I’m not religious in the traditional sense, but I find endless inspiration in churches. If not for the glory of God, they are, at least, remarkable monuments to the human imagination — the human striving for artistic and architectural perfection, the capture of enormous space, the making of humankind in the image of a universal being.
I’ve spent time in some of the most amazing cathedrals in Europe but I’ve seen none of the ones that follow. And, based on these pictures, they look no less astonishing in their own ways than the most widely known religious monuments: St. Paul’s in Rome, Notre Dame in Paris, Chartres, and so on.
These pictures first came to me in one of those mass email circulars that make their way across the Internet. “10 Amazing Churches You’ve Gotta See!” was the subject line. With the Internet, everything remarkable becomes commonplace — I was skeptical. I didn’t open it for days, until I went to clean out my in-box: Several modern and ancient churches that surely only a handful of tourists would ever stumble upon. These pictures crashed through my Internet skeptic filter and found their way into my heart.
The email was a copy-and-paste job from an article that originally appeared at Oddee.com. I chose five of my favorite from the original 10 and got permission from the good people at Oddee to re-present them on my blog. I hope you get the same chills from these pictures as I did.
(Please click on the photos below to see larger views and photo credits)
Hallgrímskirkja Reykjavík, Iceland
Hallgrímskirkja (literally, the church of Hallgrímur) is a Lutheran parish church named after the Icelandic poet and clergyman Hallgrímur Pétursson (1614 – 1674), author of the Passion Hymns. It is the fourth tallest architectural structure in Iceland at 244 feet in height. An observer can take a lift up to the viewing deck in the centre tower and view Reykjavík and the surrounding mountains.
State Architect Guðjón Samúelsson’s design of the church was commissioned in 1937 and completed in 1986. I think the structure looks like an enormous pipe organ. In fact, it holds a very impressive one that consists of some 5275 pipes, is 15 metres tall and weighs 25 tons. Its construction was finished in December 1992.
Hallgrímskirkja is situated in the centre of Reykjavík and is visible throughout the city.
Update: Jamie Thompson of the Urban Flute Project left a great comment (see below) with a link to a recording he made at Hallgrímskirkja. Click here to visit the site and hear the recording. It’s exquisite! Thank you Jamie!
Borgund Church, Lærdal, Norway
The Borgund Stave Church in Lærdal, Norway also looks otherworldly. If I were asked what architectural firm might have built it, I would hazard a guess J.R.R. Tolkein and Associates.
Built entirely in wood, it is the best preserved of Norway’s 28 extant stave churches. A stave church is a medieval wooden church with a post and beam construction framed entirely in timber. The wall frames are filled with vertical planks. Staves, the load-bearing posts (stafr in Old Norse) have lent their name to the building technique.
This church was probably built in the end of the 12th century and has had no major reconstruction or alterations. That a wooden church built in this time survives to this day is astonishing. Most wooden structures were damaged or destroyed by fire; accidentally or by acts of aggression. The site shows evidence of a previous building, which can point to an earlier church and perhaps an old pagan temple. Its interior features an authentic medieval square-shaped baptismal font made of soapstone.
Several runic inscriptions are found on the walls of the church, one reads: “Tor wrote these runes in the evening at the St. Olav’s Mass.” And another one reads “Ave Maria.” The church is also featured as part of the video game, Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings.
Chapel of St-Gildas, Brittany, France
The Chapel of St-Gildas sits on the bank of the Canal du Blavet in Brittany, France. Built like a stone barn into the base of a bare rocky cliff, it is reported to have once been a holy place of the Druids. Gildas was an Irish monk born in 494, who established a monastery on the Island of Houat, France, and the author of two treatises that are now valuable sources for the ancient history of the Britons. He travelled widely throughout the Celtic world of Corwall, Wales, Ireland and Scotland. He is also known to have had an ability to cure rabies. He arrived in Brittany in about AD 540 and is said to have preached Christianity to the people from a rough pulpit, now contained within the chapel.
Temppeliaukio Kirkko, Helsinki, Finland
The Temppeliaukio Kirkko is a Lutheran church built entirely underground, except for the domed roof, which protrudes out of a rock outcrop in the middle of Temple Square, Helsinki. It was designed by architect brothers Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen and completed in 1969.
The interior was excavated and built into the rock, but is bathed in natural light entering through the glazed dome. The church is used frequently as a concert venue due to its excellent acoustics. The acoustic quality is ensured by the rough, virtually unworked, rock surfaces. Leaving the interior surfaces of the church exposed was not something that was in the original plans for the church, but the orchestra conductor Paavo Berglund and the acoustician, Mauri Parjo, contributed to the plans. The back wall of the altar is a majestic rock wall, originally created by a withdrawing glacier.
Las Lajas Cathedral, Southern Colombia
This Gothic-Revival church clings to a canyon above the winding Guaitara River. It was built between 1915 and 1952. According to local legend, this was the place where an Amerindian woman named María Mueses de Quiñones was carrying her deaf-mute daughter, Rosa, on her back near Las Lajas (“The Rocks”). María and Rosa sought out a cave in the cliff when a storm arose. When a flash of lightening illuminated an apparition in the cave, Rosa spoke for the first time.
Later, a mysterious painting of the Virgin Mary carrying a baby was discovered on the wall of the cave. Supposedly, studies of the painting showed no proof of paint or pigments on the rock — instead, when a core sample was taken, it was found that the colors were impregnated in the rock itself to a depth of several feet. Whether true or not, the legend spurred the building of this amazing church.
The original of this article, including five other remarkable churches, can be seen at Oddee.com.