Nidarosdomen (Nidaros Cathedral) stands tall and proud near the mouth of the Nidelva river in Trondheim, Norway. It owes its name to Trondheim’s medieval town which was called after the river: ‘Nid’ and ‘os’ (meaning river mouth). Nidarosdomen has all the stats to impress (biggest this, oldest that, and most ‘northernest’) but that is not what makes this Cathedral so interesting. Even though Nidarosdomen has been a national icon since medieval times, it did not grow into its full stature until the early 80s.

Nidarosdomen makes no claim of ‘authenticity’ and in fact openly admits that most of the appearance of the Cathedral did not ‘appear’ until the 19th century. However, it can not be overlooked that Nidarosdomen is a symbol of the great restoration of Norway.

Below: Constructional development of the north-east side including the octagon presbytery.

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St. Olav Haroldsson (995-1030), previously known as King Olav the Fat, is considered to be the last force to convert Norway from paganism to Christianity. A fierce Viking, St Olav was converted and baptised to Christianity in Normandy while fighting the Danes. He returned and made himself king of Norway and went about the land converting the people (mostly at sword point). He was dethroned by the Danes in 1028 and died trying to regain his Kingship at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030. His body was buried in secrecy in Trondheim. A year after St. Olav’s death, he was declared a Saint. A small chapel was built over the original burial site and his remains are known to be placed in a secret location somewhere in the Cathedral – to this day it is still a mystery as to where.

Largely due to his canonisation, St Olav is considered to have brought the hearts of the people together as one nation. The Nidaros wooden chapel was soon replaced by a small stone Cathedral and was dedicated to the Holy Trinity and became known as Christchurch. Pilgrims would make the long journey up to Trondheim to worship in the shrine of their beloved Saint. In the early 1200s, a Nidaros Archbishop Øystein Erlendsson was forced to flee to England for challenging King Sverre’s misuse of the church. While there he learnt about new ideas in architecture and when he returned to Nidaros three years later (after reconciling with the King) he commissioned a new construction program for Nidarosdomen that built the famous octagon presbytery which still stands today.

Below: Constructional development of the west front.

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Over half a century, the Cathedral was destroyed by six fires. The Church occasionally rebuilt but only to maintain functionality – many parts were left in ruins. In the 1531 fire, the church withheld rebuilding – the Reformation was coming. The Church wanted to save what little money they had left rather than restoring the Cathedral only to have the Protestants take over. After the 1719 fire from a lightening strike, the Protestants rebuilt the top of the octagon with a Baroque dome. Nidarosdomen maintained a modest appearance until the 19th century.

In the build up to national independence, plans were drawn (pictured above: Christies 1885) to not only restore Nidarosdomen to its former medieval glory but to build a new magnificent west front that would stand as a symbol of Norwegian pride and identity. In 1983 the last statue was put in place to complete the legacy of Nidaros Cathedral.

To read more about the construction of the Nidaros Cathedral visit Nidarosdomen: step by step history.

This is part one of a three part series on Nidaros Cathedral. Part two is Experience Nidaros Cathedral.  Part three is Nidaros Cathedral and the Archbishop’s Palace.