Þorláksbúð and Skálholtskirkja

The historic Skálholt Episcopal See in South Iceland

Monumentst at Skálholt

In my last travel-blog, I wrote about Hólar in Hjaltadalur in North-Iceland, which from 1106-1801 was 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.

Skálholt Cathedral in Southwest Iceland

Þorláksbúð and Skálholtskirkja

Skálholt was the center of ecclesiastic power in Iceland for almost 700 years.

The first bishopric was founded here in 1056, with the first bishop, Ísleifur, taking the seat. From then on it became the center of learning, culture, and worldly power in Iceland. 

Thirty-two Catholic bishops sat here until the Reformation to Lutheranism at Skálholt in 1540.

Jón Arason beheaded as depicted at the Saga Museum in Reykjavík

The beheading of Jón Arason as depicted at the Saga Museum in Reykjavík, which I recommend visiting

The Reformation was not done peacefully and the last Catholic bishop, Jón Arason at Hólar, and his two sons were beheaded here at Skálholt in 1550. So the year of the Reformation of Iceland is 1550.

I tell you about this tragic event, a little bit further in this travel-blog.

After the Reformation, 13 Lutheran bishops sat here until 1801 when the episcopal see was moved to Reykjavík. 

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

The sarcophagus of Páll in the crypt at Skálholt

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

The sarcophagus is by far the most important old relic to be found at Skálholt.

At Þjóðminjasafnið - the National Museum of Iceland you will find a crosier (bagall) which was found with the bones of Páll in the sarcophagus. It is made of a walrus tusk and is believed to have been made around 1200 in Iceland.

An artefact found at Skálholt on display at the National museum

A crosier (bagall) found with the remains of Páll - is on display at the National Museum

In the crypt, you will also find 2 Icelandic tombstones and foreign tombstones of 5 bishops and 1 councilor.

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

In the crypt of Skálholt

In the crypt of Skálholt

A 13th-century tunnel leads to the crypt/cellar. 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.

The medieval tunnel is mentioned in the Saga of the Sturlungs, when Órækja Snorrason, the son of the great Snorri Sturluson at Reykholt, attacked Gissur Þorvaldsson here at Skálholt in January 1242.The medieval tunnel at Skálholt

The medieval tunnel at Skálholt

Gissur the Chieftain of the Clan of Haukdælingar had had his ex-father-in-law, Snorri Sturluson, killed on September 23rd, 1241. Órækja wanted revenge for his father.

I have written a travel-blog about both Snorri Sturluson and the bloody Viking battles in Skagafjörður.

These most powerful Viking clans in Iceland fought each other and their blood relatives. Órækja was, by the way, married to Arnbjörg, the sister of Kolbeinn ungi, the Chieftain of the Clan of Ásbirningar up north. 

The historic Skálholt Episcopal See in South Iceland

The entrance to the medieval tunnel at Skálholt

I first visited the crypt/cellar when I was 7 years old and was staying at a Christian 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

Guðbrandsbiblía bible at Skálholt

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.  Inside Skálholtskirkja church

Inside Skálholtskirkja - beautiful light from the stained glass windows

There is a small museum on the second floor of the church displaying books that were printed in the 18th century, among them the 1st book printed in our language.

Many other artifacts from Skálholt are on display at our National Museum in Reykjavík, which I recommend visiting. 

The Cathedral has some beautiful stained glass windows and an altarpiece of Jesus, made by two Icelandic women. The historic Skálholt Episcopal See in South Iceland

The windows are a gift from Danish merchants and are made by one of our female artists, Gerður Helgadóttir.

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.

The altarpiece of Jesus at Skálholtskirkja church

The altarpiece of Jesus at Skálholtskirkja church

The mosaic altarpiece is made by another of our female artists, Nína Tryggvadóttir.

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 a strong energy in Skálholt and sometimes it is so strong that it is just overpowering. 

The historic Skálholt Episcopal See in South Iceland

Skálholt in the wintertime

An archaeological site can be visited next to the Cathedral and a lot of interesting old relics have been discovered there.

Artefacts that have been discovered during the excavation are now on display at our National Museum in Reykjavík. 
The archaeological site at Skálholt S-Iceland

Parts of the archaeological site at Skálholt

The archaeological site, which shows ruins from the 17th and 18th century, 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.

The historic Skálholt Episcopal See in South Iceland

The archaeological site

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.

I sometimes feel such strong energy when I am visiting historic sites. What is it that I am feeling?

ÞorláksbúðRegína at Þorláksbúð hypothesis house at Skálholt

Þorláksbúð hypothesis house

Þorláksbúð is a new addition to the buildings and Cathedral at Skálholt, built in 2011-2012. It is a hypothesis house, built on the ruins of the old Þorláksbúð, which was a temporary chapel, built after the Árnakirkja church burnt down in 1527.

Þorláksbúð is named after Þorlákur helgi - St. Thorlak - who was the bishop at Skálholt in 1178-1193. Þorláksbúð was then later used as a storehouse.

Inside Þorláksbúð at Skálholt

Inside Þorláksbúð

There have been talks about building a hypothesis cathedral there, in the liking of one of the massive timber churches in Skálholt in the middle ages.

But seeing that Skálholt is a holy place I don't think this idea will come to fruition.

The historic Skálholt Episcopal See in South Iceland

Inside Þorláksbúð

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.

Þorláksbúð and Skálholtskirkja

Þorláksbúð and Skálholtskirkja

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

There is a public school in other buildings at Skálholt, which is a hotel during the summertime.

Bishop Jón ArasonThe memorial for Jón Arason at Skálholt

The memorial for Jón Arason at Skálholt

A short distance above Skálholt cathedral you will find the memorial for Bishop Jón Arason at Hólar, who was beheaded in 1550 at Skálholt, together with his 2 sons, Björn and Ari.

This tragic event took place during the Reformation, the change from Catholicism to Lutheranism.The memorial for Jón Arason at Skálholt

The memorial for Jón Arason at Skálholt

Written on it in Icelandic is: "Jón Arason biskup - ljet hjer lífið fyrir trú sína og ættjörð - 7. nóvember 1550" meaning "Bishop Jón Arason - lost his life here for his religion and fatherland on the 7th of November 1550".

Jón and his sons were buried here at Skálholt after the execution, but the next spring a party of men from the northern part of Iceland rode to Skálholt. Their intention was to take the bodies to Hólar for a proper burial.

The historic Skálholt Episcopal See in South Iceland

The memorial for Jón Arason at Skálholt

They exhumed the bodies of Jón and his sons at Skálholt and took them to Torfastaðir for the nigh

The next day, on their way up north, they washed the mud-covered bodies in the holy spring, Vígðalaug, at Laugarvatn in the vicinity of Skálholt.

The 6 rocks above Vígðalaug, are called Líkasteinar, as the biers were laid on them while the 3 bodies were washed in the holy spring. 

Vígðalaug pool at Laugarvatn

Vígðalaug pool

Earlier on in history, after the conversion to Christianity in the year 1000 at Alþingi at Þingvellir, some of the Vikings on returning back home, got baptized in the Vígðalaug pool.

Some Vikings from the west got baptized in Krosslaug in West Iceland. It was warmer than being baptized in the cold river at Þingvellir.

The historic Skálholt Episcopal See in South Iceland

Krosslaug hot pool in West Iceland - I can vouch for the warm temperature of the geothermal water

According to folklore Líkaböng, the largest bell in the Hólar Cathedral started ringing by itself when the party of men with the bodies reached Vatnsskarð pass, where you have a view of Skagafjörður.

Líkaböng continued rining until the party of men could be spotted from Hólar. Then the bell started ringing so forcefully, that it cracked.

You can see Hólar in my photo below.

See also: the historic Hólar in Hjaltadalur in North-Iceland

Hólar in Hjaltadalur N-Iceland

Hólar in Hjaltadalur valley

I recommend visiting both these historic places as they are very important places in Icelandic history. To me, Skálholt has a magical touch to it, the energy in Skálholt is very special. The Cathedral is open every day from 9:00-18:00.

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.

Have a lovely time at the historic Skálholt :)


Ferlir: Aftaka Jóns biskups Arasonar

Vísindavefur: Siðaskipti á Íslandi og hlutverk Jóns Arasonar í því ferli