- Katarina Church was inaugurated in 1695
- It is Sweden’s first central-plan church
- The church has burned down almost entirely twice
- After the last fire, it was opened in 1995
Having survived seemingly catastrophic events on several occasions, it seems that one of the well-recognised symbols of the Södermalm Island in Stockholm is here to stay. Let’s find out not only how Katarina Church (Katarina kyrka) came to life but also how it has fought to stay alive and not be forgotten in the past.
At the turn of the 17th century, Stockholm had roughly 10,000 residents. Compare it to today’s number, which is approaching a million, and you get a pretty clear idea of how much the city has changed. In many ways, this change began right at that time as thanks to the prosperity of the country, the population of Stockholm quadrupled within decades.
Södermalm became the home of many of these new residents who lacked a proper place of worship as Maria Magdalena Church (Maria Magdalena kyrka) was the only parish church on the island at the time.
Named after the mother of the then-reigning King Karl X Gustav, the Katarina Parish was established in 1654. The centre of the new parish was formed by an existing squared churchyard with a 1580s chapel known as the Sture Chapel (Sturekapellet).
Even earlier, the Helga Kors Chapel (Helga Kors kapell), which is thought to have been built in the 1330s, used to stand in the location. This building was demolished in the early 1500s, though.
The medieval churchyard was to become the site of a new parish church, too. One of the leading architects who left his mark on buildings like the House of Nobility (Riddarhuset) and the Oxenstierna Palace, Jean de la Vallée, was tasked with bringing the new church to life.
He came up with a brave plan to build the first central-plan church in Sweden. Shaped like a Greek cross, Katarina Church was meant to become unlike anything Stockholmers had seen before.
The construction began in 1656 and the first service was held there already the same year under a provisional roof. Do not be fooled into thinking the process was so smooth, though. In fact, the works were halted on a number of occasions due to internal conflicts within the parish as well as financial difficulties. Eventually, the construction took nearly forty years and even on the inauguration day, the church was not fully furnished yet.
De la Vallée‘s brave plan eventually fell short, in a way at least. While from the outside, Katarina Church appears to be a true central-plan church, the parish authorities were sceptical of the architect’s vision and therefore, the altar was placed in a more traditional place in the north-eastern part of the building.
Soon after the inauguration, a disaster hit the new building. In 1723, Katarina Church almost entirely disappeared in flames. Only the walls were left standing whereas the roof, the tower, as well as the furnishing, were all destroyed.
Almost immediately after the tragic event, the architect Göran Josua Adelcrantz got to work. He was tasked with the reconstruction and essentially gave the church its modern-day appearance including the characteristic tower which was now much taller than before.
Even the architect’s son, Carl Fredrik Adelcrantz, was involved, though many question the actual level of his involvement. The drawings of the new altarpiece and pulpit were signed by Carl Fredrik but as he was only 16 at the time, his age raised a suspicion that the designs were, in fact, a work of his father.
A few important renovations took place at Katarinaberget during the 19th century when it was mostly the interior of the church that was altered. However, neither the benches designed by Carl Möller nor most of the wall paintings by Agi Lindegren can be seen at the church anymore.
Then, the year 1990 came and Katarina Church was in flames once again. The consequences were no better than more than 200 years ago. The tower collapsed, the furnishing was mostly destroyed, and the walls were the only thing left standing. On a positive note, a plenty of valuable historical artefacts were saved.
After the fire, the response of the public, as well as the media, was fast and clear. Everyone wanted their church back which led to the decision to rebuild the site once again. Katarina Church opened its gates again in 1995 with its design essentially unchanged from the period prior to the second big fire.
Thanks to the utilisation of traditional materials during the reconstruction, the church today appears both authentic and historical in spite of the fact that most of it was built only a few decades ago.
The authenticity of the interior is enhanced by a large number of historical artefacts that managed to survive to this day. Interestingly, even the wooden floor underneath the grey benches is from the period preceding the year 1990.
From the outside, the prominent example of Swedish baroque architecture appears lively yet massive. Its plastered bright-yellow façade is complemented by plentiful decorative elements in grey and large arched windows with green frames as well as wooden doors in the same colour. A small pavilion stands in each corner between the church’s arms.
While for the most part the church is made of brick with the sandstone base being an exception, the construction of the monumental cupola is wooden. Speaking of the cupola, its diameter is nearly 23 metres and the ceiling height in the middle of the church is around 27 metres.
On the southern side, you would find the staircase of Karl XII with beautifully decorated railings accessible from the big churchyard which itself offers an interesting peek into the past. For instance, parts of it are bordered by the original 17th-century walls, there is a church school built in 1657 and even the paths crossing the park were laid mostly during the 1700s. Historical gravestones in the northern part, as well as the fences surrounding some of them, are also worth mentioning.
For centuries, Katarina Church has been a landmark defining the entire neighbourhood. Even today, after everything it has gone through, the building with its surrounding churchyard keeps brightening the days of all who pass around every day. Next time when you walk by, try and think about all the intriguing events and historical figures that have led this place to become what it is today.
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Lindhagen, Suzanne, 2005. Stockholms stift. Katarina kyrka.