Iceland’s take on religion
Iceland has been dubbed the world’s most religious Country.
Statics of regular church goers, however, suggest Iceland is little different from other Western countries including New Zealand. Eighty per cent of Icelanders claim to be Lutheran, modelled on Martin Luther’s 16th century version of Protestantism. The principal Lutheran cathedral is the Hallgrimskikirkja a landmark of the island’s Capital, Reykjavik. The striking wood and concrete structure is named after the seventeenth-century religious poet, Hallgrimur Petursson.
Its space shuttle-like design has divided Reykjavik citizens over the years. Its much visited interior is distinguished by its organ having 5275 pipes, maybe more than any other cathedral’s King of Instruments.
Christianity was introduced to Iceland in about 1000 AD.
The King of Norway had dispatched missionaries to Iceland. Christianity clashed with the belief in pagan Norse gods, dividing Iceland. It was resolved, according to legend, at Thingvellir a popular stopping place for tourists. About an hour’s drive from Reykjavik, it is a geological curiosity where tourists walk through a cleft of lava created by the shifting of two tectonic plates, the Eurasian to the east and North American to the West.
This dramatic landscape was the unlikely site of the world’s first democracy, the Althing. Chiefs from all over Iceland gathered here to discuss matters of mutual interest. The designated speaker stood in a spot where his voice was best amplified by natural acoustics. When a debate was in progress about Iceland adopting Christianity a runner arrived with the news a volcanic eruption was sending lava flow towards the farm of one the debaters. Surely a sign their Norse gods were unhappy. Further debate concluded volcanic eruptions were a natural phenomenon in Iceland and the Althing adopted Christianity.
Christianity as the official Icelandic religion, introduced the concept of Hell. Hell and volcanoes became partners in doom –one as imaginary as the other was real.
But Christianity also opened Iceland to more cultural exchange, particularly from Nordic countries.
Iceland has many delightful Scandinavia-style wooden churches scattered through rural landscapes. One on our travel schedule was Skalholt. It is larger than most Iceland churches and designated a cathedral. The present church was completed in 1963.
Former churches had been destroyed by fire. From 1056 to 1785, Skalholt was also a political and cultural centre.
It continued as an episcopal see following the Reformation when Skalholt became Lutheran.
Catholicism came to an infamous end at Skalholt in 1550 when Bishop Jon Arason was executed along with his two sons.
Interior, Skalholt Cathedral
Bishop Jon Arason's stone coffin
The much-visited church and surrounds became an archaeological excavation site. Along with the cathedral were a school, monastery, accommodation dormitories and an extensive farming smithy.
The stone coffin of Bishop Jon Arason is on display in the church basement. A crack across the stone is said to have been caused by heat. It was in a former church on the site when it caught fire.
Many cultural events such as concerts are held in Skalholt. Foremost of these is the Summer Concerts program in July, in which prominent classical musicians and choirs are invited to perform.