Monday 20 February 2012

Swedish kurbits paintings

Swedish Dala Painting

Dala paintings or Kurbits paintings.

These figurative paintings were made in Dalarna in Sweden and they had their flourishing period in the years 1790-1850.
Kurbits is from the beginning the name of a big plant, with gourds, leaves and flowers, Cucurbita in Latin. This plant has become the main symbol for a painting from Dalarna, but the word has been used so much that in daily speech we often no longer know the meaning of it.

A course in “kurbits painting” is probably a course in decorating coffers, chests, chairs and boxes with quick and easy movements of the brush, like the painting of the Dala horses.

If people use the word “dalmålning” (or “dalamålning” analogous to “dalahäst”) they usually mean the “tapestry paintings”, but talking about these paintings we can also say “kurbits”, as it is from these illustrations that we know the word kurbits = gourd.
But “kurbits” is today mostly used for furniture painting or Dala horses with no gourds at all.
In these cupboard paintings the gourd is not in a clearly visible form. We cannot see that it is a gourd or a cucumber, which belongs to the same family as the gourd, the cucurbitaceae.
The word has changed it's meaning and today most people think that it just means a folk painting.

Kurbits = Tapestry paintings, coloured drawings, which are often illustrations to the Bible. 

In Leksand area the gourds are clearly visible.

Kurbits = Pumpkin, squash, gourd =  Latin Cucurbita.

The painters themselves just called the cupboard decorations utkrusat i rosmålning or krusmålning.
In Norway they have kept this name for their folk art, rosemaling.
Earlier, people simply called the paintings from Dalarna dalkarlsmålningar to indicate that they were from Dalarna.
Erik Axel Karlfeldt made the concept “kurbits painting” known, with the publication in 1927 of his poem Kurbitsmålning , but the word kurbits had been used earlier.
When he wrote the poem with the words “Men se min kurbits...” (But look at my kurbits...) he wrote about the tapestry paintings.
The idea came from the Bible where Jona was sitting under a gourd, so kurbits paintings would mean gourd paintings, because they have the big gourds, hanging out between the leaves and flowers.

Jona sitter under kurbissen.

On this early picture the painter has written that Jona is sitting under “kurbissen” and the three round things on top over the flowers might be the gourds.
With time the word Kurbits slowly changed its meaning and got the significance of Dala-painting in daily speech, instead of gourd or pumpkin. If you say kurbits, nobody thinks of a gourd. People do not know that it is a fruit. We use the words gurka, squash, zucchini, pumpa.

Karlfeld called this painted gourd “en alla gurkornas gurka” (the cucumber of all cucumbers) and on paintings the gourds also look like cucumbers.

And in Rättvik the fruits turned into leaves?
In the Rättvik area it is not easy to detect any gourds.


So when people just say kurbits you cannot know for sure if they mean the Dala furniture paintings, the Dala tapestry paintings (mostly with visible gourds), Dala horses or old Swedish folk painting in general, any kind of flowery decoration or maybe Norwegian “rosemaling”.

Could be any of these:

So don´t pay for a course in “kurbits paintings” before you have asked what kind of “kurbits” it is about!
The old painters

Some kind of confusion has been associated with this plant for more than 2000 years.

Here is an old painting where we can see that Jona is sitting under a gourd. The big fruits are hanging between the leaves.
In Dalarna Målar Erik Eliasson and his school developed the Rättvik style on the chests and cupboards around 1780. It was a stylized variation of the old, decorative pot flower, which they had probably seen both in churches and in the cities.
The well known pot-flower turned into a special Dala pot-flower, but there is no kurbits, no gourd.

When it looks like this it can be seen as leaves or gourds. 
It is something in between.

But Winter Carl Hansson and some friends did something new.
To the flower-pot they added some gourds that looked like cucumbers and thus created the Dala Paintings that gave us the expression Kurbits Painting.

Take this pot! 

Put this into it!

And you get this!

Winter Carl Hansson in Yttermo, the genius who died at the age of 28, and Back Olof Andersson and some more friends in the village Ullvi, made the early paintings with Kurbits, around 1790-1810.

The villages Yttermo and  Ullvi in Dalarna are situated between
Leksand and Insjön, at the south end of the lake Siljan.


The “tapestry-painters” developed this ornamental flower into a stylized plant that they put on all kinds of motives, not only Jona, on wall-paintings, textiles and paper, thus developing the special form that we can easily recognize today as a typical “dalmålning”, a Dala painting.

Painted tapestries, often with motives from the Bible, already existed as a substitute to the woven pictures. These paintings, especially from the south of Sweden, can be very similar to the Dala Paintings but the typical Kurbits is not there, which makes the difference.

The oldest painted tapestry from south Sweden is from 1714, Bårarydsbonaden.
Another famous tapestry is the one from Bayeux in France.

The well known “tapestry Kurbits painting” was fully developed around 1820.

After 1850 these paintings slowly got outdated 
by the new fashion, the decorated wall-paper.
That is what we use today.

The Dala painter was not trying to make a personal success out of his private visions and feelings to become a unique “ great artist” with his own ideas, heading for an expensive gallery in the big city.
The folk art was a handicraft, like carpentry, where many people learned from each other. They painted the same motive over and over again and they also copied each others works.
We have found 140 old paintings with The wedding in Kana, 101 with The queen of Saba and so on.

The women had their weaving, sewing, knitting and making embroideries to create things of beauty, which also followed the rules of the different traditions in different areas. The men were more interested in selling their flowery products because they needed to get money.

Discipline and surrealism.
We seem to like it when extreme order is used for expressing surrealistic fantasies. We find it everywhere in old mythology and religions, but also today in our fantasy books and films.
Talking about order, the Leksand painters were the successful ones, with their flowers, leaves and fruits perfectly lined up in a strict pattern, almost with mathematical perfection.

If people are sitting around a table they have plates but there is no food.


People from the Bible can be dressed in traditional Swedish clothes.

The “tapestry painters”, who belonged to the Rättvik school, were often more spontaneously putting leaves and flowers here and there, and in the same time there is no clear difference between leaves and gourds. But even if there are no gourds they are probably called Kurbits paintings anyway because they were made in the same area as the other ones.

The surrealistic way of painting takes you out of your normal way of perceiving reality, when logic loses the hold on your thinking. Like in poetry.

“Dalmålningarna är ett uttryck för en målerisk glädje. Fantasin får löpa fritt och obehindrat välja motiv, precis som I dikten. Dalarna blir ett bibliskt land och Bibelns gestalter masar och kullor.”
Stig Tornehed
(The Dala painting is an expression of picturesque joy. The fantasy is allowed to choose motives without restrictions as in poetry. Dalarna becomes a biblical country and the figures from the Bible become typical Dalecarlian persons.)

They copied pictures from the Bible and some also had fashion magazines where they could copy drawings of people with modern clothes.

The parts of the kurbits tree.

If I look it up in books I will find that the big fruits (4), the gourds, are called svällblad (swollen leaves) or bottenblad (bottom leaves) .
The flowers in the middle (1) are called mittrosor ( middle-roses).
The leaves are called blad (leaves) (3).
The buds (2) have various names according to their various shapes: skruvax, svällknoppar, hängen, kottar and lökar (screw-ears, swollen buds, catkins, cones and onions or bulbs.)

There is often a certain kind of border.

The well-known zigzag line in the bottom of many paintings is called “ullvibården”, which got its name from the village Ullvi.

They often used stamps to effectively make many small details, like round flowers, which should be repeated to form a pattern.


But why was Winter Carl Hansson painting gourds?

Imagine that you are a skilled painter, making beautiful decorations with flowers.
Now you want to make it as good as possible to be able to sell it.
What would you do?
Would you put some long, clumsy cucumbers, gourds or pumpkins in the middle of a bouquet of beautiful flowers? Probably not. You have to transform the gourd into a decorative element.

These gourds were consequently, later also by many painters, put on all paintings, so they must have carried a certain symbolism of great importance. In Leksand there was a plant with Kurbits fruits on every painting.

Maybe Winter Carl had got the idea of painting Jona under the tree and then he got so interested in the symbolic meaning of a divine and protective miracle-tree full of heavenly fruits that he continued to put it on all paintings, even when they were not at all about Jona.
And he was so overwhelmed with this idea that he also talked all his friends into it!? Or someone else got the idea? In any case, the big gourds spread among the friends in Ullvi and other villages around Leksand.

So Winter Carl Hansson in Yttermo just combined the big miracle-fruit with the flower pot that his friend Elias, on the other side of the river, was painting on his cupboards, and then the mixture developed into a new style where the gourd got less and less clumsy and more and more decorated.

In the Leksand area, the gourd continued to have the shape of a fruit that was clearly different from the leaves.
As the painters copied each other's works and learned from each other I suppose we can take for granted that they also talked with each other!
They must have had discussions about the gourds in such a way that they agreed upon some idea about it.
If you paint a picture of Jona it makes sense, but why put the gourds on everything else and also influencing your friends to put it on everything?
The farmers and workers in Dalarna were poor people that had difficulties in getting money and many walked to Stockholm to get a job. They came back with ideas and pictures.
Maybe some painters were aware of the very old magic of influencing reality with painted symbols and got the idea of turning his wall-paintings into magical formulas that could attract abundance to the house, which could be of importance at that time. A divine tree full of huge fruits could be a good symbol of prosperity. And it did work because today these Kurbits paintings have turned into a symbol for Sweden and they are put on many things that are for sale.

The Leksand painters dared to make a real fruit because he had put meaning into it, so he had a feeling of knowing what he did? But in Rättvik they did not do so...?

Some known painters
Back Erik Andersson
Jufwas Anders Ersson
Snarf Anders Andersson
Mats Persson Stadig
Kers Erik Jönsson
Larshans Per Olsson
Larshans Per Persson
Hjelt Per Persson
Björ Anders Hansson
Erik Danielsson
Skinnar Johan Ersson (I.E.S.)
Mats Anders Olsson
Olhans Olof Jonsson
Mats Olof Andersson
Olof Samuelsson
The signatures: A.P.S., D.A.S., E.A.S., O.W.S.
More here...

The most common motives.

Bröllopet I Kana The wedding in Kana
Jonas bättringspredikan Jonas is preaching
Drottningen av Saba The queen of Saba
Muellers himmelska kärlekskyss Muellers heavenly kiss of love
De vise männen The three wise men
Intåget i Jerusalem Jesus riding into Jerusalem
Josefs historia The story of Josef
De tio jungfrurna The ten virgins
Salomos kröning The crowning of Salomo
Vingårdsmannen The vine yard

The plant of eternal linguistic confusion
The name of the plant that the Lord gave to Jona, 
has caused endless trouble during history.

From Hebrew to Greek
The problem started when the Bible translation Septuaginta, from Hebrew into Greek, was made upon the order from the king of Alexandria because many Jews did not understand Hebrew.
In this Septuaginta the Qiqayon tree was translated with Qoloqunte because the words sounded alike and they didn't know the difference between the plants. 
But I find it strange that they could write that Jona was sitting under a Qoloqunte because that plant is laying on the ground on the sand in the desert so it is not possible to sit under it. It is also poisonous.
Maybe it was just explained as “a miracle of God”?
Or the scholars had never seen the plant?

Into Latin
There were several different translations of the Bible into Latin and in them, Jona was sitting under the gourd, the Cucurbita. Those translators probably knew that the Qoloqunte had big, round fruits that looked like gourds so they simply translated it with Cucurbita, the Latin word for the gourd.

The big quarrel broke out when Hieronymus (347-420) translated the Bible into Latin (the Vulgate) from Hebrew instead of Greek, and discovered the mistake. He knew that the Qiqayon tree was not a gourd, but the Latin language had no equivalent term for Qiqayon, so what to do? He had the opportunity to invent a new word, but in that case, nobody would have known the meaning of it anyway and being a man of knowledge he didn't want to use a meaningless word. On the other hand, he wanted to tell the others that he knew Hebrew. So he decided to show off by making his own conscious mistake and thus creating a debate about it, which he thought was better than to just silently repeat someone else´s unconscious mistake!  He now translated Qiqayon into Hedera instead of the old way: Qoloqunte into Cucurbita,
Et praeparavit Dominus Deus hederam. = The Lord created a Hedera.
But Cantherius got angry and said it was wrong and the war broke out. Hieronymus later wrote that he had been accused of sacriledge by Cantherius: ...”quod pro cucurbita hederam transtulerim” ...that I should have translated it into vine instead of gourd.
He defends his translation by stating that the plant involved is unknown to the Latins: voluimus idipsum Hebrae linguae nomen exprimere quia sermo Latinus hanc speciem arboris non habebat.
"We have wanted to express the name in accordance with the Hebrew language as the Latin language did not have such a tree."

How could the name of the plant be of such importance?
Does it really matter if Jona was hiding under this or that kind of tree? Maybe we can say that Hieronymus was an intellectual academic and Besserwisser, who wanted to say that the correct fact was more right than an emotional hang-up on a whimsy mistranslation. Maybe he wanted to protest against the worshiping of something, which he thought was not true. Or he was just an academic debate person.

A holy plant could not just be dismissed as "a mistake".
The big problem was that the Cucurbita was already an ingredient in the temple ceremonies and worshiped as the divine tree that comes as a miracle from God. (With both food and shelter, which is everything you need when you have got lost in a hot place.) And now Hieronymus made a serious attack on the whole foundation for this belief! He could prove that “the whole thing” was not true! Whoops!
I would guess that this confrontation between strict, intellectual knowledge and foggy, emotional belief was the real focus of his interest. People quarrel about similar things today.

What kind of fruit is the gourd?
A fruit is the ripened, swollen ovary (and pistil) of the flower. The fruit contains the seed which is the ripened ovules of the flower.
The ovary is the thick, round bottom part of the flower, which starts growing after conception (pollination), sometimes together with the floral tube.
The gourd has imperfect flowers and fruits of Pepo-type, which means that they have a hard outer rind, which can be formed by remaining leaves of the flower, which surround the thick ovary, the fruit, and grow together with it.
An imperfect flower is a flower that needs help from the outer world to pollinate, for example from bees, other insects or the wind. It is either male or female.
A perfect flower can do it all by itself because one flower contains both the male stamen and the female pistil.
The fruits are divided into different categories, where the cucumber, pumpkin, gourd and melon belong to the Pepo type.
These types of plants have imperfect flowers.

Does it matter?
Yes, talk about making a balloon out of nothing ...? 
The tree, that God originally, in Hebrew, gave to Jona, is most probably the Qiqayon, the Castor Oil Tree, Ricinus communis. 
It is a tree, two meters high, growing in Africa, Asia, and India.
Castor seed is the source of castor oil, which has a wide variety of uses. The seeds contain between 40% and 60% oil that is rich in triglycerides, mainly ricinolein
The seed contains ricin, a toxin, which is also present in lower concentrations throughout the plant.
It was used as burning oil in the lamps. Ricin toxicity.

The original Qiqayon was a better symbol.
Lamps with burning oil must have been used in the temples as symbols for the Light of God, the divine light in the darkness of the material world and also together with offerings to God on an altar.
Those countries do not have any mid-night sun in summer. They always have dark nights so they must have been very dependent on this oil as much as we are dependent on electrical lamps in autumn and winter. 
So the Castor Oil tree can be seen as both a symbol of the light in the dark night (the oil) and as a symbol for the shadow on a hot day (the leaves). And God gave to Jona a gift in the form of the plant that people were using for their offerings to God! It is a good symbolism already in that!

Maybe Hieronymus had ideas about oil being of greater importance, as food for the soul in the form of fire, light, and warmth rather than big fruits, which would merely be the food for the body.
(A similar conflict between "normal food" (for the body) and "spiritual food" (for the soul) is found in the problem of translating our daily bread in the prayer Our Father. It can also be translated into "spiritual nourishment" from panem supersubstantialem instead of panem quotidianum. They do not know how the correct translation should be.
A funny thing with the Castor Oil plant is that it already from the beginning looks like a biological confusion, because it has two kinds of green leaves, with different forms! 
During history, the plant has been involved in a never-ending biblical confusion, mainly between the Castor Oil tree and the gourd, the Kurbits.

Wrappers from Swedish knäckebröd, hard rye bread.



  1. Fantastisk historie Viveca

    Har du læst Janick og Paris afhandling om den bibelske baggrund?

    Den billedlige inspiration til disse "kurbits" ser iøvrigt ud til at være den fantastiske planteslægt Acanthus.


    Med venlig hilsen


  2. Akantus är antikens och renässansens bladornament. Och skåpmåleriets blommor, i stilen från Rättvik,tycks vara en direkt fortsättning av akantusornamenten.
    Här kan man inte se någon tydlig "kurbits".

    Det var målarna i Leksand, som målade "kurbits" = lat. Cucurbita = pumpa, gurka, gourd, squash.

    Men Jona i Bibeln satt inte under någon kurbits, han satt under en planta av ricinträdet Qiqayon.

    Dalablommorna kan man härleda bakåt till både akantusornament (bilden), ordet Cucurbita (språket)och historien om Jona under ricinonbusken Qiqayon (Bibeln).

    Det var språket,en gammal felöversättning, som orsakade att de hängde gurkor i akantusornamenten.

    Nej, jag har inte läst avhandlingen du nämner.


  4. Om akantusornamenten nu hade funnits inom konsten i ung. 2000 år och fanns i kyrkorna så blev dalmålarna nog påverkade av det, inte minst vid besök i Stockholm dit många av dem vandrade för att få arbete,till att göra ornament med fylliga, svängda former.

    Men i dalmålarnas verk tycker jag att akantusbladen i så fall har försvunnit och ersatts av andra former.
    I bilderna här ovan finns det bara en målning där man tydligt kan se akantusblad. Men de finns inte i själva kurbitsmålningen (plantan i vasen), de ligger som extra dekorationer vid sidorna.

    I Rättvik är det så stiliserat att det är svårt att känna igen några akantusblad. Inte heller några kurbits.
    Här har det i stället blivit fylliga, svängda penseldrag som fyller en yta.

    I Leksand är det kurbitsen som dominerar, dvs här är det de stora pumporna som har blivit fylliga och svängda medan bladen har blivit små och enkla.
    Pumporna har tagit över de fylliga akantusbladens dekorativa funktion.

    Eftersom man inte ser några akantusblad så har jag heller inte skrivit om dem.
    De finns ju tydligt i så mycket annan gammal dekorativ konst.

    The reason why I have not written about the acanthus leaves is that they seem to have influenced all kinds of decorative art almost everywhere in Europe, but in the Kurbits Paintings they are no longer visible.

    The thick, curved forms have in Rättvik been made by a lot of curved strokes by the brush and in Leksand we have the thick, curved gourds.

    In one of the paintings above there are acanthus leaves on the sides of the kurbits plant as extra decorations.

    My main interest was to focus on the word "kurbits".
    From where did it come, and how and why?

  5. Hejsan Viveca - mange tak for din lange artikel - særdeles interessant - især fordi vi lige er kommet hjem fra sommerferien - i Leksand!!! ja, ved Siljan i det hele taget.
    Mange gode hilsner til dig fra
    Anita i Danmark

  6. Hej Anita och tack för den trevliga kommentaren. Såg den inte förrän nu. Hälsningar Viveca.

  7. Wow!! Thank you for your fascinating research!
    Rachel M Johnson

  8. We have several kurbits, most of them big ones, bought in Sweden in the ‘60s, anyone interested in buying them?
    We live in Spain and can send photographs.
    Patricia and Cristina Siljeström
    Sevilla, Spain,

    1. I have put your text on the Kurbits-group at Facebook.

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  12. I am very interested in Kurbits paintings or even posters of the old pictures. Is it possible to buy anywhere?

  13. A poster is a painting/photo that you can post in the form of a roll. Usually it is a printed photo, but it could also be handpainted on paper or on canvas.
    If you have taken a good photo (high resolution) of an old painting you can get it printed.

  14. Here is an auction house that is selling old Dala paintings.

  15. Thank you!!! I enjoyed this so much!

  16. Vilken utförlig artikel! Underbar och så intressant läsning om en konstart som jag älskar! Tack!! Alltid roligt att lära sig nytt om allt gammalt.

  17. hi love this.hej ..... det är vårt kuklturarv hölsn john bevegård.