Everything in Denmark seemed cozy to me. My hotel was cozy. I wasn’t expecting Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen’s famed amusement park, to be cozy, but it was. Even the country’s castles seemed homey. That’s not too much of a surprise, given that hygge, a mood of coziness and comfortable conviviality, is a very Danish concept. The churches, however, are simply grand. These are my favorites.
#1 Frederik’s Church (Frederiks Kirke, Copenhagen)
Just a few steps away from the royal palace of Amalienborg, I arrived at Frederik’s Church, a church that almost never came to be. I’m so glad it did, more than a century ago, because it has my favorite dome in the world. Designed in 1740, construction didn’t begin until 1749 and was terminated in 1754 upon budget cuts and then the death of the architect. Abandoned, the unfinished church languished as a ruin for 150 years, until it finally opened in 1894, albeit in a much altered design. Originally intended to be constructed almost exclusively from marble, financial restrictions limited its use, and other materials, mostly limestone, were employed (although the church is still popularly known as Marmorkirken, the Marble Church). The spectacular verdigris dome, rising above neighboring rooftops, is nothing short of perfect. Resting on a drum with Corinthian pilasters, arched windows, and broken balustrades, and ringed by 18 zinc sculptures of apostles and prophets, Scandinavia’s largest church dome spans just over 100’. A row of ocular windows and a higher row of mansard windows bring in the light, and a lovely lantern tops the entire structure.
At the entrance to this rococo Evangelical Lutheran church, four Corinthian columns support a plain pediment. The entablature is inscribed in gold lettering with a quote from the First Epistle of Peter: “The word of the Lord endureth for ever.” Fourteen bronze statues or prominent Danes, including theologian Søren Kierkegaard and St. Ansgar, Denmark’s patron saint, stand in position around the church. Inside, where it’s refreshingly cool, the round church features a wonderful organ adorned with two white swans, symbols of Christianity in tondos, and a pine altarpiece decorated with stucco work that’s shaped like a Roman triumphal arch. An angel and an apostle on deep blue backgrounds decorate each of the 12 sections of the dome’s cupola. I could only wonder what it would have looked like if the original plans, which made it nearly 50’ wider, had been realized.
#2 Ribe Cathedral (Ribe Domkirke, Ribe)
Traveling by train across the entire country of Denmark, from Copenhagen at its eastern tip to Ribe on its western coast, gave me time to appreciate the Danish landscapes and ponder the origins of the very oddly named town of Middlefart that I passed through along the way (it’s disappointingly un-sophomoric: it translates as “middle way”). I was on my way to Denmark’s oldest surviving city to see the gargantuan cathedral, officially the Cathedral Church of Our Lady. With its oldest parts dating from 1150, the cathedral was completed in 1250 as the first Christian church in Denmark. Centuries of transformation, alteration, fire, floods, collapses, changing faiths, and expansion have culminated in its distinction as the best-preserved Romanesque building in the country (although subsequent styles are quite evident). Outside, it’s a fusion of styles and materials. Of particular note is the main doorway, added in the late 1100s. Above the door, a relief showing Jesus being taken down from the cross is surpassed in age by the triangular relief above it, one of the largest remaining Romanesque sandstone reliefs. The bronze door itself, from the 20th century, features a 13th-century lion’s head door knocker: If a pursued criminal reached the lion’s head before being captured, he had gained asylum in the church.
In 1536, when Denmark became a Lutheran nation during the Reformation, the cathedral was closed and the monks kicked out. By 1560, the last of the Roman Catholic statues and decorations were removed, and the medieval paintings were tragically plastered over. That doesn’t mean there isn’t much to see inside the only five-aisle cathedral in Denmark. Dating from different centuries, mosaics, paintings, and tombstones can be found scattered around. The country’s largest medieval sculpture mixes Mary and Jesus with members of the Danish royal family from the mid-13th century in the same scene. The new organ, from 1973, retained the wonderful façade from 1635. There’s also the gorgeous raised pulpit from 1597 and a spectacular copper ore baptismal font from the first half of the 1400s. Pews with hand-carved ornaments (such as the Tower of Babel), no two of which are the same, invite you to sit and stay awhile, perhaps to consider the tumult of the cathedral’s history, perhaps to reenergize yourself before you begin to climb 248 stairs to the top of the “Commoner’s Tower.” On my way up, I was grateful that engineering methods have improved over the centuries: The original tower completely collapsed in 1283; its taller replacement partially collapsed in 1594. The present tower, at 170’, seems sturdier and strong enough to hold the cathedral’s six bells, the oldest from 1456, the newest from 1869. Once I ascended to the top and regained my breath, I soaked in the expansive views. As the tallest building around, the tower rewarded me with unobstructed views of the entire city of Ribe, the surrounding countryside, the vast marsh and the river system, and the Wadden Sea. And I was pretty sure it wouldn’t crumble beneath me.
#3 St. Mary’s Church (Sanct Mariæ Kirke; Helsingør)
I had traveled up the eastern coast of Denmark to the city of Helsingør to see the mighty Kronborg Castle, the setting for William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. On my way, however, I stopped to see the tremendous St. Mary’s Church, a component of a priory complex for friars that was established in 1430 and that survived until its dissolution in 1536 during the Reformation. As for the church, plans for its demolition were scrapped when it was found to be a worthy warehouse and horse stables for the next 40 years. The city’s foreign community, mostly Germans, took it over after that, and it remained the “German church” until it became a Danish parish church in 1851. Meticulously restored in 1907, this brick beauty is one of Helsingør’s great attractions. As soon as I entered, my eyes were drawn upward, not only by the soaring brick pillars and walls but also by the sounds of the organist practicing on the Baroque organ from the mid-1600s in the fantastically ornate organ loft. Rows of pew boxes march toward the altar, past the raised windowed and enclosed boxes above them, presumably for royalty or the very wealthy. The wood pulpit encrusted with colorfully painted carvings of everything from angel heads to birds to the four evangelists is particularly eye-catching. And especially noteworthy are the impressive frescoes on the walls and ceilings, with everything from heraldic symbols to grapevines to Biblical scenes, such as the Last Supper, with Christ and his nimbus that looks more like an Ottoman turban than a halo, surrounded by 11 Apostles, the traitorous Judas apparently omitted.
#4 St. Catherine’s Church (Sankt Kathrine Kirke; Ribe)
The other church of note in Ribe that I visited shares a very similar history with Ribe Cathedral. Like its larger neighbor, St. Catherine’s Church was part of a priory complex for friars, most of it dating from around 1433. And, like its neighbor, the monks were booted out in 1536 during the Reformation. It, too, became a Danish parish church, and it has also experienced bouts of deterioration, transformation, changing faiths, and restoration. Although this church also has a brick exterior, the interior vastly diverges from the cathedral’s, and it’s quite striking. Its sober whitewashed walls, clear windows, Romanesque arches, brick herringbone floor, and ordinary wooden pewboxes lack the ostentation of the cathedral. With that somber background, it’s easier to appreciate the church’s treasures. The raised pulpit with a sounding board, for instance, dates from 1591. It’s richly carved with seven reliefs from Jesus’ childhood, including the Adoration of the Magi and, most unusually, his circumcision. The sumptuously gilded altarpiece, from 1650, features a central image of the Last Supper, below a Crucifixion scene. Finally, like the cathedral, St. Catherine’s church has a tower that, although it didn’t exactly collapse, it was well on its way down as it began to tilt over time. To prevent total destruction, Ribe’s leaning tower was shortened and strengthened to the form I was seeing today.
#5 Church of the Holy Ghost (Helligåndskirken, Copenhagen)
One of the oldest churches in Copenhagen, astride the city’s famed Strøget, the pedestrian walkway through the heart of the city that inspired Burlington, Vermont, to create the same, the Church of the Holy Ghost started out as part of a hospital in 1296. It morphed into an abbey in 1469, but that lasted only until the Reformation, and the abbey was decommissioned in 1530. Seven years later, it became a parish church. The Copenhagen Fire of 1728 inflicted serious damage, and the church’s appearance has changed twice since that conflagration. The gorgeous bell tower, although it looks like it’s from 1582, is a reconstruction from 1880. I entered the three-aisle church through the oldest remaining part, the impressive front portal, a Renaissance-style piece from 1630 with King Christian IV’s monogram. Ornate chandeliers and tall clear windows fill the nave and upper gallery with plenty of light. Two stained-glass windows behind the altar add pops of color in the crisp white interior. They rise above the Baroque altarpiece, from 1727, with a painting of the Ascension. The organ came along a century and a half later, in 1877. I especially admired the pulpit, from 1879, exquisitely carved and with a sounding board in the shape of a crown, in a church fit for a king.
- St. Peter’s Church (Sankt Petri Kirke, 15th century; Copenhagen)
- Holmen Church (Holmens Kirke, 1619; Copenhagen)
- Church of Our Lady (Vor Frue Kirke, 1829; Copenhagen)
- Trinitatis Church (Trinitatis Kirke, 1651; Copenhagen)
- St. Alban’s Church (1887; Copenhagen)
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