Simple candlestick with slim coloured candles
Architecture,  Lens-Artists,  Norway

A tale of two cathedrals

(and one that isn’t)

The most famous sight in Tromsø is probably the Arctic Cathedral … except it isn’t actually a cathedral. Despite the popular name, this is a parish church, but a very substantial and eye-catching one.

It lies on the far side of the harbour and can be seen from any point on the waterfront. It is constructed mainly in concrete and was built between 1964 and 1965. The design suggests shards of ice or maybe an iceberg, appropriate for this city north of the Arctic Circle.

Inside it is no less striking. We learned from an exhibition of photos in the basement that the stained-glass window that completely fills the wall behind the altar was only added in 1972. Prior to that the view would have been mainly of trees. The glass depicts the hand of God at the top. From it three rays of light emanate, one through Jesus, one through a woman and one through a man.

My featured photo was also taken here.

But while the Arctic Cathedral might be a misnomer, Tromsø does in fact have a cathedral. Or rather, it has two.

The Lutheran Cathedral

In a small square in the centre of Tromsø we find the main Lutheran cathedral. It is remarkable for being the only Protestant Norwegian cathedral made of wood. It was built in 1861 in the Gothic Revival style, on a site thought to have been used as a church since the 13th century.

Inside it struck me as relatively small for a cathedral, but then Tromsø is a small city. We found some information boards at the back, in Norwegian and English, one of which mentioned that it accommodates 618 worshippers. As a comparison, London’s St Paul’s Cathedral has room for around 3,500!

Above the altar is a copy of the painting of the Resurrection by the Norwegian artist Adolph Tidemand, the original of which is in a church in Bragenes, south west of Oslo. This copy was painted on wood by Christen Brun in 1884. The Norwegian inscription beneath it is taken from St John’s Gospel: ‘I am the resurrection and the life’. Around the apse are some lovely stained-glass windows which were installed as recently as 1960.

The Roman Catholic cathedral

It has been said that the Lutheran cathedral in Tromsø is the most northerly in the world. But in fact the city’s Catholic cathedral beats it by a few metres! It too was built of wood in 1861 in a neo-Gothic style, but is much smaller, seating only around 150 people.

The interior is simple and light, decorated mainly in white, cream and blue. The organ loft is decorated with rather minimalist paintings of Biblical emblems such as a dove and the apple tree and serpent from the Garden of Eden. The only elaborate touches that I could see are in the Stations of the Cross and a few more traditional statues of saints. When I visited the cathedral was decorated for First Holy Communion services and also with ribbons in support of Ukraine.

While I fully agree with Tina that ‘spirituality can be found in many places beyond the confines of a church’, for this week’s Lens Artists Challenge I’ve decided to focus on these three very different places of worship that each in their way reflect the particular nature of this very northern city.

I visited Tromsø in June 2023

38 Comments

  • Annie Berger

    Great collage of cathedrals in Norway’s far north, Sarah. Lucky you being able to visit all three and being to compare one against the other. That way, you clearly didn’t forget which religion featured what style!

  • SoyBend

    I like how you showed very different architectural styles, Sarah. I especially liked the simple lines of the Arctic Cathedral. It’s stunning!

  • grandmisadventures

    I love the different styles and feel within the different churches! It is so interesting to see how different people share their devotion through the art and style of their church. Beautiful collection of a beautiful diversity of faith 🙂

  • Rose

    These places of worship are so warm and colorful, comparing it your previous post of the cool black and white Norwegian landscapes.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Ah yes, that’s very true Rose. Although there can be plenty of colour in those landscapes too (mainly shades of green) as you’ll see in future posts 😀

  • Wind Kisses

    Yes all very different places of worship. I was surprised at the simplicity and size of the Catholic Cathedral. Still beautiful, untraditional from my experience.

    I especially loved the Arctic parish church. From the outside, it didn’t look too inviting to me, but the inside was stunning. I love the photo you took from the aisle to the stained glass. And the closeups of the hand of God and the rays moving down to a man and a woman. Great info Sarah and photos to accompany your words. Welcome home….

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Donna 😊 I guess there are relatively few Catholics in Tromsø, Norway being largely a Lutheran Protestant country, so a small cathedral suffices. It definitely felt more like a parish church while the Arctic Cathedral felt more like a cathedral! I rather like the exterior of the latter as well as the interior but I agree the stained glass is its major glory. I’m glad they thought to add that later (or maybe it was intended all along?)

  • Alli Templeton

    I hadn’t realised there were any cathedrals built in wood, let alone two of them in one city! Both look beautiful though, and whatever your religious – or otherwise – leanings, I bet there was a great sense of peace and spirituality inside them. I’m sure the same goes for the Arctic ‘cathedral’, which looks striking. I can see how it would remind you of an iceberg, and the inside looks amazing, especially that wall of stained glass imagery. They must be a very religious lot in Tromsø! 🙂

    • margaret21

      I’d love to see these wooden cathedrals. Stained glass in such buildings sounds a little odd – but they both seem to have pulled it off as a device!

      • Sarah Wilkie

        Thanks Margaret – it didn’t strike me at the time that stained glass was an odd choice for a wooden building but I see what you mean. However the fact that it didn’t strike me demonstrates how well it works!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Although designated cathedrals Alli, these are on a scale that might be considered a church elsewhere, especially the RC one, so wood feels appropriate. In fact, the Arctic non-cathedral has more grandeur than either of the others! The stained glass there of course adds to that impression but even without it, in the old photos we saw, it looked very cathedral-like.

      • Alli Templeton

        Funnily enough I thought the Arctic non-cathedral looked more the part than the others, which seemed to have a more provincial look to them, but lovely nonetheless. Talking of small cathedrals, we apparently have the smallest ancient one in Britain right here in North Wales. Hmmm, I can feel a post coming on… 😉

  • thehungrytravellers.blog

    I think what I like most about these cathedrals is how modern design merges so seamless with more traditional religious images and concepts. So often a “modern” place if worship is rather barren and characterless. Clearly not the case in Tromso.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I get what you’re saying Phil but actually I’ve visited a number of modern churches and cathedrals in different places recently (Sofia, Tirana and here) and found all of them to have pulled off that trick of honouring traditional while being ultra modern in design.

  • Yvonne Dumsday

    I loved the simplicity of the Lutheran Cathedral and appreciated the calmness of the place. Thankyou for sharing your wonderful photographs of all three though.

Do share your thoughts, I'd love to hear from you!

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