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Skálholt-The Religious, Cultural and Educational Center of Early Iceland

Skálholt Church photo by Jody Arman-Jones

Located in the southern part of the Biskupstungur valley between the rivers Hvítá and Brúará, in Árnessýsla, and less than an hour’s drive east of Þingvellir, lies Skálholt, the religious, cultural and educational center of early Iceland. It was considered the capital of Iceland for nearly 750 years and is undoubtedly one of the most important historical places in the country. Many of the most important events in Icelandic history are related to Skálholt.

Initially, Icelanders worshiped the traditional “pagan” Norse gods. Circa 1000, under pressure from the king of Norway, the law speaker of the Alþingi, Þorgeir Þorkelsson (IR # I135521), was selected to decide whether Iceland should make the change to become a Christian nation. According to lore, he spent a day and a night resting under a fur blanket. Upon rising, Þorgeir threw his pagan statues into Góðafoss, AKA “Waterfall of the Gods,” located near Akureyri. He declared a bloodless switch to Catholicism, the Christian religion of the time.

List of the early Bishops of Skálholt (Jody Arman-Jones photo)

Some 500 years later under Danish rule, the conversion to Lutheranism was not so bloodless, resulting in the last Catholic bishop at Hólar, Jón Árason (IR # II134105), and his two sons, being beheaded at Skálholt in November of 1550, as part of that quest.

Since that date, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland has remained the State-sponsored religion, with the episcopal see (seat) in Reykjavík since 1801. At that time, Skalholt began to fall into disrepair.

Join Herdís Friðriksdóttir, to learn about Skálholt during a live Icelandic Roots Webinar on April 5, 2022. WEBINAR LINK

The bishopric (a district under a bishop's control; a diocese) of Skálholt was founded in 1056. A second bishopric was founded in 1106 at Hólar in northern Iceland, not far from Hofsós.

Like Skálhólt, in 1801, the see of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland was relocated to Reykjavík. In 1909 both Skálholt and Hólar were granted the title of “suffragan diocese,” meaning they assisted the main bishop in Reykjavík, allowing for a renaissance of the original bishoprics.

The Skálholt area was first settled by Teitur Ketilbjarnarson (IR # I135377), whose son, Grissur “The White” Teitsson (IR # I135369), is credited with building the first church on the site circa 1000. Ísleifur Gissurarson (IR # I133901), the grandson of the first settler of Skálholt, was named the first bishop of Iceland after studying in Germany and being anointed bishop by the archbishop of Bremen. Ísleifur selected his home area of Skálholt for the location of the bishopric. There have been thirty-two Catholic bishops seated at Skálholt, followed by 13 Lutheran bishops until 1801, at which time the episcopal see was moved to Reykjavík. These bishops are all commemorated on the walls of the current cathedral.

Some Skálholt trivia of note includes that the first bishop of Hólar was a student of Bishop Ísleifuir's. Jón Ögmundarson (IR # I137537) was educated at Skálholtsskóli, the first school in Iceland, founded by Ísleifur, originally to educate the clergy. Later, that school was moved to Reykjavík and was transformed into Reykjavik Gymnasium (‘MR’ or ”The Latin School”), which sits on a hill overlooking Lækjargata.

Iceland's patron and only saint, Þorlákur þórhallsson (IR # I136911), served as bishop at Skálholt from 1178 to 1198. His feast day, Þorláksmessa, is an Icelandic national holiday celebrated on December 23, and, at one time, his remains (relics) brought people from all over Iceland to Skálholt on pilgrimages. Oddur Gottskálksson (IR # I134720), scribe to Skálholt´s final Catholic bishop,Ögmundur Pálsson (IR # I134979), and proponent of the switch to Lutheranism, secretly translated the New Testament into Icelandic in a cowshed on the property. Though published in Denmark, his translation is considered the first book published in the Icelandic language. It is believed that a copy may be found in the library of Cornell University in New York.

Since that first church was built circa 1000, 10 churches or cathedrals have been built on the same foundations. The first Cathedral at Skálholt was built in the 12th century. Most of the buildings have been wooden structures built with imported products from Norway. Some of the churches burned down; some were destroyed by bad weather, others by earthquakes or neglect. Some churches and cathedrals were much larger than the present memorial cathedral’s 30 meters from “stem to stern,” as much as 50 meters long.

One of the stained-glass windows created by Icelandic artist Gerður Helgadóttir (Jody Arman-Jones photo)

Today’s cathedral was built between 1956-1963 as part of the celebration of 900 years since the creation of the bishopric of Skálholt and is notable for its typical Icelandic simplistic beauty. It contains 25 unique stained-glass windows created by Icelandic artist Gerður Helgadóttir (IR # I291293) as a gift from Danish merchants. The mosaic altarpiece in the sanctuary was designed by Icelandic artist Nína Tryggvadóttir (IR # II19276) and depicts Jesus entering the cathedral surrounded by Icelandic nature.

The mosaic altarpiece designed by Icelandic artist Nína Tryggvadóttir (Jody Arman-Jones photo)

In addition, the pulpit dates back to 1650 and was first used by Bishop Brynjölfur Sveinsson (IR # I133002). Archeological excavations over the years, especially in preparation for the 1956 nonacentennial celebration, have uncovered many wonders of the site, including crypts, hidden tunnels, valuable artifacts, and manuscripts, some of which are in the National Museum of Iceland in Reykjavík.

Today’s cathedral has excellent acoustics, and Skálholt is well-known for its Summer Music Festival held five weekends in late July into August each summer. The festival began in 1975 and brings many skilled musicians and music lovers from around Iceland and abroad.

Today, as in the past, Skalholt is a place of culture, spirituality, and music run by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland, ELCI. It is the site of a deputy bishop and a local parish pastor. In addition to holding services every Sunday, there are morning and evening prayers on weekdays.

Overview of the Skálholt Church Complex (Ská photo)

Skálholt hosts frequent cultural, educational, and artistic events and retreats, and everyone is welcome to attend both church and non-church-related events. A restaurant and accommodations are available on site all year round for individuals and groups of various sizes. Entrance to the site is free, with donations accepted at the door. Tours may be arranged.


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