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 became the state religion of Iceland in 1000 AD, the very first ordained bishop settled at Skalholt in 1056. Iceland’s most famous bishop, Thorlakur Thorhallsson, served at the church from 1178 until he died in 1793. He is Iceland’s only canonized saint. People came on pilgrimage from all corners of Iceland to visit his relics in Skalholt. Throughout the Middle Ages, a huge wooden cathedral stood at Skalholt. There have actually been 10 different churches that have stood on the site over the centuries. Actually, the Icelandic 1.000 krona bill depicts an engraving of one of these early wooden cathedrals.
The Reformation Era
During the mid-16th century Reformation, the Danish kingdom converted to Lutheranism. As subjects, Icelanders also became Lutheran. During those turbulent times the last Catholic bishop, Jon Arason, was executed in Skalholt. A more happy event during the Reformation was the translation of the Bible into Icelandic. In fact, the translators started their work in secrecy in Skalholt’s cow stables. One of the best known and most influential bishops of Skalholt after the Reformation was Brynjolfur Sveinsson. Icelanders highly respected him for his stance on education and on collecting old Icelandic manuscripts. He had a wooden church built at Skalholt approximately the same size as the present Cathedral.
Throughout the centuries, Skalholt was the actually the “capital” of Iceland, a rural nation with no cities. Skalholt was the true cultural and spiritual center of the country. However, Skalholt lost its importance after the waning status of the bishop’s office and after several devastating volcanic eruptions and major earthquakes. In the 18th century, the episcopal seat and school moved to Reykjavik.
The Church today
Though Skalholt no longer houses the episcopal see, it is still an important religious building, as well as a cultural center. The current cathedral at Skalholt is relatively large in comparison to most Icelandic churches; its span from door to apse is approximately 30 meters (98 feet). Actually, some of its predecessors were even longer, reaching up to 50 meters (164 feet) in length. The new cathedral was built from 1956 to 1963 as a part of the millennial celebrations of the episcopal see. The Cathedral has stained-glass windows and a mosaic alter piece by two of Iceland’s leading 20th century artists. Also you can see the altar and the pulpit from the cathedral of Bishop Brynjolfur Sveinsson (17th century), as well as a chandelier and two copper candelabra Brynjolfur commissioned.
You can visit the church between 9:00am and 15:00 (3:00pm) daily. During ceremonies, people can also visit the museum in the church’s tomb.
During summer, Skalholt holds free classical concerts in the church that feature contemporary music, and early Icelandic music with period instruments.
Skalholt also organizes workshops and seminars throughout the year. Additionally, the area houses a hotel and a restaurant.
Skalholt and the Golden Circle
Skalholt is a wonderful stop on the Golden Circle route, especially if you want to connect with Icelandic history. In addition, some Golden Circle tours stop by Skalholt Cathedral. Look at the tour’s itinerary to find out which ones.