Religion has been a strong influence in creating the modern country of Sweden, a fact acknowledged by choosing Saint Birgitta as patron saint for the European Union. A strong-willed medieval woman who had rather practical and administrative visions from God, a woman who told the pope (and everyone else) what to think and to do, who had eight children before she became a nun and who had travelled abroad – this absolutely not meek and otherworldly saint fascinates, and following in her footsteps gets you to some highly interesting religious sights.
Starting out in Finsta in Uppland, where she was born in 1303 according to tradition, you can visit the cave where she used to pray as a child and where she had her first vision, you can drink from her well and pay a visit to the church of Skederid from the late 13th century. It has a separate belfry that was built when pilgrimages in honor of Birgitta brought more and more people to the tiny village and the church had to be expanded. The church belonged to the manor of Birgitta’s father, and she was baptized here. Finsta sits in the middle of old culture country, full of pre-Christian monuments from long before Birgitta was born – you can follow a “culture path” to visit runic stones, large bronze and iron age graves and the probable defense structure that is simply called the “fornborg” (ancient fort).
Birgitta early on wished to be a nun, but was married off to Ulf Gudmarsson, the son of a knight. By all accounts the marriage was a happy one, and Birgitta spent her time either with the family on Ulvåsa manor or taking care of the royal castle in Vadstena, since she was related to the king. Her husband died in 1344, and now Birgitta had most of her visions, writing them down herself in both Swedish and Latin. She also set about creating a new monastic order, although both she and her husband had already decided to live monastic lives after a pilgrimage to Spain.
The center of Birgitta’s activity was Vadstena, on the shore of Lake Vättern, where the old medieval town is still there for you to visit. The royal castle where the nuns once lived now houses a Convent Museum, and exhibitions, medieval dinners and night walks to meet Gustavus Vasa (much later, the old protestant too liked the place) are on the agenda. The abbey church also remains. The king had donated both castle and land for Birgitta to use, but the pope was skeptical and had to be convinced that a new order for both monks and nuns was needed, as the continental ones had grown so lax and permissive (in Birgitta’s opinion, that is).Eventually he agreed in 1370 and the simple and unadorned church was built. The new order actually managed to keep going despite the Reformation, but in the year 1595 the convent was closed. Around the church there once were different courtyards and gardens for vegetables, spices and fruit trees. An extra bonus to your visit is the recreated medieval herb garden showing how different plants were used for cooking and medicine by the nuns.
Perhaps Birgitta has whetted your monastic appetite? Then you should know that the first monasteries were founded in Sweden about 900 years ago, the very first one being the Benidictine convent in Vreta near Linköping. The church still stands, used as a parish church today, but the rest of the buildings were left to crumble. Between 1916 and 1926 the ruins were excavated, and large portions to the north of the church remain visible. The finds, including an unusual wooden waterpipe, are on display in the museum nearby.
Another interesting site to visit is Alvastra, quite near Birgitta’s Vadstena, and the place where her husband lived as a monk before his death. To this small village French Cistercian monks came from Clairvaux in 1143, with modern administrative and architectural ideas. What you see today are gothic ruins of great beauty – best visited when the yearly history drama about kings, monks and traders is re-enacted in them.
Monasteries were just one side of the coin, however. Parish churches dot the country from north to south, many of them centuries old. Some have medieval paintings, chaulked over during the reformation and carefully cleansed today, others have onion cupolas from the 18th century, inspired by Russian architecture. The larger cities have their cathedrals.
If you just want to visit one single church – then the national sanctuary and cathedral of Uppsala should have pride of place. It is a gothic church in red brick started at the end of the 13th century and completed after 165 years of hard work. It was restored in 1885-93 and the wall paintings from that date suit it strangely well, a kind of gothic, romantic pre-jugend style. The grave of Gustavus Vasa and two of his queens is there, as well as that of the king of botanical science, Linnaeus.
Lastly, visiting is not participating. If you want a genuine experience, you could always take part of a modern pilgrimage, fittingly arranged by the Pilgrim Center in Vadstena (pilgimscentrum.se). Or you could just book a stay with the nuns of Saint Birgitta’s order, either in Djursholm (Stockholm) or Falun in Dalecarlia. They run guesthouses where you will get a touch of contemplative monastic life not so easily come by in Sweden otherwise. Check out booking and information at birgittasystrarna.se!