Visiting churches in Reykjavik: Hallgrímskirkja and the Cathedral
You might not think of visiting this very nordic northern island in January, but it is actually pretty cool. Not just temperature-wise, but the landscape takes on an even more dramatic tone when covered in snow and ice. Iceland has become a very popular destination in the past 15 years, especially thanks to the creation of the stop-over on transatlantic flights, where you can stop in Iceland for up to 7 days with no extra charge when flying on Iceland Air, or WOW airlines.
Capital: Reykjavik ”Smoke Bay”
I took advantage of this one January on my way back to Germany from Denver, and braved the cold, which turned out not to be soo frigid as I expected. But much darker! I wasn’t sure what it would actually feel like to only have four hours of daylight, and it is something that you just have to experience to understand on a visceral level. It’s confusing, but then you turn towards your inner clock, and thank Loki for Iceland’s clever use of geothermal power which creates 25% of the country’s electricity. Street-lamps run on geothermal power, and even the sidewalks in Reykjavik remain snow and ice-free due to underground heaters.
Skyr, woolen knitwear, bearded men, glaciers, volcanoes, open sea—are all worthy symbols of Iceland, not to mention the most famous and much-touted geothermal heated Blue Lagoon. But one sight that marks the capital city Reykjavik is the Reykjavik Church, called the Hallgrímskirkja in Icelandic. It is the center point of downtown Reykjavík and the tallest, and largest church in Iceland and the most notable landmark. It is a Lutheran parish church, and its tower is 74 meters high.
The church’s name Hallgrímur comes from the famous Icelandic poet and preacher Hallgrímur Pétursson who lived in the 1600s, and according to legend had to leave Seminary because of impregnating a married woman from a group of Icelanders whom he was re-educating after their release from captivity by Algerian pirates. But all turned out well as she had actually been widowed so they married and lived happily ever after; and Hallgrímur went on to write his 50 “Passion Hymns” to be meditated on during Lent.
Guðjón Samúelsson was the architect for the project and he is said to have found inspiration in the heavenly waterfall Svartifoss inside Skaftafell.
The inside of Hallgrímskirkja is stunning, its organ the largest organ found in Iceland, weighing over 25 tons. The organ was inaugurated in 1992 and was constructed by German organ builder Johannes Klais from Bonn.
Inside, you can take the elevator up to the church tower for a fee, where you can see the church clocks up close and enjoy the view over all of Reykjavík. The windows are tinted in different colors so you can view the city with different filters but there is also a spot to see it in its original form.
In front of the church, you’ll see a large statue of Leif Eiríksson, the Icelander who discovered Vinland (America) before the ‘old world’ was ready for it. The statue was a gift from the United States in celebration of the 1000 year anniversary of the Icelandic parliament.
The tower is closed on Sundays from 10:30 – 12:15 as mass is at 11:00.
Religion in Iceland:
The constitution of 1874 guarantees religious freedom, but the constitution also specifies that the “Evangelical Lutheran Church is a national church and as such it is protected and supported by the State.”
The Lutheran Church of Iceland is organized in one diocese headed by the Bishop of Iceland, with the current Bishop and first female in the role: Agnes M. Sigurðardóttir
Christianity has been in Iceland as long as there have been humans living there, the only European nation to be able to say so. Settled by Chalcedonian (adhering to the theology established at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD) Irish hermits seeking a place to worship, who were later driven out by pagan Norse settlers. When Iceland was constituted as a Republic in 930 AD, it was based upon Norse mythology. Catholic Christian missionaries followed over 100 years later.
At the famous legislative assembly, the Alþingi at Þingvellir, in the year 1000, the country was on the brink of civil war due to these competing religions. The leaders chose a person that everybody respected for his wisdom, the heathen priest and chieftain, Þorgeir of Ljósavatn, to decide the fate of the land. After spending a day and night in silent meditation, Þorgeir called the assembly together and announced his decision. “If we put asunder the law, we will put asunder the peace,” he said. “Let it be the foundation of our law that everyone in this land shall be Christian and believe in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.“
Besides the landmark Reykjavik Church, I also passed by the Reykjavik Cathedral which is located in the city’s main public squares, Austurvöllur.
Dómirkirkja or Reykjavik Cathedral does not look like many cathedrals I’ve seen in big cities around Europe. It is much smaller and even reminds me of some country churches in the USA. It was built by Danish workmen in the 1788 in neoclassic style, but the site has been a church since the 1200s, when Iceland was still divided into two diocese. It is where the people in the Icelandic Parliament join for mass before starting a new session and it is where the Christmas mass is broadcasted from and is considered very sacred.
Currency: Icelandic Kroner (about 120 Kroner to 1 USD)
Everything is expensive in Iceland. For example: $35 for a European size-portioned (and delicious) main course at a restaurant, not including any drinks or other dishes. Buying food in the grocery store and cooking at your AirBnb if possible is one way to keep within your budget, but be warned.
I stayed at the tastefully decorated Eric the Red Guesthouse, which was quite cozy and hosted by a lovely woman who made a delicious breakfast buffet, and I used Gray Line tours to book the Golden Circle tour of the three major tourist sites (I didn’t get to see the Northern Lights because it was overcast at night during my visit, but the other sites were still worth it!)