Hallgrímskirkja Church in Reykjavík, Iceland

Hallgrímskirkja Church in Reykjavík, Iceland

On Skólavörðuholt, in the centre of Reykjavík, stands Hallgrímskirkja, the largest church in Iceland. It is the country’s second-tallest building, at 73m [240 ft], and its tower provides breathtaking views of Reykjavík and beyond. Hallgrímskirkja is an Evangelical-Lutheran Christian church. Its name translates to Hallgrímur’s Church, built in memory of honorary Icelandic hymn writer and pastor Hallgrímur Pétursson. In addition to masses, the church has a rich community of social activities and events, both educational and artistic, through art exhibitions, meetings, classes and concerts.

Hallgrímur Pétursson

Hallgrímur Pétursson was an Icelandic pastor and a poet. He moved to Germany and later Denmark to study. There, he met Guðríður, an Icelandic woman who had been kidnapped, along with a group of other Icelanders, by Algerian pirates and bought and freed by the Danish. Hallgrímur taught the group about Christianity. He and Guðríður later moved to Iceland as she carried their child. There, they married, and he became a pastor. Hallgrímur died from leprosy in 1674 at the age of 60. His most famous work is the Passion Hymns, 50 poetic texts that follow the story of Jesus Christ from the time he entered the garden of Gethsemane to his death and burial, often known as the Passion Narrative. These hymns have been translated into multiple languages and are some of the most-read texts in Iceland.

The architect of Hallgrímskirkja church

In 1937, the respected state architect Guðjón Samúelsson began his draft of what would be his last work: Hallgrímskirkja. He had previously designed the main building of the University of Iceland, Landakot Catholic Church, and the National Theatre, all in downtown Reykjavík. He wanted the church to reflect Iceland’s landscape of mountains, glaciers and pillar rock formations.

The construction of Hallgrímskirkja church

The decision to build the church was made in 1929, and Guðjón Samúelsson began drafting its design eight years later. The construction started in 1945, and three years later, the choir’s cellar was sanctified and used as a church hall for masses. In 1973, the larger hall came into use for masses, and then Hallgrímskirkja was consecrated on October 26, 1986, the day before the 312th anniversary of Hallgrímur Pétursson’s passing. The same year, Reykjavík celebrated its 200th anniversary.

The church’s interior

The stained glass window above the church entrance, the glass artwork on the door leading to the nave, the baptismal font and the pulpit are all works of artist Leifur Breiðfjörð. The baptismal font is made from Icelandic basalt columns and Czech crystal and was a gift from the church’s Women’s Association. The pulpit was gifted to the church by former bishop Sigurbjörn Einarsson, the first pastor of Hallgrímskirkja church. In addition, there are notable artworks and sculptures such as Einar Jónsson’s bronze statue in memory of Hallgrímur as well as his statue of Jesus Christ, Guðmundur Einarsson’s painting of Mother Mary with the child, Sigurjón Ólafsson’s Píslarvottur (Martyr) sculpture, and Kristín Gunnlaugsdóttir’s icons of archangels Gabriel and Mikael.

The organ in Hallgrímskirkja, Reykjavík
Photo: Golli. The Organ in Hallgrímskirkja Church.

The largest organ in Iceland

The organ in Hallgrímskirkja church is the largest in the country, with four keyboards, 72 stops and 5,275 pipes, the highest pipe being 10 m [33 ft]. The whole organ is 15 m [49 ft] high and weighs 25 tons. Many of the pipes have been gifted to the church through monetary donations. It is, in fact, possible to purchase a gift certificate in the church shop and receive a document stating that the recipient is the pipe’s owner.

The church bells

Hallgrímskirkja church has three large bells and 26 smaller ones. The largest bell is named Hallgrímur and gives the tone H, and the second-largest is named Guðríður after Hallgrímur’s wife, which provides the tone D. The third largest is named Steinunn, after their daughter, who passed away young. The bell gives the tone E. The church bells ring every 15 minutes, Monday to Friday, from 9 AM to 9 PM, but on weekends and holidays when mass is not held, they ring from noon to 9 PM. The largest bell, Hallgrímur, rings every whole hour.


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Take Me to Church

It’s a cold Sunday morning as I make my way up Skólavörðustígur towards the mighty Hallgrímskirkja church, a white, tapered structure that towers gracefully over downtown Reykjavík like a huge upside-down icicle. Very few people are out and about, and from the looks of it, most of them are tourists. None of them, however, look like they’re on their way to mass.

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Hallgrímskirkja Tower Reopens

hallgrímskirkja reykjavík

Hallgrímskirkja tower reopened this morning following a five-week closure to replace its lift, mbl.is reports. The tower’s new lift travels 1.6m (5.3ft) per second, 60% faster than its predecessor.

Towering over downtown Reykjavík, Hallgrímskirkja church is a popular spot among tourists. Hundreds of thousands go up its tower every year to enjoy its panoramic view of the city. Admission to the tower earned the church ISK 238 million ($2.3 million/€2 million) in 2016.

At this time of year, the tower normally has some 1,000 visitors per day. Sigríður Hjálmarsdóttir, Hallgrímskirkja’s CEO, says many have been disappointed by the closure. “People don’t always take it well, but this is of course an important safety issue,” she stated. The tower’s previous lift was around 50 years old and therefore needed to be replaced. Unlike its predecessor, the new lift will be usable in emergencies.

Hallgrímskirkja Tower Closed for Five Weeks

hallgrímskirkja reykjavík
Hallgrímskirkja tower will be closed to visitors for five weeks while its lift is replaced. According to Vísir, the new lift is both faster and safer than the current one, which has been taking visitors up and down the landmark for 50 years. The tower is a popular tourist site due to its panoramic view of Reykjavík.
Sigríður Hjálmarsdóttir, Hallgrímskirkja’s CEO, says the tower will close to visitors on April 23, and is expected to remain closed for five weeks. If the project remains on schedule, it should be completed around May 27.
The new lift, like the one it will replace, is manufactured by Schindler. It is however a special type of “safety” lift which can be used during a fire. Just like the old lift, it can accomodate 6-8 people at a time, though it travels significantly faster. While Hallgrímskirkja’s current lift travels at one metre (3.3 feet) per second, the new one will travel 1.6 metre per second (5.2 feet).
The renovation will cost the church around ISK 40 million ($330,000/€295,000). Considering that admission to the tower put ISK 238 million (USD 2.3 million/EUR 2 million) in Hallgrímskirkja’s coffers in 2016, it appears to be a good investment.