Hallgrímskirkja (“Church of Hallgrímur” in English) is one of Reykjavík’s main landmarks. The impressive church towers over the city’s skyline, rising out of the capital’s center like a concrete geyser.
But while these days it’s a much beloved building, the church used to be a rather controversial subject. Here is everything you need to know about Hallgrímskirkja.
#1 Hallgrímskirkja is the tallest building in Reykjavík
Rising 74,5 meters (244 feet) above the streets of the city center, Hallgrímskirkja (pronounced hatl-krims-kirk-ya), is the tallest building in Reykjavík and the second highest building in Iceland.
The tallest building in Iceland is an office tower by the Smáralind shopping center in the suburban municipality of Kópavogur, just south of Reykjavík. The office tower is a mere 3.1 meters taller than Hallgrímskirkja.
#2 The church took 41 years to build
Hallgrímskirkja was designed by the State Architect of Iceland, Guðjón Samuelsson, in 1937 after years of discussion about where to build a church named after (and to honor) Hallgrímur Pétursson, one of Iceland’s most famous pastors and poets.
With outbreak of the Second World War on the continent, construction of the church was delayed and only began after the war, in 1945. Work proceeded slowly, as the church was a monumental undertaking. The crypt beneath the chancel was constructed first, being consecrated in 1948. The steeple and the wings were then consecrated in 1974, while the final construction (that of the nave) was only completed in 1986.
#3 Its design takes inspirations from Icelandic nature
While architect Guðjón Samúelsson’s work was strongly influences by Scandinavian Modernism, known as Functionalism, he also sough inspiration from nature itself.
Guðjón designed the Lutheran church to resemble the trap rock formations, mountains and glaciers of Iceland’s landscape. This is most noticeable in the wings and the steeple of the church which were inspired by the famous cliffs of basalt columns found along the south coast of Iceland.
#4 Hallgrímskirkja was very controversial during construction
If there is one thing Icelanders love to bicker about endlessly, it’s new buildings or large construction works. Much like Harpa concert hall, Kringlan shopping center, the Hvalfjörður tunnel (to name just a few), the construction of Hallgrímskirkja sparked a nation-wide argument.
Those opposed to the church most often cited the significant construction cost or the sheer number of years it would take to fully construct…but some critics felt that Hallgrímskirkja was just plain ugly.
One particularly annoyed poet at the time ended a now famous poem with this line: “State architect, no more, no more” (in reference to Guðjón Samúelsson being the state architect).
#5 The statue in front of the church is of Leifur Eiríksson
The church’s front courtyard boasts an impressive statue of Norse explorer Leifur Eiríksson (Leif Erikson), the first European to land in North America, beating Christopher Columbus to the New World by some 500 years.
The statue of Leifur predates the church itself by quite a bit. The work of art was a gift to the people of Iceland from the United States in 1930 to honor the thousand-year history of the Icelandic parliament, which was formed at Þingvellir in 930 AD.
#6 The church organ boasts 5,275 pipes
Hallgrímskirkja’s spectacular organ weights around 25 tons and has 5,275 bellowing pipes. Built by German artisan Johannes Klais and installed in 1992, the 15 meter tall (50 feet) organ adds a splash of color to the church’s otherwise bleak interior. The church holds weekly services where devout and casual visitors can hear the organ being played, and each summer the church hosts an international festival of organ music.
#7 Hallgrímskirkja is not the cathedral of Reykjavík
Given the church’s size, commanding central location, and history, many foreign visitors understandably assume that Hallgrímskirkja is the cathedral of Reykjavík. However, this is not the case. It’s just a very large parish church!
Reykjavík Cathedral is much smaller and is located right next to the Icelandic parliament building. The cathedral predates Hallgrímskirkja by nearly 200 years as it was constructed in 1796 and is the seat of the Bishop of Iceland as well as being the mother church of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland.
#8 The massive metal door is a recent addition
The church’s two big bronze doors were installed in 2010 and they have the words “Komið til mín” displayed on the front, meaning “Come to me”.
Above the entrance is a verse from the Hymns of the Passion, a book containing hymns by Hallgrímur Pétursson, which the church is named after. The hymn reads thus in English:
“Dare not bring before thy God hypocrisy’s oblation. Stand in His holy place unshod with humble adoration. Bow before Him both heart and knee, confess His grace thine only plea, and shun all ostentation.”