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Gotlandic Picture Stones - The Online Edition

Picture Stones as Spolia

Many picture stones were reused and incorporated into medieval churches. But why? This and other questions were at the core for the project „Perceptions of a pagan past. Prehistoric spolia in medieval Scandinavian churches, with an emphasis on Gotland». The project is exploring the question of why medieval builders, especially those on the Baltic island of Gotland, incorporated ancient monuments such as picture stones and rune stones in Christian buildings. What was the intention behind the use of “spolia” – reused ancient building stone?


Almost half of the known Gotlandic picture stones were encountered in the roughly 100 medieval rural churches of the isle, where they have been re-used as building material, in particular between the 13th and the 15th century. Were the picture stones regarded as readily available building materials and incorporated in churches without any deeper underlying meaning? Or does the partly exposed, and in a few cases concealed, placing of picture stones in sacred buildings indicate that they were reused for a purpose beyond the merely profane?

As a basis, the project analyses all picture stones found in churches, with the aim of documenting in which parts of the building they were incorporated and at what time. This work includes both picture stones that still are in place in the walls of church buildings, and information in the archives in Visby and Stockholm about stones removed from the church fabrics. The material comprises c. 300 stones and fragments that originate from 57 out of a total of 94 rural churches on Gotland, plus two urban churches in Visby. The on-site inventory of picture stones has focused on aspects such as location, recutting, fragmentation/wear, visibility, accessibility as well as the broader find contexts. These aspects are studied in relation to the dating and building history of each church. The results of the analyses demonstrate a considerable diversity in the practices of reuse. Moreover, it indicates that picture stones were successively reused when churches were rebuilt during the medieval period. This diversity in reuse cannot be captured by one singe explanatory model, instead it we must expect shifting strategies and meaning connected both to temporal changes and local circumstances and needs. 

With its interdisciplinary approach, the research project involves archaeology, art history, and Old Norse literature. Relevant discussions in archaeology are addressed by examining the historical treatment of an earlier pagan age (“the past in the past”).

The project aims to place the reuse of picture stones in Gotland churches in a wider cultural context. To do so, the researchers examine both Scandinavian and continental parallels. This involves comparisons with the reuse of cup marked stones and rune stones in the Nordic region as well as the extensive use of spolia in churches across Europe, where Roman votive stones, for example, are found in churches and in a few cases even have been used as altars.

Old Norse literature – especially sources describing mythology, such as the works of Snorri Sturluson and the Poetic Edda – form a key element in the study. These may yield insights into the medieval Christian treatment of Old Norse religion, thereby providing an entry point to gain an understanding of the historical perceptions of the Gotland picture stones.


Some preliminary results of our studies

Certain patterns in the re-use of picture stones can be noticed and there are cases where the stones seem to have been very consciously chosen and installed. For instance, they were often used as lintels of windows or sacramental niches, as steps and thresholds. They were re-used in the flooring of the altar room, facing upwards so that the imagery was visible, and even in the outer walls of the building. Other monuments were chosen to serve as bases for baptismal fonts, provided with a piscina (drain). The stone from Sproge Church was broken in two and served in a niche as a basin for washing liturgical items (sacrarium). Picture stones were even used as altar slabs – pagan monuments served as mensae domini for the celebration of the Eucharist. Sometimes the characteristic shape of the monuments was left unchanged, which made the masonry more difficult, but obviously the recognisability of the prehistoric monument was given priority.

However, even among the many invisibly incorporated picture stones, some cases can be observed, where they must have had a certain significance: In Ardre church, a total of eight picture stones was built into the floor of the nave. The famous early Viking picture stone no. VIII, covered with motifs from Old Norse Mythology, was placed in the middle and the others, late Viking Christian monuments with runic inscriptions, were arranged around it. The stone in the middle was placed in the floor level, its imagery visible to the church-goers, while the other stones around were situated on a lower level, invisible beneath the floor.

Interesting is also the inner arrangement of the slabs. The four stones to the right of the pagan stone originally formed a stone cist with an inscription, made in memory of a man called Liknat by his sons. One of the stones on the opposite, left side was once erected by the same group of men, Liknat’s sons, but in memory of their mother. And the other two stones were both erected by a man called Sibba, one for his wife and the other for his daughter. In addition, the images on the surrounding stones refer to the iconography of the older pagan stone in the middle. A purely pragmatic explanation is not convincing in this case.

So if we are facing a deliberate reuse of picture stones and a deeper meaning, how can we describe this meaning more precisely? Are those monuments given a positive or negative connotation? Negative symbolic meaning could be aiming at marking superiority of the Christian faith and condemning the old traditions. In fact, this interpretation is repeatedly formulated in research and popular academic contexts. However, should the confrontation between paganism and Christianity really have played such an important role still in the 13th to 15th centuries?

Indeed, Roman pagan idols were sometimes installed and displayed in medieval churches with the intention of damnatio. In front of St. Matthew in Trier, an ancient Roman statue of Venus was set up, chained and ritually mutilated by throwing stones at her. An inscription from around 1550 describes the statue as a false goddess that was once worshipped here. Now she stands here to the mockery of the world (der welt zu spot). In St. Steven’s Cathedral in Vienna, two Roman idols were placed and imprisoned in a wall niche behind bars; a 14th century inscription calls the church goers to believe in the one God, unlike the pagans once did, who have worshipped these demons. There are also cases such as the Mercurius Stone in Pliezhausen, which, since the 18th century, in popular tradition is known as the Devil’s Stone. However, these are exceptions. And it is not always clear whether such interpretations do not perhaps reflect a later perception of medieval history rather than the actual intention of the first reuse.

We often read that pagan stones walled in lying on their sides symbolised the fall of paganism. That is not convincing, since rectangular spolia were always installed lying on their sides in the Middle Ages, for reasons of wall construction. If, for example, an image of John was inserted lying on its side, well visible and purposefully chosen, then this was hardly intended to indicate the fall of the apostle. Rather, we are dealing with a respectful integration and connection to the past.

This also seems to have been the main idea behind the use of Roman spolia during the Middle Ages, and therefore it also seems to me the most plausible explanation of reused picture stones in Gotlandic rural churches: expressing or constructing continuity and identity, a way of incorporating the past and thereby legitimate the present. The pagan references of ancient stone monuments were not adverse to ecclesiastical reuse.

Charlemagne was buried in a Roman sarcophagus that is covered with myhological images. At his funeral, he was portrayed as a Roman Emperor, and this required a real Roman sarcophagus with real Roman imagery. And we should keep in mind that the Christian authorities have always been very creative when it comes to reinterpreting pagan myths. Ulysses on the mast was understood as a prefiguration of Christ on the cross (and therefore depicted on Christian grave monuments); the killing of the lion by Hercules referred to the overcoming of the devil by Christ; while the Theseus myth was related to the Harrowing of Hell.

But how did people in the Scandinavian Middle Ages perceive their pagan past? At least the people of medieval Norway and in particular Iceland considered the pagan myths worthy of being written down, on a large scale. Snorri Sturluson’s Edda (13th century) has been regarded in previous research as a kind of contrast concept that presents the beliefs of the ancestors as delusion and misbelief. Recent research, however, has convincingly shown that Snorri rather works with the principle of accomodatio. Snorri tried to establish a theology that granted the old religion a place in the events of salvation history. He made himself the advocate of his fathers’ faith – in order to preserve a certain dignity for this native tradition.

Comparable phenomena of accommodation can also be verified archaeologically. Depictions of the pagan hero Sigurðr can be found on Norwegian stave church portals. He was apparently associated with the archangel Michael or other Christian dragon slayers and therefore integrated into the christian iconograpy. In Scandinavia, early churches were sometimes built at places that had already had a cultic significance before (cult-place continuity). When Snorri wrote his Edda, the church of Gamla Uppsala (archbishop’s seat) was located directly next to the three great grave mounds, on the site where, according to Adam of Bremen, the great pagan temple has been located.

To conclude: It is quite plausible that the church builders of Gotland incorporated stone monuments from pagan periods with similar intentions as their contemporaries on the continent. With a similar perception of the past as Snorri, the builders of the stave churches and the bishops of Uppsala – they wanted to integrate the tradition of their forefathers with dignity instead of condemning them. To construct continuity and to orchestrate identity. The picture stones, this decidedly Gotlandic tradition seem to have had a high, identity-creating significance for the medieval Gotlanders and therefore, they have been re-contextualised and instrumentalised on several levels – just as the remains of the Roman Empire.


Principal investigator:
Sigmund Oehrl


Employed researcher:

Cecilia Ljung



Stockholm University



SEK 2 million


August 2022: The Second Picture Stone Symposium, Visby. Presentation by Ljung: Perceptions of a Pagan Past. Gotlandic Picture stones as Spolia.

Oehrl, Sigmund (2023) Die Bildsteine Gotlands und ihre Wiederverwendung in Christlicher Zeit. Bildpraktiken zwischen Weltbildern und Normsetzungen, 2. Workshop zur Methodik der Bildforschung, LEIZA Mainz; 2023-03-01

April: 2023 Folkuniversitetet, Uppsala. Popular lecture by Ljung: Uppfattningar om ett hedniskt förflutet.

Oehrl, Sigmund (2023) Between pragmatism, religion, and perception of identity. Spoliation of pre-Christian stone monuments in Gotlandic rural churches. The 74th International Sachsensymposium; 2023-09-17

August 2023: 29th EAA Annual Meeting in Belfast, Northern Island. Session organized by Ljung and Oehrl: ‘Beyond Spolia.’ A cross-cultural comparison of re-used decorated stones.

Cecilia Ljung, Andrew Jones, Marta Diaz-Guardamino und Sigmund Oehrl organised a session at the EAA in Belfast 2023: ‘BEYOND SPOLIA.’ A CROSS-CULTURAL COMPARISON OF RE-USED DECORATED STONES. The proceedings are in preparation for publication.

August 2023: 29th EAA Annual Meeting in Belfast, Northern Island. Presentation by Ljung: Perceptions of the Past: Picture stones as spolia in Medieval churches on Gotland.

Forthcoming May 2024: Research seminar, Department of archaeology and classical studies, Stockholm University. Presentation by Ljung: Perceptions of a near and distant past: the reuse of picture stones in Medieval Churches on Gotland.



Sigmund Oehrl: Pagan Stones in Christian Churches. Medieval views on the past (the example of Gotland Sweden) Quaestiones Medii Aevi Novae 2019 (2020), 69-95.

S. Oehrl / M. Toplak, Gotländische Bildsteine in Kirchen. Ein Beitrag zur Spolienforschung und mittelalterlichen Mentalitätsgeschichte. In: Festschrift NN (De Gruyter, Berlin/Boston).

Ljung, C. forthcoming. Perceptions of a near and distant past: The reuse  picture Stones in Ardre church. In: Oehrl, S. (ed.): Gotlandic Picture Stones in European Contexts and Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Proceedings of the Second Picture Stone Symposion, Visby, 22-26 August 2022. Brepols.

Two papers in preparation for 2024.