In search of special family altar paintings

Elaine Ask and her husband, Peter, visited Immanuel Lutheran Church of rural Barrett for the church’s altar artwork. The painting, created by Elaine’s great-great-aunt, Sara Kirkeberg Raugland, is the 100th Raugland altar picture the couple has documented. Raugland painted 300 altar paintings during her career which spanned from the late 1800s to 1918 when her husband, Carl, died. She painted the artwork from her Minneapolis studio. Photo by Carol Stender

Visiting Immanuel Lutheran Church of rural Barrett was a milestone of sorts for Elaine and Peter Ask, of Chatfield.

The church’s altar painting, created by Elaine’s great-great-aunt, Sara Kirkeberg Raugland, was the 100th picture the couple has visited and documented since starting their search of Sara’s altar artwork in 2007.

Immanuel purchased the painting around 1898 when the church started. Pastor Erdahl officiated the services at the new church and declared Sara’s painting as “satisfactory as one of the beautiful and expensive paintings,” according to a note from congregational secretary Johannes Leraas.

It’s one of 300 altar works Sara painted during her career, which spanned from the late 1800s until the death of her husband, Carl, in 1918.

Sara was one of a few women altar painters. It was unique for a woman to have such a prestigious career at that time, Elaine said. It was equally unusual for a woman to have her own listing in the city directories and to maintain a studio outside her home.

She published, in Norwegian, catalogs of her work in 1893 and 1899.

Her work fit the sizes and Biblical scenes desired by the congregations, often ranging from a small 2-foot-by-4-foot to a large 5-foot-by-8-foot.

“I try to imagine her painting up to 10 of these a year,” Elaine wrote in a binder describing her great-great-aunt’s work. “Amazing.”

Prices for the altar paintings ranged from $25 to $100. The more people in the picture indicated a higher-priced painting, Elaine said. She guessed the Immanuel picture of Christ’s ascension to be higher priced based on the number of individuals in it.

In her research, Elaine discovered Sara displayed an artistic talent at a young age. Sara’s sketches at school often drew the ire of her teacher at the country school she attended near Gunder, Iowa. One family story has Sara sketching a scene of a teacher scolding a student as the scolding was taking place. That picture didn’t win points with the headmaster.

Sara Kirkeberg Raugland painted 300 altar paintings during her career which spanned from the late 1800s to 1918 when her husband, Carl, died. She painted the artwork from her Minneapolis studio. Photo by Carol Stender

She was encouraged to take art lessons and develop her talent further. When she was 20, Sara stayed with her brother, Gunder, in Cummings, N.D., where she worked with clay.

When she switched to painting, Sara sold one of her works to the Lyster Lutheran Church of Nelson, Wis. Another painting was done before her marriage and sold to Swan Lake Lutheran Church near New Ulm.

Sara worked in Minneapolis, where she met her husband. The two married in 1891 and had two children. She continued to paint from her studio while raising her family. She sometimes signed her paintings Sara Kirkeberg Raugland and, at other times, added an “h” making her first name Sarah.

After her husband died, Sara closed her studio and moved to her daughter’s home. She continued to paint small pictures and made piece quilts and crocheted. She was active until her death, at age 98, on Dec. 6, 1960.

During her career, she painted a wide range of Biblical scenes for the altar artwork including Jesus and Peter on the Sea of Galilee, the crucifixion with Mary and John, Jesus knocking at the door, the resurrection and the last supper. While most paintings were vertical, some, like the last supper, were horizontal creating an interesting altar design to fit the painting.

Elaine is proud to be documenting her aunt’s work. Her interest in the paintings started when she joined her mother on a trip to Minneapolis to Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Sara’s church home, where they viewed one of her altar paintings. The two also visited with Sara’s grandchildren and learned more about her history.

The research efforts had a more auspicious beginning: Just one day after learning the Ask’s Fountain, Minn., church had one of Sara’s altar paintings, the church was vandalized, and the picture was slashed. The incident spurred Elaine to document the altar paintings.

Her husband, Peter, has joined her in the journey.

“I am very fortunate to have a husband who is also interested in the older churches and (Sara’s) paintings,” Elaine wrote in materials documenting their findings. “I have discovered that I enjoy the history of these old churches as much as finding the paintings. They are mostly Norwegian, in ancestry since Sara’s catalogs and early advertising were in Norwegian and the struggles to build and equip their churches is wonderful.”

The couple has traveled many miles in their RV going from one area to another in search of the altar paintings. During one trek, the couple visited 26 churches in one week. Their travels have taken them to churches in Minnesota, North Dakota, Iowa and Wisconsin. They left their motorhome behind for two trips, one in 2002 and another in 2012, to visit Norway’s Heensasen Church of Valdres, Norway. Sara sold a painting of Christ’s resurrection to the congregation. That first trip was a tale itself as the couple only had a Norway map with a cross on it they thought indicated a church. It did and, while finding the church and altar painting, they also learned about the church’s rich history from some of its church members.

Some of the altar paintings and the churches that housed them have been destroyed in fire, but the couple seeks information on all paintings to document Sara’s work.

Their research leads come from individuals who’ve taken note of the altar paintings. In their travels, they’ve found the location of some paintings while doing research at local museums. After visiting the Immanuel Church, for example, the couple learned that another Raugland altar painting was at United Lutheran Church in Elbow Lake, just a few miles from the Barrett church.

She is often asked if she’s going to write a book on her great-great-aunt. In a way, she already has. When the couple visits a church with one of Sara’s altar paintings, they leave a three-ring binder with information on their research, background on the artist and pictures and information of some of the churches they’ve visited.

“I could just write about the church history,” Elaine said. “It is so interesting to hear how these congregations got their start.”

If you have information on or know of one of Sara’s altar paintings, contact Elaine Ask at 9631 County Road 130 SE, Chatfield, MN 55923.

#AltarPainting #SaraKirkebergRaugland

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