Locks and keys in art

The keys to heaven

Perhaps it is not surprising that the first depictions of locks and keys can be found in our medieval churches. St. Peter bearing one or two keys has been depicted in a wide range of Christian contexts since the 5th century throughout Europe. You can find him in paintings, reliefs, baptismal fonts, sculptures, and more.

St. Peter is called the guardian of the gates of heaven, and the key or keys are his attribute. Since the 13th century, his successors to the Holy See – the popes – have had a coat of arms with two crossed keys, one silver and one gold.

Several baptismal fonts in medieval churches around Sweden picture Christ handing Peter the key to the Kingdom of Heaven. The Roman design of the key helps us date these churches, which were built in the 12th century.

Portal relief on the Martebo church, Gotland.
Portal relief on the Martebo church, Gotland. Photo by the author.


This type of lock is included in the limestone decorations of the door cornices in the medieval churches of Martebo and Gammelgarn on the island of Gotland. Both were made in the workshop of an anonymous stonecutter who called himself “Egypticus” in the 14th century. In Martebo, the stonecutter has portrayed with great realism the Devil temporarily chained and disarmed with a rope around his legs, locked with the padlock in this picture.

Reconstruction of the padlock on the port relief on Martebo Church, Gotland.
Reconstruction of the padlock on the port relief on Martebo Church, Gotland. Sketch by the author.


Barrel-shaped padlock of “iron” with an arched swing shackle that locks with ward springs. The lock has five reinforcements around the casing and another protecting the longitudinal joint underneath. The lock part with the springs is connected to a chain.

Crypt of the Lund Cathedral.
Crypt of the Lund Cathedral. Photo by the author.


The German architect and sculptor Adam van Düren worked in Sweden and Denmark in 1487–1532. In the early 16th century, he depicted a padlock on the western wall of a well basin in the crypt of the cathedral in Lund.