- The oldest portal is Rosenportalen from the late 16th century
- Most of the portals were made in the 1600s
- Portals are often the only remaining original part of the 17th-century houses
- Sandstone and limestone were the most commonly used materials
Portals or grand entrances to historical buildings are an interesting phenomenon. They are commonly overlooked when people pass around them but greatly appreciated when presented to travellers in all of their beauty in pictures and on social media. Since Trevl is all about showing you the overlooked and underappreciated places that are often right in front of you, I tell you more about portals in Stockholm’s Old Town (Gamla stan) in this post. In a few days, I am also going to publish a post on where to find the most interesting ones.
In case you are uncertain about what exactly portals are, their definition is not very precise but essentially all grand entrances to buildings from houses to churches to palaces qualify as portals. Doors or gates are usually not considered parts of the portal itself, they just commonly happen to be there, so to say.
Stone portals are one of the characteristic features of the historic city centre of Stockholm and most notably, Gamla stan. They come in different shapes and sizes but at the same time they share some common elements and the majority of them come from roughly the same time period.
Among common elements displayed on portals, you will find inscriptions, exotic fruits, coats of arms as well as sculptures of people and animals. The inscriptions are most often in Latin and German, Swedish is a little less common. These details give us a more complex idea about the society at the time when the portals were built. Some of them also feature the year of completion, another interesting bit of information that is interesting to notice.
Displaying fruits on the façade of your house might seem like an odd idea today but exterior decorations shaped as exotic fruits were a big trend in Stockholm around the 17th century. At the time, the fruits symbolised wealth and glory as only the rich could afford these luxurious goods which had to be imported from afar and therefore their cost was enormous. Some sources suggest that the cost of a single pineapple in the 17th and 18th century could be as high as $5,000 to $10,000 in today’s money.
Of course, there have never been too many ways to show someone’s power, status and influence. Noble families thus displayed their coats of arms on their portals. These were usually put at the top of the portal right above the entrance so that no one would miss them. And consequently, no one would pass by the house without realising how important its owner was.
Most of the portals that you can see in Gamla stan today are from the 17th century. Some date back as far as to the 1500s, though. The oldest one is believed to be from the late 16th century and is well hidden at the end of a narrow street called Staffan Sasses gränd. Sadly, portals are often the only remaining original part of historical houses as they have usually been renovated several times and most of them have lost their excessive decorations in these renovations.
There are indeed a few houses that have been preserved to this day, though. One such, that you can see in the picture above (red house in the middle), is located at the famous Stortorget (Big Square). The Schantz House (Schantzska huset) was built in 1650 and thanks to its preserved façade it shows us how houses in Gamla stan looked in the mid-1600s.
Generally, two materials were used to build portals and the chosen material to a large extent defined the looks of the portal. The light grey sandstone from Gotland, the Swedish island in the Baltic Sea, is a softer stone which can easily be carved and hence suitable for portals with abundant ornamentation, sculptures and often deep volume. These sandstone portals usually stand on their own as an entirely separate part of the façade.
On the other hand, there are portals made of limestone from Öland, another island in the Baltic Sea. This stone of the typical reddish colour is considerably harder than sandstone and the portals made of it are therefore flatter and simpler in form, showing off the nice nuanced surface of the material. We could say that limestone portals follow Renaissance style whereas the sandstone ones represent Baroque.
However, it is difficult to estimate the age of a portal based on the artistic style it follows since the two aforementioned styles were commonly used during the same time period.
We do not have much information about the authors who created individual portals since it was uncommon for them to sign their work. Moreover, many of the frequent elements and in some cases even whole portals were made according to a pattern book that stonemasons normally used to produce their goods and to be able to have them ready for sale. At the time, this was a common practice among other craftsmen too.
Even though the space for individual and artistic work was restrained by the use of patterns, there were some exceptional craftsmen who were recognised for their unique style and skills. One such artist was the German stonemason Mårten Redtmer to whom many sculptures on portals around the Old Town are attributed.
Not unusually, important palaces and big churches are an exception to the rule and their portals are by no means ones you could find in an ancient pattern book. Also, their authors were the best of the best and their names are remembered in historical archives.
If you would like to see some of your favourite portals you have seen online in person or you want to take a few pictures yourself, keep an eye on Trevl as I am going to point you to some of the most interesting ones in the next issue of our series Places of Interest coming on Monday.
You will also soon find all beautiful portals from Stockholm in our android app Trevl where you can share your favourite places and stories too. I would like to get in touch with you on our Facebook page as well as our Instagram account where we keep you up to date with the latest additions to our blog and share pictures of our favourite places of interest in Stockholm and other major cities.
Larsson, Rikard, 2013. Portalerna i Gamla Stan.