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8 Interesting Facts about Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavik

Iceland surely isn’t known for its monumental buildings but rather for its incredible wealth of natural wonders.

That makes picking a feat of architecture that stands out pretty easy, especially considering the fact that this building in Reykjavik is extremely distinctive.

This famous church is one of the tallest buildings in the country and can be seen from all around Iceland’s capital city.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the most interesting facts about Hallgrímskirkja, a great example of Expressionist architecture.

1. It’s located just east of the historical heart of Reykjavik

Hallgrímskirkja is a Lutheran church (Church of Iceland) that is by far the best-known landmark in Reykjavik and in the country.

It’s located just east of the city center which is situated near a lake called “Tjörnin.” It’s here that most of the historic buildings in the city can be found.

Even though the first Norse settlers arrived in the early 870s, most parts of the city consisted of nothing more than farmland until the 18th century.

Today, the metropolitan area of Reykjavik is home to over 233,000 people which is the majority of the over 376,000 people who live on the island.

Hallgrimskirkja location
The church in the heart of Reykjavik / Srikanth Jandhyala / Wiki Commons

2. It was designed by the state architect of Iceland in 1945

The commission for the building came about in 1937, the year that State Architect Guðjón Samúelsson (1887-1950) was asked to design a plan for a new church.

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He designed a remarkable Expressionist building that is defined by a large curved tower. This was meant to resemble the mountains and glaciers that can be found in Iceland.

The most notable example of a natural landmark that resembles the design of the church is Svartifoss, a waterfall that is surrounded by remarkable lava columns.

Samúelsson designed multiple famous buildings in Iceland, including the University of Iceland and the Landakotskirkja in Reykjavík.

Famous buildings in Reykjavik Hallgrimskirkja
Frontal view of the church / Wiki Commons

3. The Expressionist design was inspired by a similar church in Copenhagen

The natural landscape of Iceland wasn’t the only source of inspiration for the architect. He was also inspired by a famous landmark in Copenhagen.

Grundtvig’s Church in the Danish capital features the same design elements as Iceland’s most famous church and was completed in 1940, around the time that the design was completed.

Even though the curved tower is the main attraction of the church, it also features a traditional nave and a domed sanctuary on the opposite end.

Grundtvigs Church
Grundtvigs Church /Lars Mongs / Wiki Commons

4. It took over 40 years before Hallgrímskirkja was completed

The first stone of the church was laid in the year 1945 and it wasn’t completed until 1986, exactly 41 years after construction had started.

Despite the fact that it took so long, many parts were already completed much earlier:

  • The crypt beneath the choir was consecrated in 1948, just 3 years after construction had started.
  • The distinctive tower of the church was completed in 1976.
  • The nave took the longest to complete and was only consecrated in 1986.
Hallgrimskirkja sideview
Sideview of the church / Andrea s Tille / Wiki Commons

5. The church was named after a 17th-century Icelandic poet

The church was named in honor of poet and cleric Hallgrímur Pétursson (1614–1674), the man who wrote the famous Icelandic Passion Hymns.

He was the minister at Hvalsneskirkja and Saurbær in Hvalfjörður in the Western part of the country and has another church dedicated to him as well.

His Passion Hymns consist of 50 different poetic texts that are related to the Passion of Jesus Christ during the final days of his life.

Hallgrimur Petursson
Hallgrímur Pétursson / Wiki Commons

6. Only one building in Iceland is taller than this amazing structure

Hallgrímskirkja is not only one of the most prominent buildings in the area, but it’s also one of the tallest buildings in Iceland.

The church stands 74.5 meters (244 feet) tall and this height makes it the second-tallest building in the country (excluding some telecommunication towers).

It was the tallest building in the country for over 30 years and was only surpassed by the slightly taller Smáratorg Tower in 2007, an office building that stands 78 meters (256 feet) tall.

Famous buildings in Reykjavik
The view from the top of the church / Wiki Commons

7. The interior of the church resembles that of a Gothic cathedral

The church has become a symbol of Iceland and that’s mainly because of the distinctive tower that dominates the building’s façade.

The nave of the building features a Gothic Revival design which means it resembles that of the famous Gothic cathedrals that were constructed in Europe during the Middle Ages.

This was also one of the reasons why the building wasn’t necessarily received well by critics upon completion. The eclectic nature of the building only received a lukewarm response.

Hallgrimskirkja church Reykjavik interior
Interior of the church / Steven Lek / Wiki Commons

8. The statue of a famous Norse explorer stands in front of it

The area near the entrance of the church is decorated with a sculpture of Jesus Christ that was donated by Icelandic sculptor Einar Jónsson in 1948.

Other remarkable features of the church are two large pipe organs. One of these was completed in 1992, stands 15 meters tall (49 feet), and weighs 25 tonnes.

Just outside of the church, you can find a colossal sculpture that depicts Leif Erikson (970 – 1020), a Norse explorer who is believed to have set foot in Borth America over 5 centuries before Columbus.

It predates the church because it was a gift from the United States in the early 1930s and was sculpted by American sculptor Alexander Stirling Calder (1870-1945).

Reykjavik church statue
Detail of the statue of Leif Erikson / Laszlo Ilyes / Wiki Commons