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Iceland’s tallest church is named for a composer


Reykjavik's Hallgrímskirkja is a reminder of the clergyman who gave Iceland's Lutherans the Passion Hymns.

For many traditional Lutherans in Iceland, the words and the tune herald the beginning of Lent:

Jesus in Gethsemane
Bowed with mortal strife I see:
Conscience stings me, for I know
‘Twas my sin constrained Him so:
All that weight of agony
God’s Son underwent for me.

Set to the music of a typical Baroque chorale, it’s one of 50 Passion Hymns that were composed by the 17th-century clergyman Hallgrímur Pétursson, one of the best known poets of Iceland. Traditionally, one of the Passion Hymns was sung each working day of the seven weeks of Lent.

Pétursson lives on in another way in Iceland. Reykjavík’s skyline is dominated by the Lutheran Hallgrímskirkja church, which is named for him.

Designed by the State Architect of Iceland, Guðjón Samúelsson, whose credits also include Reykjavík’s Catholic cathedral, the Hallgrímskirkja was built between 1945 and 1986. At 244 feet tall, Hallgrímskirkja is the tallest building in Reykjavík, the second tallest building in Iceland. Visitors can ascend an observation tower and get some fine views of Reykjavik and its nearby mountains. The church interior is 18,040 square feet.

Chris Yunker--cc by 2.0

According to Iceland Magazine, Guðjón’s work was strongly influenced by Scandinavian Modernism, “but he also sought inspiration in natural shapes and forms, as he was seeking a distinctive style of ‘Icelandic architecture,’ an architecture in harmony with Icelandic landscape. Many of Guðjón’s works carry strong references to Icelandic nature, particularly the basalt columns formed when a thick lava flow cools slowly into a polygonal joint pattern. The wings and the steeple of Hallgrímskirkja therefore look like cliffs of basalt columns.”

According to The Passion-Hymns of Iceland, translated by Charles Venn Pilcher, Pétursson’s poems “tell the story of Christ’s sufferings from the moment when the Master sang the Paschal hymn with His disciples in the Upper Room until the military watch was set and the seal made fast upon His tomb.” The hymnist, Pilcher opined, “holds his position, we might almost say, as the Shakespeare or the Milton of his native land.”


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