Friday, 5 July 2013

The Wooden Poorboys of Western Finland

Do you know what is vaivaisukko, a wooden poorboy? I have always been intrigued by those human-shaped sculptures silently waiting for your handouts in the shadows of a church. Created by local craftsmen in Western Finland, they replaced the ordinary coffers for donating money to the poor. Who first came with this creative idea, is unknown, but about 180 poorboys are traced, a couple as far as to 17th century. There are about 145 poorboys still existing, one of them being a poorgirl. Recently, I visited an exhibition presenting around 40 poorboys from the churches of Western Finland. The fellow above was sculpted in 1853 in Saloinen. Before going into a more detail, let me say first a few words about the exhibition location itself.
The exhibition takes place in the wooden heart of Eastern Finland. Built in 1847, the Kerimäki Church is no less than the biggest Christian wooden church in the world. The architect was Anders Granstedt and the master builder Axel Magnus Tolpo, followed by his son Theodor Tolpo.
There have been speculations that the imposing size was a result of a measuring error. In truth, the original plan was extended so that half of the current parish residents could fit in. There is seating for over 3,000 persons; for 5,000 if some are standing. Despite its size, the interior looks delicate and harmonious.
Outside the summer, the church is closed - with one exception. On Christmas morning, there's a Mass here. These stoves have not been used since 1940's, and during the winter it's freezing inside. The people are dressed in their warmest and wrapped in blankets. The church is lit up with an array of real candles. Needless to say, it's really beautiful, really cold - and the fire service is keeping a tight watch.
Now back to the poorboys! (The poorgirl of Soini was also here, but she returned home before Midsummer.) Among the poorboys still existing, many of them were created in style of the veterans of the Finnish War (1808-1809). They have peg legs and canes and they were used to collect money especially for war invalids. This poorboy from Evijärvi was made in 1842.
Many poorboys are accompanied with a short text, like a citation from Psalms (41:1): Blessed is he that considereth the poor: the Lord will deliver him in time of trouble; or a fragment from Proverbs (19:17): He that hath pity upon the poor lendeth unto the Lord.
Some one had placed coins in the begging hand of this poorboy. Actually, the coins should be dropped into the hole like filling a piggy bank.
This beautiful young man looks so innocent, fragile and frightened. Coming from 19th century Jurva, he resembles midshipman Wellard, played by Terence Corrigan in Hornblower movies. There is no evident physical injury, but his pale face tells about the terrors of war.
The oldest still existing Finnish poorboy is this Blind Bartimeus of Hauho which was created in the end of 17th century. Looking like a pilgrim, he resembles renaissance and baroque sculptures. His body has expressive movement, whereas the other poorboys are rigid as Finnish folk dancers. In 1710's, during the Greater Wrath, when Russia occupied Finland, a Cossack stroke Bartimeus in the head with a sword. Doesn't the scar just emphasize his calm devoutness?

This elegant blue gentleman is from 1870's Kurikka. For some reason he reminds me of Marc Chagall's painting Above the Town, of which a printed copy used to hang on the walls of my childhood home. There's something Slavic and surrealistic in this man. Isn't he like dropped from a dream? I'm convinced his cane is actually an umbrella; some day he will open it and fly back to the skies.
Well here's a healthy looking chap! Coming from 19th century Rautio, he is wearing a black frock coat, white pantaloons and an imposing top hat.
This tortured uncle from 19th century Haapavesi made me think of captured Hannibal Lecter. The poorboy was moved to the open-air museum Seurasaari already in 1930's. Long years outside took their toll, the fellow is quite weathered. I even heard birds nested in his coin box hole!
What a charmer! This mustached chap from 1860's Alaveteli must be my favorite. His broken chest makes him look a bit like an instrument or a mechanical doll. His eyes are quite mesmerizing; I'm sure he is a magician.
This old man looks poor indeed. There is something very genuine in his expression.
Would you give your money to this man? This fellow from Ylistaro looks quite confident that you would - or at least should!

The exhibition is open daily until 31.8.2013. In addition to the poorboys, there are also artist Antti Ojala's naivistic and charming portraits of them. More info (in Finnish) about poorboys on the website of Pelastakaa vaivaisukot ry.


  1. Very interesting post Ruusu! The one from 19th century Rautio looks like a playmobil to me :)

    1. Haha, yes, there's something really special in him! Some of the poorboys are just so adorable... they are like giant toys. :)

  2. Really cool post, thank you! :)

  3. Täytyy käydä katsomassa joku kerta kun ajamme ohitse!