Iceland: Hallgrímskirkja Church

A picture of Hallgrímskirkja Church with Northern Lights in the sky behind it.

The tallest church in Iceland stands at around 74 meters tall – about 245 feet – and has a name that is just as lengthy: Hallgrímskirkja, roughly pronounced as “hall-kreems-kirk-yuh.” It is located at the top of a hill in the center of Reykjavík, adding to its majesty. Due to its location and height, the tower offers a fantastic panoramic view of Iceland’s capital city. Its height and distinct appearance not only make it a monument in the area, but also allow it to serve as a navigational tool for visitors roaming the streets.

Iceland is known as the “Land of Fire and Ice” as its landscape contains glaciers, lava formations, waterfalls, black sand beaches, and more. The church, designed by expressionist Guðjón Samúelsson, was constructed to reflect these elements of Iceland’s nature. It is built of concrete and coated in a rough cast of white granite – a connection between the modern architectural style of the area, and the raw nature that surrounds it. Its jagged hexagonal columns were an acquired taste for many Icelanders at first, as its appearance is so unique and in such stark contrast to the rest of the cityscape.

The church took over 40 years to build, with a bit of a tumultuous journey – Samúelsson passed away in 1950, leaving the church’s design unfinished. Other architects tried to piece together a plan for continuing his vision, with architects Hörður Bjarnason and Garðar Halldórsson taking the lead. While construction for the church started in 1945, Hallgrimskirkja Church was ultimately completed in October of 1986.

Hallgrímur Pétursson is the church’s namesake – the translation of Hallgrímskirkja is “Hallgrímur’s church.” Pétursson was a 17th-century poet and clergyman who authored the highly renowned Passion Hymns, or Passíusálmar. Inside the church, you’ll find Iceland’s tallest pipe organ at over 50 feet tall, with more than 5,000 pipes – and for a small fee, you can travel up above the clock of the church tower for an incredible view of the city. 

In front of the church, you’ll notice a green statue of the heroic figure Leifur Eiriksson on top of a stone pedestal. Leifur Eiriksson is known for being the first European to set foot on the North American continent more than half a century before Christopher Columbus. The statue was a gift from the United States to commemorate the 1000 year anniversary of Alþingi, the world’s first democratically elected parliament which is located Reykjavík. The gift was a hard pill to swallow for some Icelanders, though; Eiriksson had close ties to being a Viking, and was often recognized as Norwegian. Gifting the statue to Iceland was seen as an official recognition of Eiriksson as not Norwegian, but Icelandic. This debate still lives on.

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