Cosy and Striking: Stockholm Cathedral

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The Great Church, Storkyrkan, Stockholm, Sweden

Dedicated to St Nicholas, the large church in the centre of Stockholm is popularly called Storkyrkan, and more informally still, Stockholm Cathedral.  Tradition has it that it was originally built by the legendary founder of the city, Birger Jarl, and it’s first mentioned in written sources in 1279.  Interestingly, it was the only parish church in the city for almost four hundred years, with the other churches all serving religious communities and not the average Joe, and it became Stockholm’s cathedral in 1942.

The church became Lutheran Protestant in 1527, with the influential (and controversial) Swedish reformer Olaus Petri preaching there for the last seven years of his life.  He and his brother, Lars, had studied in Wittenberg, where they were influenced by the German Reformation and its leading figures, Philipp Melanchthon and Martin Luther.  Under the rule of Gustav Vasa, Petri slowly, slowly brought Protestantism to the public’s attention: he translated the New Testament into Swedish, along with various Lutheran texts.  He was also involved in the larger project of translating the whole Bible into Swedish, which possibly earned him the position of Dean in the cathedral.  He is buried here, beneath the pulpit, his grave marked by fresh lilies.

The church also has a relationship with the Swedish royal family.  It’s just round the corner from the Palace, and because it’s a comparatively large building, it has been used for coronations, weddings and funerals.  The most recent wedding was that of Princess Victoria in 2010.

One of the first things you notice as a church visitor used to southern Europe, is that the church is made of brick.  It is indeed, an important example of Swedish Brick Gothic – the Gothic style of architecture employed by those northern nations who didn’t have stone to build with.  The brick was covered in plaster, which was removed during renovations in 1908 and has been left exposed.  At first, it seems a bit odd to see brick columns and arches – it feels more like a modern church – but then it feels quite cosy and warm.

St George and the Dragon

One of the most extraordinary treasures of the church is the famous wooden statue showing St George fighting the dragon.  It’s thought to be by Bernt Notke, a Tallinn-born artist who worked in Stockholm between 1491-1497, holding the office of Mint Master of the Realm for three years.  He presumably decided to move to Stockholm from Lübeck, where he had an already successful workshop, because of the success of the St George statue.  This exceptional work was commissioned by Sten Sture the Elder following his victory over the Danes in the 1471 Battle of Brunkeberg.  It was inaugurated on New Year’s Eve, 1489.

Not only is it a stunning piece of craftsmanship, amazing from every angle, but it is fascinating because it serves a number of purposes and delivers more than one message.  Firstly, it is a reliquary, containing the supposed relics of St George, amongst others.  Secondly, it is a victory monument, with St George symbolising Sten Sture, the dragon representing the evil Danish King Christian I and the saved princess personifying Sweden.  Thirdly, it was a funerary monument for Sten Sture, who was buried in the base of the sculpture for a while.

The more attention you give St George, the more wonderful he, the horse, the dragon and the princess become – the artist’s skill is truly awe-inspiring.  The level of detail, and naturalism, makes the sculpture both dynamic and vivid – dramatic when viewed from close up or from a distance, but also intimate when you focus on details, such as the clothing.  The experience is all the more enriching because it is still in situ, rather than in a museum, and it is rather moving to think that we get the same experience of the sculpture as the generations of people who have visited the cathedral before us, each standing enraptured in front of a truly magnificent work of art and lost in our own interpretation of its message.

The Silver Altar

The main altar of the cathedral – the so-called Silver Altar – is a striking piece which, like the rest of the building, seems unusual for the Southern European churchgoer.  The structure itself is covered in an ebony veneer, which neatly highlights the biblical scenes and figures rendered in silver.  The reliefs show the Last Supper on the predella, the Crucifixion, the Burial of Christ, Christ’s Harrowing of Hell and, on the pediment at top of the triptych, a silver statue of the Risen Christ.  The altar was given to the church by the diplomat Johan Adler Salvius in the 1650s.

Unfortunately, you can’t get very close to see the details, and silver is so difficult to appreciate from a distance…

The Pulpit and Pews

The importance of the Word in Protestantism means that the pulpit is often one of the more decorated objects in a church.  Presumably if you get bored by the sermon, you can pretend to be still transfixed by the preacher by just looking at the decorative pulpit.  In Storkyrkan, baroque theatricality rules.  It’s from 1698-1702, and is the work of Burchard Precht – and so popular did it become that it became the model of other large pulpits throughout the country.

The nave is really dominated by the Royal Pews which flank the aisle.  They were designed by Nicodemus Tessin the Younger, but made by Precht, the same fellow who did the pulpit, which explains the uniform style.

And how can you tell they are royal pews?  It might have something to do with the enormous crowns suspended from the ceiling, being held by podgy putti and musical angels.

Memorials and Elements

There were some really fascinating memorials scattered around the cathedral.  An eye-catching one is to three members of the Tessin family; Nicodemus Tessin the Elder (the architect of Drottningholm Palace), Nicodemus the Younger (the architect of the Royal Palace fame) and Carl Gustav (not an architect, but a generally important fellow).  The monument is by the Swedish artist Carl Milles and was installed in 1934.

So In Summary

The cathedral was truly a fascinating building to visit – from the architecture to the monuments, it was interesting to see the Scandinavian version of ecclesiastical grandeur.  Plus the St George is a remarkable work of art that warrants a visit in itself.  Despite the fact that it was a sunny day, we did visit in December, so the interior was still quite dark, which made it hard to see some of the details.  I have noticed that other people posting pictures online have captured the interior looking wonderful bright, so I guess it’s all about timing.  For me, the visit gave the impression of warmth and understated class – yes, even with the flamboyant baroque additions.

Further Information

The cathedral has its own website, which is mainly to do with the religious aspect of their work.  However, some information for tourists is available in English:

They also hold concerts regularly – details also available via the above link.

How to Get There

The cathedral is located in central Stockholm and is easy to get to during your exploration of Gamla Stan.  I’ve found this handy map to guide you: it’s no. 12

For transport links, you can consult the SL website



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