In ancient times Skalholt was the wealthiest, most populated and most influential settlement in Iceland. This center of Christianity, culture and education enjoyed great prosperity lasting 700 years from the mid-11th century until the end of the 18th.
After Christianity was made the state religion of Iceland in 1000 AD, the very first bishop of the country was ordained. The bishop settled at Skalholt in 1056. Of the bishops residing there in the middle ages, Thorlakur Thorhallsson (bishop 1178-1198), Iceland’s only saint, is perhaps the most famous. People came on pilgrimage from all corners of Iceland to visit his relics in Skalholt. During those times huge wooden cathedrals were built there.
Reformation and Skalholt Church
During the mid-16th century Icelanders under Danish rule converted to Lutheranism. During those turbulent times the last Catholic bishop, Jon Arason, was executed in Skalholt. A more happy event was the translation of the Bible into Icelandic. The translation work was started in secrecy in the cow stalls of Skalholt. One of the best known and most influential bishops of Skalholt after the reformation was Brynjolfur Sveinsson. He was highly respected for his stance on education and collecting old Icelandic manuscripts. He had a wooden church built at Skalholt, approximately the same size as the present Cathedral. It is evident that all ten churches built over the ages in Skalholt stood on the same basic foundations.
For centuries Skalholt was the capital of a rural society and the cultural and spiritual center of the country, figuring prominently in both cultural and church history. But after waning status of the bishop’s office, volcanic eruptions, a major earthquake and other disasters in the late 18th century the episcopal seat and school were transferred to Reykjavik. Skalholt fell into disrepute.
Skalholt Church today
Today guests can visit the church built from shiploads of Norwegian timber in the 12th century. There you find a museum and the sarcophagus of bishop Pall Jonsson carved from a solid block of sandstone that was unearthed in 1954. Since then archaeological excavations at Skalholt have revealed many interesting finds that can be seen and studied there.
During summer free classical concerts are offered in the church featuring contemporary music, and early Icelandic music with period instruments.
Check out our complete guide to the Golden Circle and West Iceland.