The historical Skálholt Episcopal See in South-Iceland

In my last travel blog I wrote about Hólar in Hjaltadalur in North-Iceland, which from 1106-1801 Hólar was the one of 2 episcopal sees in Iceland - The Northern seat of the bishops and the educational capital of the north.

The other episcopal see was at Skálholt in South-Iceland, which is one of Iceland's most historic places and to us Icelanders a holy place. It was the centre of ecclesiastic power in Iceland for almost 700 years.  The first bishopric was founded here in 1056, with the first bishop, Ísleifur, taking seat. From then on it became the centre of learning, culture and worldly power in Iceland. 

Skálholt Cathedral in Southwest Iceland

Thirty two Catholic bishops sat here until the Reformation to Lutheranism in 1540. The Reformation was not done peacefully and the last Catholic bishop, Jón Arason at Hólar, and his two sons, were beheaded here in 1550. After this tragic event 13 Lutheran bishops sat here until 1801 when the see was moved to Reykjavík. 

The first Cathedral was built in the 12th century, and altogether there have been 10 churches here built of wood, some of them burnt down, others were destroyed by bad weather etc. Some of them were much larger than the present memorial Cathedral, which was built from 1956-1963. 

Stone coffin found during the excavation for the foundations for the Cathedral in Skálholt

A sarcophagus was discovered in 1954 during the excavation for the foundations for the church, containing the remains of our bishop Páll Jónsson, who died in 1211.  That sarcophagus is on display in the church crypt. 

The sarcophagus is by far the most important old relic to be found at Skálholt. In the crypt you will also find 2 Icelandic tombstones and foreign tombstones of 5 bishops and 1 councillor.

The historical Skálholt Episcopal See in South-Iceland

Over a period of 100 years it became "fashionable" for bishops to buy foreign tombstones and the oldest one of these tombstones is from 1697 and the "youngest" one from 1796. 

A tunnel leads to the crypt. In the olden days the tunnel was used as a tunnel between the Cathedral and the school. The tunnel was rebuilt in 1958 in the image of the old tunnel, so walking through it is like walking through a tunnel from the middle-ages.

I first visited the crypt when I was 7 years old and was staying at a summer camp by Skálholt.  I found it so scary back then that I didn't visit the cellar again until 35 years later. It was less scary when I visited it for the second time ;)

The exhibition in the crypt is run by the National Museum of Iceland and there is a small entrance fee.

The Bible of Guðbrandur also known as Guðbrandsbiblía

On display inside the Cathedral is The Bible of bishop Guðbrandur, called Guðbrandsbiblía in Icelandic, published in 1584. This Bible is the first edition of the Icelandic Bible and one of the few remaining copies still in its original bindings, so it is a great treasure to us.

Bishop Guðbrandur Þorláksson (1541-1627) at Hólar in Hjaltadalur published this Bible in Icelandic and it was indeed a great achievement and played a big role in conserving the Icelandic language, plus allowing the nation to get the knowledge of Christianity in their own language.  

There is a small museum on the second floor of the church displaying books which were printed in the 18th century, among them the 1st book printed in our language. Other artefacts from at Skálholt are on display at our National Museum in Reykjavík. 

The altarpiece of Jesus in Skálholt Cathedral

The Cathedral has some beautiful stained glass windows and an altarpiece of Jesus, made by two Icelandic women. The windows are a gift from Danish merchants and are made by one of our female artists, Gerður Helgadóttir.

The mosaic altarpiece is made by another of our female artists, Nína Tryggvadóttir. The windows show the story of the salvation.

When the sun shines directly through the stained glass windows the interiors of the cathedral turn into a magical multi-coloured wonderland. Even the altarpiece of Jesus reflects the colours of the windows, making it even more beautiful.

I have knelt down in awe in front of the altar more than once when I have been here alone. I feel strong energy in Skálholt and sometimes it is so strong that it is just overpowering. 

Inside Skálholt Cathedral in Southwest IcelandAn archaeological site can be visited beside the Cathedral and a lot of interesting old relics have been discovered there. Artefacts which have been discovered during the excavation are now on display at our National Museum in Reykjavík. 

The archaeological site has been marked with rooms that have been unearthed there. You will find a dormitory, school, whey store, refectory, food store, meat store, children's room, kitchen, court, library and the Bishop's room. When I walked there I found such strong energy coming through the sole of my feet that it almost felt like I was walking on fire.


Þorláksbúð hypothesis house in Skálholt, Southwest Iceland

Þorláksbúð is a new addition to the buildings and Cathedral at Skálholt. It is a hypothesis house. It was built on the ruins of the old Þorláksbúð, which was a temporary chapel, built after Árnakirkja church burnt down in 1527. It was then used as a storehouse.

There have been talks about building a hypothesis cathedral there, in the liking of one of the massive timber churches in Skálholtin the middle ages. But seeing that Skálholtis a holy place I don't think this idea will come into fruition.

The historical Skálholt Episcopal See in South-Iceland

There has been a lot of controversy regarding Þorláksbúð, as some people think it ruins the image of the holy place of Skálholt, especially as this is a preserved area. And that it should not be built right on top of the ruins, but in another place, like the hypothesis house Þjóðveldisbærinn in Þjórsárdalur valley.

I think it looks quite interesting and am happy with this new addition.

Skálholt Cathedral in Southwest Iceland

There is a public school in other buildings at Skálholt, which is a hotel during the summer time, and a lovely café.

I recommend going there, as this is a very important place in Icelandic history and for me it has a magical touch to it, the energy in Skálholt is very special, at least to us Icelanders.

Skálholt is located in South-Iceland some 93 km away from Reykjavík and can be included in the Golden Circle tour. To visit this area on your own you can rent a car in Reykjavík and make a day of it by visiting the highlights of the Golden Circle Gullfoss and Geysir on the same day.

Contact Regína