- Parts of Stockholm Cathedral date back to the early 14th century
- It is the oldest church in Stockholm
- The present-day exterior comes from an 18th-century reconstruction
- The church has played an integral role in Sweden’s society throughout its existence
If places could talk, it would likely be this 700-year-old church that could tell you the most impressive stories concerning Stockholm. It has seen dozens of kings come and go, thousands of idols grow up and die. It has witnessed the rise of the Swedish capital from a medieval settlement to world dominance. It was here that kings were coronated, princes and princesses got married. Let’s explore Stockholm Cathedral (Storkyrkan).
The story begins as early as the 13th century, perhaps even the one before that, with the predecessor of the present-day church known as Bykyrkan (‘The Town Church’). That is right, we do not know when the structure was built exactly. However, we can be certain that the church was born together with the city of Stockholm sometime between 1187 and 1252.
Bykyrkan stood in the very same place where Stockholm Cathedral today stands as this is where you would find the highest point on the island of Stadsholmen forming the core of Stockholm’s historical Old Town (Gamla Stan). Traditionally, it was always the highest place in an area where churches were built.
The wooden church, as essentially all other buildings in its neighbourhood, was susceptible to fire which turned out to be fatal around the turn of the 14th century when Bykyrkan burned to ashes.
It only took a few years before the first stone church was erected in the location. Parts of the church dedicated to St. Nicolas, St. Erik, and St. Olof have, in fact, been preserved as parts of the current church to this day.
During the 14th and 15th century, Stockholm grew rapidly and so did the church. A number of chancels and chapels had been added to the original structure before the tower was completed in 1420. At the time the only church in Stockholm accessible to the public, it was becoming more and more prominent as the time passed.
Further expansion and modifications of the church’s exterior accompanied the arrival of one of the most famous and valuable artefacts you can still find in the church today. The sculpture of St. George and the Dragon (S:t Göran och Draken) was placed there in the late 15th century and it quickly became a symbol of Sweden’s efforts towards establishing itself as an independent country as opposed to being a part of the Kalmar Union it was at the time.
The sculpture of St. George and the Dragon
The sculpture of Saint George and the Dragon (Sankt Göran och draken) was created in 1489 by artist Bernt Notke. It was commissioned by the regent of Sweden Sten Sture the Elder and his spouse Ingeborg Tott on the occasion of the Swedish victory over the Danish army in the Battle of Brunkeberg in 1471.
Made primarily of oak, the sculpture is a world-renowned masterpiece and likely the most valuable item on display in Stockholm Cathedral. A bronze replica also stands at the nearby Köpmantorget Square.
I have tried to avoid using the term Storkyrkan (‘The Big Church’) in the preceding part of this post. This is simply to help you remember that it was only in the 16th century – after another public church was completed in Stockholm – that the church became known by this name.
The reasoning behind the new name is fairly logical. It was chosen simply because ‘The Big Church’ was the largest of the two public churches in Stockholm while it was no longer suitable to call it ‘The Town Church’ as there were two different buildings serving the purpose in the town.
Names of the Church
It is easy to get confused by the different names used for this particular church, so let me try to break things down for you.
The first name under which the church was known was Bykyrkan (‘The Town Church’). This name was used in the Middle Ages until another public church in Stockholm was opened in the early 1500s.
Since then, it is commonly known as Storkyrkan (‘The Big/Great Church’). However, you can also commonly encounter the informal name Stockholms domkyrka (Stockholm Cathedral). This name is especially popular in tourist guides and similar sources emphasizing the church’s historic importance.
We have yet to talk about the actual, official name of the church, though. The official name is Sankt Nicolai kyrka (Church of St. Nicolas) which is paradoxically the one that is used least frequently.
More than a few important historical figures set their foot in Stockholm Cathedral, yet some of them had a bigger impact on its functioning than others. Clergyman Olof Persson, better known by his Latinised name Olaus Petri, was the one who served the first mass in Sweden entirely held in the Swedish language in 1525.
Apart from that, he deserved the statue standing just east of the walls of the church by publishing the first Swedish psalm book or the first Bible translated to Swedish, known as Gustav Vasa’s Bible, which came out in 1541.
It was Gustav Vasa himself who only a few years later presented his plan to demolish the church which, according to his remarks, was not only in a bad shape, it also stood too close to the Royal Palace, which weakened its position in case of a war. Despite no one from the City Council daring to stand up to the king, representatives of the church managed to talk some sense into Vasa and make a compromise. Eventually, only an extension of the church standing closest to the palace was torn down.
Historically, the church has been much more than a place of worship. Especially in medieval Stockholm and later during the 17th and 18th century, it played an important role in various aspects of life.
Graves located under the floor of Stockholm Cathedral used to be among the most prominent last resting places in the country and were, therefore, in high demand. They used to change tenants often and burials with everything they involved hence became an important source of income for the church.
This was not without consequences, though. And they were often unpleasant at that. Already in the 1500s, the clergy commonly complained about the quality of air in the church, especially during summer when the odours coming from the graves right under the floor were the most unbearable. The situation did not change before the 18th century when all graves were eventually emptied and would no longer be available for rent.
What may come across as an even more surprising function of a church in the modern society is Stockholm Cathedral’s historical task of being the place where everyone could find out what time it was. While modern clocks as we know them today were not invented yet, it was crucial that the clock ordered by the church in the early 17th century be as precise as technically possible at the time as the whole city would rely on it.
At the time, Sweden was ruled by the Riksdag of the Four Estates which used to get together annually. One of the estates, the clergy, used a chancel in Storkyrkan as their meeting venue where they would discuss official matters before the Riksdag from the early 17th century until the completion of the Old Parliament House (Gamla Riksdagshuset) on Riddarholmen in 1833.
Speaking of the four estates, let’s have a look if you could find a seat in the church in the 1600s. First and foremost, if you are a lady, yours is the left-hand side and remember who your husband is, you will need it. All gentlemen to the right, please.
Now it becomes tricky. You, gentleman, are welcome in one of the first three rows on your side assuming you are a member of the Privy Council. Not a member yet? Then, perhaps you are a nobleman and can sit in rows four and five. If that is not the case either, you better work at the court of appeal if you want to sit in the next one. There might still be a free seat for you in row seven if you are a mayor.
Fine, it is still not too late. We still have three rows reserved for officers and then some for the city’s burghers. Well, and you, ordinary Joe, you are very welcome to stand in the aisle.
The rules for the ladies are very similar with one little twist. You, dear lady, need not think about who you are. Wives of the members of the Privy Council, proceed to the first three rows, wives of noblemen can find a seat in the next two rows, and so we continue all the way back to those standing in the corner by the cold wall.
With the middle of the 18th century approaching and things having calmed down after the Great Northern War, it was time for a fundamental reconstruction of Storkyrkan which would define its looks for centuries to come.
Johan Eberhard Carlberg, the city architect at the time, was the man chosen for the job. His plan was to highlight the medieval features of the church while renovating its façade in the then-new baroque style to match the Royal Palace which was also under construction at the time. The reconstruction took reasonable six years and you can essentially admire its results in the heart of Stockholm to this day.
From the outside of the brick church, you will get to admire its tall tower whose size is enhanced by the narrowness of the surrounding streets. The tower is crowned with a lantern and there are clocks on all four sides, the oldest of which come from the 17th century. Among the more recent changes to the church’s appearance are the arched windows with iron frames.
In the immediate neighbourhood of the church, lies a rather humble churchyard. This was not always the case, though, as originally, the yard surrounded the church on all sides. Nevertheless, several valuable sculptures and gravestones enhance the environment to this day.
Unlike the façade, the interior is richly decorated, featuring numerous big grave monuments, sculptures, and paintings. Some of the most valuable paintings were created by David Klöcker Ehrenstrahl in the late 17th century and are displayed in the eastern part of the church.
Interestingly, these were originally meant to decorate the walls of the chapel at the Royal Palace but were placed in the church when the palace burned down only a year after the last of the paintings had been completed.
Another noteworthy painting hanging on the historical walls is the so-called Vädersolstavlan, or rather a copy thereof. The original of this painting is the oldest known depiction of Stockholm dating back to the 1530s while the replica on display was made about a hundred years later.
In Stockholm Cathedral, you would also find numerous artefacts connected to the history of the Swedish Royals. For instance, Karl XI commissioned the creation of a pair of monumental thrones for his wedding with the Danish Princess Ulrika Eleonora in 1680. The thrones are still used today when the king visits Storkyrkan.
As Gustav III was coronated during a less prosperous time for the country and his plan to have a new organ made for the occasion fell short, he decided to settle for rebuilding the façade of the existing one. Queen Christina, on the other hand, received a crucifix made of wood and silver from none other than Magnus Gabriel de la Gardie on the day of her coronation. Unlike many valuable artefacts the queen carried with her abroad after her abdication, the crucifix still belongs to Stockholm Cathedral’s collection.
Even in the modern day and age, Stockholm Cathedral keeps its prominent standing in the Swedish society. The current king Carl XVI Gustav, as well as Crown Princess Victoria, both held their weddings at this monumental place soaked in history.
Whenever you get a chance, make sure to explore Storkyrkan from inside out as likely no other single place will tell you more about the history of Sweden than just this church standing at the very heart of the country’s capital.
Storkyrkan, 2018. Svenska kyrkan. [svenskakyrkan.se].
Storkyrkan i Gamla Stan i Stockholm, 2018. [stockholmgamlastan.se].
Jermsten, Elisabet, 2008. Storkyrkan. Stockholms stift. [svenskakyrkan.se].