Iceland is filled with many breathtaking sights. But some of the country’s most beautiful features are often over looked: its churches. Indeed when people first arrive in Iceland, it is not the volcanic waters of the Blue Lagoon, or the spectacular waterfalls of Gullfoss that first take the breath away, but it is a church; the soaring Hallgrímskirkja cathedral in Rekjavik is quite unlike any other cathedral in the world, modeled after Iceland’s dramatic basalt columns.
But most of Iceland’s other churches are far more humble in appearance. Often simply made, and found in the middle of nowhere, they have an austere beauty that seems part of the landscape. We went to explore the charming kirkjur of Iceland.
We’re headed to Þingvellir (Thingvellir), where tucked away in the national park, is a tiny church. Whilst Iceland is surprisingly green and verdant in the long days of summer, we quite prefer it in February, one of its coldest months, when there is little sun and harsh winters winds batter the landscape.
Painted white, the church would be almost invisible against the arctic landscape where it not for a grey slate roof and beautiful teal shutters. The park is where the ancient Althing parliamentary general assembly met between 930AD and 1798, and Christianity has been part of Iceland’s history for almost as long. When Iceland accepted Christianity around 1000AD, wood and a church bell were sent from Norway as a gift from King Olaf the Stout to be used to build a church.
This simple wooden church is called Þingvallakirkja. It is small in size, but no less beautiful for it, and the church, with its warming wooden interior, resembles more a snug cabin in the snow filled woods. Icelanders have been coming to this charming, humble church since 1859, but there have been others before it on this site, dating back to King Olaf’s present.
There are around 350 churches to be found in Iceland, roughly one church for every 1,000 Icelanders, almost all of which are Lutheran. Regína Hrönn Ragnarsdóttir, a travel blogger for the website Guide to Iceland, has been to about 70% of them. The churches are often simply made, usually of wood and tin, with little ornamentation. Many look similar to the plain adobe houses of worship found in America’s south west. But the most beautiful and unique churches to be found in Iceland are the ones with turf roofs. Many date back centuries and today there are just a handful left.
“It is a pity that so few of these beautiful turf churches have remained”, explains Regína. “In my eyes, they are a national treasure and should be treated with the respect and care that such treasures deserve.” One such can be found along the remote banks of the Eyjafjörður fjord in North-Iceland, where you will find the beautiful Saurbæjarkirkja turf church. Painted black and white, with plain windows built into the sloping turf roof, this church that wouldn’t look out of place in Tolkein’s Middle Earth can seat about 60 people, called to service by bells hanging from the gables.
A large part of Iceland’s church’s charm lies in their remoteness. But that comes at a cost; Regína explains, ““most….are closed now due to vandalism, theft, and people sleeping in the churches, and disrespecting them.” Whilst many of the churches in Iceland are closed, a key can sometimes be acquired from the local farmer or there is a phone-number with information in the window. The remaining turf churches are often closed because they’re too delicate to withstand much foot traffic.
Perhaps the most beautiful turf roof church can be found at Höfðaströnd in Northern Iceland, where set against a backdrop of mountains. Grafarkirkja has been a place of worship since the 1200s and parts of this wooden and grass church date back to the 1600s. “When I leave this beautiful turf church I cannot stop looking back at it”, explains Regína. “I feel like I am looking back in time….Grafarkirkja turf church looks like a jewel in the surrounding landscape…..you will see a gallant mountain in the backdrop which complements the church – or the church complements the mountain – it is just perfect.”