"My most important work of art!" Was BV's comment on the commissioned altarpiece in Växjö Cathedral. His questing nature merged with an aspiration for a spiritual dimension in his art by encapsulating light together with symbols.

The Cathedral in Växjö can hardly be accused of making hasty decisions. The competition relating to a new altarpiece went on for almost a decade. Throughout this time the theme has been: "The journey of life from darkness to light". Some hundred artists have, with furrowed brow, pondered long and hard before submitting their proposals - some of which are undoubtedly very good, while others are both stylistically and financially unviable. A number of factors must agree if a proposal is to survive even the first round
Embellishing a church is no easy task. Especially in the case of an altarpiece, which constitutes the main focal point (in a church). There are several aspects to be considered by the artist - the religious (Christian) symbolism, as well as the historical and architectural aspects. The trivial, or ridiculous has no place here. The Church stands for strength and stability, solemnity, and joy.

In the final round of the competition, 1998, two candidates remained: namely, Monica Backström (Boda) and Bertil Vallien (Åfors). Admittedly, neither of them were new to the work of public decoration, churches included. Witness Backström's stained-glass window for the Påskallavik church, and Vallien's sandcast crosses and baptismal fonts in Höör, Linköping and Uppsala.
The result of the competition was announced in May, 1999: Bertil was to carry out the work. Three years later the altarpiece was completed - a scintillating masterpiece that captures to perfection the theme of the journey from darkness to light.

With a height of five and a half metres, the altarpiece is a monumental creation The doors, which are four metres high, each contain six small blue glass heads, representing the twelve apostles. When closed, the altarpiece has an austere rectangular appearance; the surface colour - a greyish-bronze - is made from a blend of wax and rosin. The upper part of the piece is dominated by a sand-cast head of Christ, with a crown of thorns wrought in metal.
When the doors are opened a world of light is revealed. A large, embosoming cross, constructed from blocks of sand-cast glass, forms the central point* of the piece. The back of the doors are painted gold, symbol of eternity. The lower part of the doors are perforated with small holes to form a chequered pattern. The holes signify mankind. The triangular shaped walls, a feature echoed in the cross, are painted in red and orange. The background of the upper part of the cross is sky blue.

Both sides of the cross are flanked by blue tiles, which on closer inspection, turn out to be sixteen sand-casted blocks of cobolt-blue glass. Their stylised motifs relate to episodes from the Old and New Testaments: Adam and Eve, The Serpent's temptation, the Arc of the Covenant; Jacob's ladder; Moses and the Tablets, King David, The Song of Songs; The afflictions of Job, The Madonna and Child ; The Magi; the casting out of the merchants from* the Temple; The Sermon on the Mount; The Good Samaritan, The head of John the Baptist, Mary Magdalene and the miracle of the five loaves and three fishes.

The Cross rests on a large head. The glass cubes in the lower half of the cross have a darker tone, which is echoed in the background colour of the wall. The large head is encircled in *black, which gives way to the fiery flames of Hell. The glass blocks in the upper part of the cross are transparent and in the middle is a circular, clear glass Mandela - "Rex Gloriae". On the back of the altarpiece there are a number of symbols, including the three cardinal virtues: Faith (cross), Hope (anchor) and Charity (heart). Here, too the sixteen glass blocks now have a more expressive appearance.

Author Gunnar Lindqvist (Vallien's biographer) sees the altarpiece as a further endeavour to isolate the spiritual light in his glass artefacts. Lindqvist ends his book about the altarpiece, "Fiat Lux - and there was light", with these words:

"It is in the endeavour to capture the heavenly light, a light so powerful to man, that the altarpiece in Växjö may be seen as a masterpiece of innovation. By harnessing the medieval view of divine light, BV's modern working methods, have, paradoxically, laid the basis for artefacts that embody the medieval vision of the guiding light of paradise."

In 1998, while the competition was still in progress, Bertil described the altarpiece, and his thoughts relating to the message of the church, spirituality and death:

What ideas underlie the altarpiece?

- The first concern is Brazda's stained-glass windows at the back of the cathedral. Then there's the chancel (altar room) to consider. I have tried to tackle the problem on the basis of architectonic principles, by creating a shape that reinforces the space and is not too clumsy. l
The doors of the altarpiece can be opened and closed - which is quite fun (interesting), and I hope the ministers will think so too. It's a good solid construction, the doors are four metres high - I can imagine it being quite effective when the doors are opened before the congregation.

-When closed, the altarpiece is dark and subdued, and enigmatic. When opened, it's a shimmering spectacle of red, gold and orange. The effect/emotional impact* of opening is crucially important...and marks a new phase - it symbolises the opening of the doors of heaven. It's the fundamental architectural idea of the altarpiece, one might say - as an experience of spatial form.

What significance does a church have for you/mean to you?

-I don't profess to be a practising Christian. But as I was born in Sweden, and into a non-conformist home, to boot, it goes without saying. Our entire history and moral-code is based on Christianity/the Christian ethic.
But apart from that, I see the church as one of the few places of refuge/sanctuaries in the community. When I enter a church I'm seized with religious fervour and take off my hat.

-It's the message and what the church represents: heaven on earth, but also the respect that the edifice itself inspires, and the people who come here. Many of them have a special reason for coming - they seek peace and comfort. Another aspect is the stability of the church. It's different with the decoration of a bank, or university; you know that in five years time a computer, or copying-machine will have been installed, or a floral arrangement. People care more about the interior of a church.

What does spirituality mean to you?

- What spirituality is? It's having a connection with, and belief in the irrational. Finding values in life that cannot be explained. Hope and trust in a life after death. I believe that there are feelings and emotional moods/atmospheres that cannot be corroborated/controlled/explained in a rational way. Spirituality may take the form of listening to music. When you listen to music you can find values and connect with your inner self or with other worlds. It's the same with art, you might ponder/think about the mechanisms by which a person lives and thinks. Where love and romance comes in.

Can Art alleviate people's suffering?

- I think music is the most wonderful medium of all. The most fantastic form of communication and of art there is, because it's so abstract. With music, we accept the fact that it doesn't represent anything more than what arises in our own hearts and heads. That's the nice thing about music. And of course, music can inspire me to work. It can make me happy or stir me, according to the harmonic mood.
Good theatre, film and art also has a similar effect. They impart knowledge and highlight issues that one has pondered about. I believe that the essence of art is to convey new experiences.

What is your view of Death?

-I'm terrified of dying. Insofar as I think about it. Which is quite often as one gets older or when one comes into contact with it, it's frightening. I'd be lying if I said otherwise. Death is inexorable. Everything just comes to an end. Is that really how it is?

Sketches for the sandcasted glassblocks. Scenes from the Old Testaments. Photo: Hans Runesson.







Bertil do some sketching. Photo: Hans Runesson.





Bertil togheter with Åke Edvardsson during the sandcasting. Photo: Hans Runesson.






The altarpiece in Växjö Cathedra. Photo: Tord Lund.








A close - up. Photo: Anders Qvarnström.







The backside of the altarpiecet. Photo: Anders Qvarnström.

The altarpiece with closed doors. Photo: Anders Qvarnström.






Bertil with his assistent Per Gunnar Johansson. Photo: Hans Runesson.