Hallgrímskirkja church in the City Center district in Reykjavík

  • Hallgrímskirkja church
    Hallgrímskirkja church
Feb 8 2017

Skólavörðurholt in the Reykjavík City Center district is a hill that for decades and even centuries was the highest point in the town of Reykjavík. That was before the districts of Árbær, Breiðholt and Grafarvogur developed on land with higher elevation, and before Reykjavík became a city.  As early as the second decade of the twentieth-century ideas began to surface suggesting to build a church on the Skólavörðuholt hill. In the third decade elaborated proposals started to see daylight as the State Architect titled House Master of the State, Guðjón Samúlelsson, presented his grand idea about several buildings at Skólavörðuholt.  Ideas that were supposed to represent the highest elevation of Icelandic culture, in any sense of the word. An idea that never came to live apart from the idea of building a church at Skólavörðuholt.

A building that sparked decades of disputes

The State Architect and Hous Master of the State Guðjón Samúelsson is a remarkable person in Icelandic history. In addition to being the architect of Hallgrímskirkja church, he is also the architect of the main building at the University of Iceland, The National Theater in the Reykjavík City Center and many other significant buildings in Reykjavík and around the country.  His work and plan regarding Hallgrímskirkja started around 1937, and construction began around 1945. 41 years later when the church was dedicated and blessed in 1986,  it had initiated a flood of disputes and political battles while under construction. People argued left and right about the cost, the height of the tower, whether the church was beautiful or a blend of ugly contradicting architecture and many other matters as the church stood half built for decades.

Hallgrímskirkja is a very Icelandic architectural phenomenon

At the time when the initial design began, only a few artists, natural scientist, and few people interested in traveling the countryside in Iceland for the purpose of enjoyment, really understood the value of our natural wonders. Guðjón Samúelsson was one of those who knew and appreciated the Icelandic nature. Born and raised at Hunkubakkar only a few minutes walk from Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon and having the mind of an artist and designer, it is not difficult to understand why he sought inspiration to the many natural wonders.  One of the most obvious references is the basalt column that we can see at Dverghamrar not far from his home and also at Gerðuberg and Svartifoss in Skaftafell. Many admirers also see a reference to mountains, icebergs, and glaciers. Although seen as a part of the early 20th-century expressionist architecture it is a very Icelandic phenomenon when we look at the reference to many of our natural wonders.

The name and the historical source

Hallgrímskirkja or The Church of Hallgrímur took its name from one of the most prominent individuals in the 17th century. Hallgrímur Pétursson (1614 - 1674) was a minister at Hvalsneskirkja in the Reykjanes Peninsula and later the Saurbær Church in Hvalfjörður.  His life was quite colorful but an influential pastor at his time. Hallgrímur was also a poet and wrote some of the most important hymns in Iceland.  His work, the Passion Hymns, consisting of 50 hymns dedicated to "The history of the pain and death of our Lord, Jesus Christ," is regarded as one of the most valuable contributions in Icelandic literature.

The great building, a great church and the best-known landmarks in Reykjavík

Today Hallgrímskirkja is one of the most famous landmarks in Reykjavík and probably one of the best-known landmarks in Iceland alongside some of our renowned waterfalls, basalt column sites, iceberg lagoons and hot springs.  It is probably the most photographed item in Iceland.  As a church, it is a wonderful and peaceful place to attend service and find a sanctuary for prayers. It has overcome most of the criticism and is considered by many an important and beautiful construction. The 73-meter tower is one of the most popular observation panels in Iceland welcoming hundreds of visitors every day of the year. Today it is very very difficult for anyone in Reykjavík to imagine the city without this greatly admired church.