Introduction to


Most of the memorial portraits on the Livinghistory website are to be found in churches in Denmark, although a few now hang in museums. The earliest of these family portraits of well-to-do citizens are from the 1570s, the production of them lasting for a period of just over a century. A regulation was passed in 1682 forbidding the creation of more and their production died out during the next twenty years. More memorial portraits were created than now exist as during the 19th century some churches disposed of them.

The memorial portraits were painted ‘to honour God, decorate the church and in remembrance of the family’. The earliest usually have a biblical background. The families depicted were middleclass, typically wealthy merchants, officials or clergy with their wives and children. They were often painted when one or both of the couple had died, and were hung in the church over their grave. Many show extended families, e.g. a Næstved portrait shows a merchant with his four wives. The deceased members of the family are depicted wearing the fashions of their day.  All of their children are included; the dead ones are usually shown wearing a wreath or holding a flower.  A few include sons- and daughters-in-law and grandchildren.

The clothes worn, which is of course what we are interested in, are their black churchgoing outfits and headgear.  This we have established from inventories of the belongings of some of the subjects. We know that these citizens also possessed practical everyday wear and more flamboyant dresses and headwear for social occasions. Even these somber churchgoing outfits appear to follow the changing fashions throughout the century. Although we still need to see many more memorial portraits from Funen and Jutland, there appears to be only minor regional differences.

It should also be noted that the fashion for wearing ruffs faded out in the 1620s, with one exception.  A long black gown accompanied by a ruff became from 1639 the official regulation dress for the clergymen of the Danish Lutheran church. This was also their everyday wear until the late 1700s. Today Danish clergy still wear a slightly modernized version of the 17th century gown and ruff. Female clergy use the same ‘dress’ the only difference being the gown buttons to the left.