representations of its kind from that period, it easily could have graced the interior of any of the period's neo-classical churches in Finland and Sweden.
Yet the canvas was intended for one of the most remote locations in the Russian Empire. Its creation indicates the importance of the Lutherans to the Russian Empire at the time. The church in Sitka ministered to the many Finns, Balts, Baltic Germans and Swedes who were employed there. Conditions were harsh, and anything to ease those conditions was seen as a worthy investment.
A full third of the outpost's members were non-Russian. The governor of the region, Arvid Adolf Etholén, was also a Lutheran.
After Alaska was transferred to the United Stated in 1867, the Lutheran Church community began to wane. In 1873, the painting was transferred to St. Michael's Russian Orthodox Cathedral nearby. In 1888, the Lutheran church was torn down.
The "Transfiguration" was discovered a full century later, in 1988. Through more than a decade's negotiations with the Russian Orthodox Church, the painting was returned to the Lutheran congregation in 2000, in large part due to the efforts of Prof. Hekki Hanka (University of Jyväs-kylä, Finland) and Maria Enckell (of Helsinki, Finland).
The restoration of the altarpiece took place in Finland in 2002-03 at Evtek Institute of Art and Design in Vantaa, near Helsinki, where the painting was cleaned and fully restored.
The painting - one of the earliest devotional paintings of the New World, and the only painting of its kind from Russian America - is irreplaceable. In a unique historical context, it was done by a major Scandinavian artist, it linked two widely divergent parts of the world and it served five distinct cultures speaking no fewer than seven languages.
The exhibit will be on display at the Nordic Heritage Museum, 3014 N.W. 67th, through Aug. 15.
There will be a lecture about the exhibit July 18, from 1 to 2 p.m., by Norm Westerberg, Consul Emeritus of Finland and board member of the museum.
On Aug. 1 the Finnish Lutheran Church of Seattle will hold services in the museum from 10 a.m. to noon. The restored altar painting will be part of a worship service for the first time in 100 years.
The exhibit is funded by Sampo, the H & W Grönqvist Foundation, EVTEK, Mr. Kauko Sorjonen, Sitka Lutheran Church, University of Jyväs-kylä and Jykes Oy.
For additional information, visit www.nordicmuseum.com or call 789-5707.
The museum is open Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-4 p.m. and Sunday noon-4 p.m.
Admission prices are $6 for general adults, $5 for seniors and $4 for children.