Nidarosdomen, a living cultural monument for today

Power from the past born again at Easter

Photo: VisitTrondheim
Nidarosdomen in Trondheim, Norway, is the world’s northernmost Gothic cathedral and a Norwegian national treasure. Located in the center of the city, it towers above the surrounding buildings and can be seen from virtually every vantage point.

Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American

If you have ever been to Nidarosdomen, Trondheim’s magnificent Nidaros Cathedral in the center of the city, you know that entering through its great portal is like stepping back in time to another world. With its sweeping arched ceilings that seem to reach toward heaven, stunning stained-glass windows that let in an ethereal light, ornate sculptured figures of an other-worldly character, this architectural masterpiece is shrouded with an atmosphere of mystery and wonderment.

Nidarosdomen is the world’s northernmost Gothic cathedral and a Norwegian national monument. The first structure there began to take shape in 1070 over the burial place of St. Olav. “Den hellige Olav,” the Viking king who converted Norway to Christianity. By the year 1300, construction on the cathedral was completed.

Beginning in medieval times, pilgrims began to journey the Pilgrim’s Path from Oslo to visit the tomb of St, Olav. This tradition has survived throughout time, and today pilgrims from all over the world follow along the trail to make their way to Trondheim.

Photo: VisitNorway
A visitor stands in awe of the sweeping lines of the Gothic arches of the cathedral.

Over the centuries, the cathedral has undergone major changes and restorations. It endured many fires, and by the 19th century, it was in a major state of decay. In 1868, it was decided that the cathedral should be rebuilt as a national symbol. Work began the following year and has been ongoing on some level ever since.

I was 18 years old and out on a summer railway adventure when I first visited the cathedral many years ago, having seen some of Europe’s other grand cathedrals that same summer: Chartres and Paris’ Notre Dame in France, St. Stephen’s in Vienna, Austria, and York Cathedral in the United Kingdom. And while they were all inspiring in their own way, I don’t recall them invoking the same feeling of awe in me as the great cathedral in Trondheim. Having come so far north alone on the train to see Nidarosdomen, it was as if I had completed my own pilgrimage. My imagination was filled with thoughts of whether some of my ancestors might have once been there.

Later in life, I visited the cathedral again to learn more about it. But what I have learned has not only taken me back into the past; I have learned that Nidarosdomen is also a living cultural monument. The cathedral is the main church for the Nidaros og Vår Frue parish of the Church of Norway, the seat of the Nidaros domprosti (archdeanery), and the seat of the Bishop of the Diocese of Nidaros. The massive cathedral can seat about 1,850 parishioners and is the setting for major cultural events in the region, as well as for productions with a national outreach. The cathedral is not only the setting for weekly sermons but also serves as the stage for major concerts, lectures, and other cultural programs for all ages.

Most notably, with its extraordinary architecture and acoustics, the cathedral is home to a host of choirs: the Nidaros Cathedral Choir, Nidaros Cathedral Boys’ Choir, Nidaros Cathedral Girls’ Choir, Schola Sanctae Sunnivae, Nidaros Vocalis, and Nidaros Oratory Choir.

Photo: Maverix / VisitNorway
The rose window depicts the Day of Judgment with a red field in the middle symbolizing Christ.

You can also find three museums in the building of the archdiocese. The oldest part of the surrounding grounds is used for formal receptions and dinners. The National Regalia Exhibition is housed in the west wing, where the royal crown is on display. The cathedral is the home of royal consecrations and has been the setting for many royal weddings over time.

In the Erkebispegården Museum, you will find original sculptures from Nidaros Cathedral and the most important archaeological finds from the excavations that took place in the 1990s. There is also a defense museum, Rustkammeret, where you can learn about the history of defense in central Norway.

Upon approval, the various locales at the cathedral are available for rent to create a unique cultural experience.

Each year, important festivals take place at Nidaros Cathedral. It is the site of the observation of Olav’s Wake (Norwegian: Olavs­vaka). This religious and cultural festival is centered upon the anniversary of the death of Saint Olav at the Battle of Stiklestad.

Photo: VisitNorway
Ornamental sculptures from the Middle Ages adorn both the inside and outside of the cathedral.

Then, at this time of year, the observance of Easter is a very special time at Nidarosdom­en. Holy communion and prayers take place throughout the Lenten season. Then on Palm Sunday, evening prayers mark the beginning of the Holy Week. This year, on Maundy Thursday, a short bilingual (Norwegian and English) play of the Easter drama will be presented in Vår Frue Church for locals and tourists to experience, followed by the Eucharist and foot-washing service in the main cathedral. The next day, Good Friday, the procession of the cross will lead from Vår Frue Church to the main cathedral. The Holy Week will culminate with the Easter morning services there.

A few years back, a tourist left a review on Tripadvisor of what it is like to experience Easter services at Nidaros Cathedral:

“I was transported back to the 12th century. At the end of the candlelight church service, we were ushered outside in front of Nidaros. We stood in a gigantic circle with our candles for the closing prayers. Then we greeted our neighbors with a handshake and smile. Perfect ending.”

This article originally appeared in the March 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Lori Ann Reinhall

Lori Ann Reinhall, editor-in-chief of The Norwegian American, is a multilingual journalist and cultural ambassador based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.