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The Tradition of Churches and Architecture in Hallgrimskirkja

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By Fr. Kurt Messick
Faculty Member, Humanities at American Public University

When one arrives in Iceland from elsewhere, generally it is to the airport in Keflavik, a remote location intentionally in the middle of nowhere, it seems. This is due to the fact that it was once a key NATO base. Now it is the major airport for the country. The trek to Reykjavik takes one across what might be described best as a moonscape on Earth — so moonlike, in fact, that NASA did some training here.

A hillside church in Reykjavik. Photo credit: APU faculty, Kurt Messick.
A hillside church in Reykjavik. Photo credit: APU faculty, Kurt Messick.

Closer in to Reykjavik, one begins to experience the bays (the term ‘vik’ is actually translated into the word ‘bay’ — Reykjavik thus means ‘smokey bay’), mountains, and lava fields. Dotted throughout the journey just off the highway are small churches.

When one journeys outside the city, one finds churches everywhere. There’s a reason for that — despite the fact that Iceland, like many European countries, has a relatively low church attendance rate, it still has a high number of churches due to the fact that so much of the culture is invested in the art, architecture, literature and music of the churches. Also, Danish royalty decided to gift churches to Icelanders frequently.

Most of these churches were built to very simple plans. They are rectangular buildings with a bell tower in front. None are too tall. None are too large. That is in keeping with Iceland overall, where the tenth largest “city” has a mere 4,400 residents, and the major town of Vik (Vík í Mýrdal to be exact), on the southern coast, has a mere 300.

However, there is a spirit of simplicity and purity that is retained in these churches. They often dominate their towns, as does the church at Vik, being built up on a hill above. They vary in color (a theme carried over to houses in Reykjavik and other places, where they are mostly built to a similar pattern but made unique in color and simple decorations) but not much else.

A few churches, however, stand apart from this tradition, none more so than the church at the top of the hill in central Reykjavik, Hallgrímskirkja. Taking inspiration from the natural rock formations around the small town of Vik, the northwestern facing front of Hallgrímskirkja has a rendering of column-like outcroppings similar to the geological formations on the coast.

Hallgrímskirkja church. Photo credit: APU faculty, Kurt Messick.
Hallgrímskirkja church. Photo credit: APU faculty, Kurt Messick.

Some have likened the church to the space shuttle as well. And thus we get a sense of natural and manmade, ancient and modern, depending upon which Rorschach inspiration hits the viewer. Architect Guðjón Samúelsson designed the church in 1937; it was finished in 1974. It is not the cathedral of the Church of Iceland (a Lutheran church by tradition), but is the largest in the area in many respects. Inside there is an organ of 5,275 pipes, but the plain white walls and unadorned columns remind the visitor and worshiper of the simplicity found in the smaller churches throughout the country.

Hallgrímur Pétursson was a clergyman from the 1600s who is best remembered for his hymns and poems. Hence, the largest church is named not for state or church administrative leaders, but for a cultural icon. Hallgrímur’s works are often used to this day in funerals and other holy days.

APU faculty, Kurt Messick, inside of Hallgrímskirkja.
APU faculty, Kurt Messick, inside of Hallgrímskirkja.

Being inside this church for the first time gave me a sense of awe and wonder that I’d only felt in a few other holy places around the world. This is no medieval or gothic cathedral, but it brought forth from me a very similar emotional and spiritual response despite the vastly different sensory experience being presented.

This is a holy place, and in part, it is what one makes of it because it has so much that is blank that must be filled in by the visitor who can use imagination to fill in the space.

About the Author

Fr. Kurt Messick teaches in philosophy and religious studies at APUS. His first experience of Iceland came as a child when his father was stationed at the NATO base in Keflavik during the 1960s. He has since been back many times. He has an interest in the situation of place, people, and spirituality.

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