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Roskilde Cathedral

Roskilde Cathedral (Danish: Roskilde Domkirke), in the city of Roskilde on the Island of Zealand (Sjælland) in eastern Denmark, is a cathedral of the Lutheran Church of Denmark. It was the first Gothic cathedral to be built of brick and its construction encouraged the spread of this Brick Gothic style throughout Northern Europe. It was built during the 12th and 13th centuries, and incorporates both Gothic and Romanesque architectural features in its design. It was the only cathedral in Zealand until the 20th century, and its twin spires dominate the skyline of the town.

Roskilde Cathedral has been the main burial site for Danish monarchs since the 15th century. As such, it has been significantly extended and altered over the centuries as individual rulers have added many burial chapels. Following the Danish Reformation in 1536, the Bishop's residence was moved to Copenhagen, and he from then on held the title Bishop of Zealand. Royal coronations normally took place in Copenhagen's Church of Our Lady or in the chapel of Frederiksborg Palace.

The cathedral is a major tourist attraction, bringing in over 125,000 visitors annually. Since 1995 it has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A working church, it also hosts concerts throughout the year.


Previous churches

Roskilde was named as the new capital of Denmark by King Harald Bluetooth around the year 960. The King had previously resided in Jelling, where he built a church and raised the Jelling stones, but after the uniting the Danes and Norwegians, a move was necessary to stay close to the centre of power in the new Kingdom. The King built a royal farm and next to it, a small stave church was built, dedicated to the Holy Trinity. Little is known of the Trinity church, including how it looked, but despite it's brief history, at least two events are known to have taken place. In Adam of Bremen's Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum, it is described how the Kings son, Sweyn Forkbeard, had raised a rebellion against him, which forced the King to flee to Jomsborg. When the King died in 985/986, the army that had been raised against him, brought his body to Roskilde and buried him in the church he had built. And at Christmas in 1026, Ulf the Earl was murdered by one of Cnut the Great's housecarls, though depending on the source, this happened either inside the church (Chronicon Roskildense) or at the royal farm (Saxo Grammaticus's Gesta Danorum). Ulf had been married to Cnut the Greats sister Estrid, and the latter was outraged by the murder and demanded a weregild.

There is some doubt as to when Roskilde became the seat of seat of the Bishop of Roskilde. When Sweyn Forkbeard conquered England in 1013, he started sending English bishops to Denmark, a process which was continued by his successor Cnut the Great. This caused some conflict with the Archbishop of Hamburg, who regarded Scandinavia as their territory. The earliest known bishop of Roskilde was Gerbrand, who had been a cleric with Cnut the Great, and who was intercepted by the Archbishop of Hamburg-Bremens men when he sailed to Denmark in 1022. Only after swearing allegiance to the Archbishop was he allowed to continue his journey. The Archbishop may have had good reason to be suspicious, as documents of the era suggests that Cnut the Great may have planned to create an Archdiocese in Roskilde, with Gerbrand as Archbishop.

Funded by the weregild Estrid Svendsdatter had received, the old Trinity church was torn down and construction of a simple stone cathedral began around 1026. This may have formed the base of the later travertine cathedral, but it is difficult to tell, as two cathedrals have subsequently been built in the same place. However, an archaeological excavation in 1968 showed that the base of both buildings were at the same height, which would not make sense if two separate buildings had been constructed in a 50 year span<.ref>Kruse (2003). pp. 15.</ref>

However, it is a certain that a travertine cathedral was built at the location. Construction had been started by bishop Wilhelm between 1060-1073, and completed by his successor Svend Nordmand around 1080. The new cathedral was built using travertine, a stone found in abundance around Roskilde Fjord, as a basilica in Romanesque style with half-rounded interior arches to support the flat interior ceiling, and two towers flanking the west front entrance. A three-sided stone monastery was constructed for monks and others associated with the cathedral, adjoining the cathedral on the north side. Svend Nordmand's successor, Arnold, added a wall around the cathedral, which was to act as guarantee of safety for anyone who sought sanctuary there. However, Arnold was also considered the bishop who lost the Archdiocese of Scandinavia to Lund Cathedral, as he was considered lacking in drive and motivation.

With the new cathedral completed, there was a desire to bring a relic in, so two canons were dispatched to Rome to find a suitable one. Legend holds that after their arrival, as the canons rested, Saint Lucius, an early Pope from 253-255, appeared before them and told them that he had been chosen to be the Patron Saint of Roskilde until the end of time. The next day, the two canons were taken to Santa Cecilia in Trastevere to choose amongst the many relics there, and there they saw a skull shining brightly, the skull of Saint Lucius. On their return, the canons were sailing through the Great Belt when their ship came under attack by a powerful demon, which had long lured in Danish waters. The crew drew straws and the lot fell on the canon carrying the skull of Saint Lucius. The canon said a prayer to Saint Lucius, washed the skull three times, threw the water in the ocean, and jumped over the side of the ship. To everyone's surprise, the canon was able to walk on the water. The demon disappeared screaming into the depths and was never seen again.

It is not known for certain which year the relic arrived in Roskilde, only the date, August 25, as that was the date where the relics arrival was celebrated annually. The first written mention of the relic dates to Ælnoth, a monk in Odense, who described it in a work on the life of Canute the Holy in 1122. Another item of the period, a seal carved from Walrus tusk, depicting Saint Lucius between the two towers of the twin towers of the cathedral, has been dated to the early 12th century. The relic may have been acquired to help win Roskilde the Archdiocese, which was given to Lund in 1103/1104.

The current cathedral

Soon after he became bishop of Roskilde in 1157, Absalon began an expansion of the travertine cathedral. But in 1160, the art of burning bricks arrived with monks from the south, and the new material was embraced. It was decided to build a new, Roman styled cathedral around the existing one, permitting services to continue during construction. However, work was slow, and when Absalon was forced to surrender his position as bishop of Roskilde in 1191, only the two floors of the apse, the choir towers and part of the transept were completed. Absalon's successor, Peder Sunesen, embracing the new French Gothic, made significant changes to the plans, tearing down the choir towers and reducing the width of the transept. The choir was completed and inaugurated in 1225, allowing services to begin there, and the old travertine cathedral was torn down. Work on the nave continued for the next 55 years, being limited by funds, lack of ovens to burn the bricks, and the winter. With the exception of the two towers on the west facade, the cathedral was completed by 1280, and work on the interior proceeded, slowed by a fire in 1282 which also destroyed several of the canons' houses in the area. During this time, several chapels were added to the cathedral, and in 1405, work on the towers were completed.

When Margrethe I died in 1412, she was buried in her familys burial chapel at Sorø Klosterkirke. But the following year bishop Peder Jensen Lodehat, who had been the Queens chancellor and religious advisor, brought her body to Roskilde Cathedral. The monks in Sorø were outraged, not in the least because the loss of the Queens earthly remains would mean a significant loss of income from requims, as well as a loss of prestige. Though the deed is often blamed on the bishop, it is quite possible that the move was orchestrated by the Queen's adoptive son, Eric of Pomerania. This is reinforced by the inscription on the sarcophagus, which describes how the sarcophagus was gifted by the new King in 1423.

In his "Chronica novella", German chronicle de:Hermann Korner describes the vast, three day long burial ceremony, involving the King, several noblemen, the Achbishop of Lund, and all of the Danish bishops. It is described how the procession would grant large gifts to each of the 50 altars in the cathedral: On the first day, the Royal couple would bestow each altar a golden ornament, a golden antependium, a silver chalice; the noblemen would each bestow each altar a florin; and the knights, squires, and anyone else who wished to bestow gifts, would bestow each altar with silver coins from Lübeck. On the second and third day, the Royal couple would bestow each altar two nobles, the noblemen would bestow each altar a florin, and the rest of the procession would bestow silver coins as they wished. What was left of silver coins were then put in a bowl, to be cast amongst the poor in Roskilde.

On 14 May 1443, a fire swept through Roskilde, destroying most of the city and all but three of the clergys' houses. The fire was so intense that the glass windows cracked, and the lead roofing melted. The cathedral was badly damaged and it was not until 1463 that the bishop, Oluf Mortensen, could rededicate it. To aid in its reconstruction, the bishops of Denmark each signed a letter granting 40 days of indulgence to whomever would give money to it. The reconstruction could also have helped by the decision of Christian I to build a chapel at the cathedral. The Chapel of the Magi was built during the 1460's, and together with the sarcophagus of Margrethe I and the remains from the previous churches, they mark the earliest royal burials.

The Reformation arrived in 1536 and marked a sharp negative turn for Roskilde Cathedral. Not only was the bishop of Roskilde, Joachim Rønnow, jailed in Copenhagen Castle, the dioceses was moved to Copenhagen and the new superintendent, Peder Palladius, became superintendent, later bishop, of Zealand. Hans Tausen, who had worked to spread the reformation, was sent to Roskilde in 1538 to help convert the clergymen who were resistant to the new ideas. And at a Reformation meeting in 1540, it was decided that all of the bishops property were now to belong to the King, both symbolic and in reality the head of the Church of Denmark. The cathedral had already been forced to hand over some of its property during the Count's Feud, but with the decision and with an impeding war against the Swedes, the confiscation of church property was stepped up. Amongst the cathedral's most prized possessions was a wooden statue of Saint Lucius, covered in gold and gems. The chapter fought hard to try and retain its property, at one point asking for a receipt for some of the confiscated goods, to which the king's men replied that the king didn't need to hand out a receipt for something that already belonged to him.

With the reformation, the cathedral was opened to the ordinary congregation, which required the purchase of new furniture, especially pews. Like in other former catholic cathedrals, the choir, which had been separated from the nave by a large wall, was left intact with the altar placed against the wall.

While the cathedral suffered a financial hardship, having been forced to hand off all of its property (which at the time included one in every four 4 farms on Zealand and 30 large manor estates), the cathedral was endowed with a variety of gifts from Christian IV: The altarpiece (between 1555 and 1623), a Royal box ca 1600, the pulpit in 1610, his own burial chapel in 1614, the construction of the iconic twin spires in 1633 and finally a grand, renaissance sandstone entrance portal in 1635.

On 26 February 1658, the Treaty of Roskilde was signed in the cathedral. Amongst the loot the Swedes took from the cathedral, was the golden dress of Margethe I, which had hung in a closet near her sarcophagus. The dress was taken by the Swedish queen consort Hedwig Eleonora and is now located at Uppsala Cathedral.

In 1690, Christian V ordered the old catholic choir cleared, so he could create a crypt beneath it for the children he and his mistress Sophie Amalie had had. This also allowed for the altar to be moved to its present location.

In 1774, work on the third royal burial chapel, Frederick V's chapel, began with the removal of the pre-existing Chapel of Our Lady. Money soon ran out, and it was not until 1825 that the work was completed. In the mean time, in 1806, the cathedral sold its inventory from its catholic days at a notorious auction. Amongst the items sold, was a grand crucifix which was sold to a local coppersmith. While sawing the crucifix into firewood, the head of Jesus split open and a small, golden patriarchal cross fell out. Upon closer inspection, it was revealed that the cross was hollow and that a splinter from Christ's cross was hidden inside. Rumour of the find quickly reached the Royal Art Collection, later the National Museum of Denmark, who immediately purchased it.

In 1871, the entrance portal was sought replaced with one that matched the rest of the cathedral's age, with the old portal donated to the Church of Holmen. However, when the new portal arrived, the churchwarden was horrified to see that the new portal was a poor attempt at copying the old style. However he had no choice but to erect it.

Work on the fourth royal burial chapel began in 1915, and prior to its completion in 1924, Roskilde was once again made diocese. On 27 August 1968, as restoration work on the Margrethe spire was nearing completion, the spire burned, threatening to collapse into the choir. During firefighting operations, members of the Civil defense and church staff covered the canon's chairs, the altar, and the sarcophagi in the retrochoir with damp fire blankets, hoping to prevent damages to the invaluable items. The Defence Minister of Denmark ordered a complete ban on jet operations in the area, pending investigations into whether the vaults were in danger of collapsing. It was later discovered, that despite a total ban on any heat sources in the area where the restoration was taking place, the craftsmen had been smoking and using blowtorches in the loft. The latest addition to the cathedral was in 1985, when the New Burial Ground, also known as Frederick IX's Burial Ground, was inaugurated.



Chapel of the Magi (Christian I's Chapel)

When Christopher of Bavaria died childless in 1448, his widow Dorothea of Brandenburg remarried the newly chosen king Christian I. Within a few years, Christian I became King of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, and Dorothea had given birth to the future king John, thus establishing the House of Oldenburg. Against this background of events, the King decided to build a grand chapel at the cathedral. The instrument of foundation was signed on April 28, 1459, which not only ordered the construction of the chapel, but also granted large tracts of land to the church. In the spring of 1462, the King applied to Pope Pius II for indulgence for having constructed the chapel, which was finally granted upon the King's visit to Pope Sixtus IV in Rome in 1474.

Built in gothic style, in line with the rest of the cathedral, the chapel consists of two floors, with the lower floor intended as a burial chapel for Christian I and the upper floor intended as Great Hall for the members of the King's newly created Fellowship of the Mother of God, the precursor to the modern day Order of the Elephant. The two floors rest on a central granite pillar, the so called King's Pillar, where numerous kings have had their height measured over the years. Amongst the kings measured, Peter the Great, measured in 1716, stands tallest, while Chulalongkorn of Siam, measured in 1907, is the smallest. The height mark for Christian I is believed to be a technical error, as the king may have been tall, but not the giant the marker would suggest.

The burials of Christian I and Queen Dorothea are marked with a pair of simple stones, as the chapel itself was to be considered their sepulchral monument, while the sepulchral monuments of Christian III and Frederick II dominate the lower floor. Christian III's alabaster, Rouge Belge and Noir Belge monument was created 1574-75 by Antwerpian sculptor Cornelis Floris. When the sculptor died in October 1575, the monument was more or less complete, lacking only its weapons and inscriptions, which were to be added by the herald Jan Baptist Guidetty. However, these were never added, and when the Spanish sacked Antwerp in November 1576, the monumet was held ransom until the widow of Cornelis Floris paid a ransom. The widow then sent word to the Danish court, requesting that the monument be retrieved and her receivable be paid, which was not done until 1578. When the monument arrived in Elsinore, two local stonemasons set to work completing the monument, and in the summer of 1580 the monument was finally placed in the chapel.

Frederick II's monument, crafted from the same materials, was built 1594-1598 by Geert van Egen from Elsinore. Both monuments are empty however, as the coffins have been buried below the floor of the chapel. King John was also supposed to have been buried in the chapel, but in his later years, he and his wife enjoyed living in Næsbyhoved castle near Odense so much, that he expressed a preferrence to be buried in the towns franciscan cathedral. However, the bishop and canons in Roskilde claimed that the King had determined that he was to be buried in Roskilde. The King's widow, Christina of Saxony, sent a letter to Pope Leo X asking for his assistance, and in his reply, the Pope stated that a mans last wish must always be followed, and thus the King was buried in Odense.

The upper floor is currently used as a cathedral museum, displaying various artifacts and giving a thorough walkthrough of the history of the cathedral.

Christian IV's Chapel

Construction of the chapel was ordered by Christian IV himself in 1613, after the death of his Queen Anne Cathrine the year before, and upon realising that space inside the cathedral was running out. Built in Dutch renaissance style, work on exterior of the chapel was begun in 1614 by Lorenz van Steenwinckel and was completed in 1641 by his brother, Hans van Steenwinckel the Younger. The exterior was constructed in red bricks with a corbie stepped gable facing north. On each of the gable steps, a sandstone figure is placed, representing each of the christian virtues. Next to the gable's windows, four putti are placed, each holding up one of the symbols of death: A skull, a scythe, upside down torch, and an hourglass. Central on the gable, the King's escutcheon is found.

The wrought-iron lattice separating the chapel from the nave was forged by Caspar Fincke in 1619, and contains an amusing quip by its creator:

        Caspar Fincke bin ich benant
        Dieser arbeit bin ich bekant

(Rough translation: Caspar Fincke I am named, for this work I am famed).

Upon the death of Christian IV in 1648 the interior had not been completed, and the king's coffin was placed in the crypt below it instead. The King had commissioned his own monument, depicting him and his Queen kneeling before a crucifix, but since it had been completed before the King's death, the monument had been temporarily placed in storage in the King's arsenal. When the arsenal burned in 1647, all that remained of the monument was the grand sandstone crucifix and a head carved from alabaster. The crucifix was subsequently placed in the Church of Holmen, while the head was given to the National Museum of Denmark. The King's succesors were each unable to provide a fitting resting place for the king, and it was not until 1840 and Christian VIII that work was finally begun. He had hoped to see the project finished by 1848, the 200th anniversary of Christian IV's death, but it was not until 1870 that the work was completed.

Work on the interior began in 1840, when Christian VIII ordered a statue of Christian IV at famed sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen. This was to be part of a planned monument over Christian IV, which was to be designed by architect G.F. Hetcsh, but there was still the matter of who was to was going to create the decorations. In 1845 a commission tasked Heinrich Eddelien with the job, but work progressed slowly, perhaps due to Christian VIII being very engaged in the matter and offering criticism of the proposed works. When Christian VIII died in 1848, the project lost its major motivational force, as the new King Frederick VII lacked the eagerness to see the project finished. When Eddelien died in 1852, only the work on the starry vaulted ceiling and the allegory motives beneath it had been completed, and work ground to a complete halt.

In 1856, Georg Hilker added a frieze below the ceiling vault, which was to act as a separator between the ceiling and wall decorations. When Wilhelm Marstrand and Heinrich Hansen were finally appointed in 1860, it was the finance minister, C.E. Fenger who was responsible. The original commission was outraged that the minister had acted behind their backs, but the times had changed since the commission had been formed, and with the National Liberal Party in power, there was an increased focus on the national attitude. The National Liberal minister felt that seeing Christian IV's chapel, which he regarded as a national relic, completed, would strengthen the national feeling in the increasing conflict with Prussia.

Marstrand and Hansen submitted their decoration proposals in 1861, having decided that Marstrand would paint the paintings while Hansen would paint the framings, and in the same year the pair travelled to France to study oil painting on plaster. Marstrand then spent the summers 1864-1866 in Roskilde, painting one wall per year. When Marstrand had finished his work, the five coffins currently in the chapel were placed in their current positions.

Royal Burials
  • Harald I Bluetooth (d. between 979-987) (supposedly walled up in a pillar near the Choir, but no remains have been found as of yet)
  • Sweyn I Forkbeard (d. 1014)
  • Sweyn II Estridsen (d. 1076)
  • Margrethe I (d. 1412) (immediately behind the high altar)
  • Estrid Svendsdatter (d. between 1057 & 1073) (walled up in the north pier flanking the apse)
  • Christopher III of Bavaria (d. 1448)
  • Christian V (d. 1699) and Queen Charlotte Amalie of Hesse-Kassel (or Hesse-Cassel) (d. 1714)
  • Frederick IV (d. 1730) and Queens: Louise of Mecklenburg-Güstrow (d. 1721)
Chapel of the Magi (Christian I's Chapel)
  • Christian I (d. 1481) and Queen Dorothy of Brandenburg (d. 1495)
  • Christian III (d. 1559) and Queen Dorothy of Saxony-Lauenburg (d. 1571)
  • Frederick II (d. 1588) and Queen Sophia of Mecklenburg-Schwerin (d. 1631)
Frederick V's Chapel
  • Christian VI (d. 1746) and Queen Sophia Magdalena of Brandenburg-Kulmbach (d. 1770)
  • Frederick V (d. 1766) and Queens: Louise of Great Britain (d. 1751) and Juliana Maria of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel (d. 1796)
  • Christian VII (d. 1808)
  • Frederick VI (d. 1839) and Queen Marie of Hesse-Kassel (or Hesse-Cassel) (d. 1852)
  • Christian VIII (d. 1848) and Queen Caroline Amalie of Schleswig-Holstein (d. 1881)
  • Frederick VII (d. 1863)
Christian IV's Chapel
  • Christian, Prince Elect (d. 1647)
  • Christian IV (d. 1648) and Queen Anne Catherine of Brandenburg (d. 1612)
  • Frederick III (d. 1670) and Sophie Amalie of Brunswick-Lüneburg (d. 1685)
Christian IX's Chapel
  • Christian IX (1906) and Queen Louise of Hesse-Kassel (or Hesse-Cassel) (1898)
  • Frederick VIII (1912) and Queen Louise of Sweden-Norway (1926)
  • Christian X (1947) and Queen Alexandrine of Mecklenburg-Schwerin (1952)
Frederick IX's Burial Site
  • Frederick IX (d. 1972) and Queen Ingrid of Sweden (d. 2000)
The coffin of the Empress of Russia Maria Feodorovna was also kept at Roskilde until 23 September 2006, when it was returned to Russia after the agreement between Denmark and Russia stating that her remains were to be buried next to her husband Alexander III in the imperial burial vaults beneath the Peter and Paul Cathedral in Saint Petersburg.

Queen Margrethe II has chosen Saint Birgitte's chapel as her and the Prince Consort's future burial site, with a double sarcophagus created by artist Bjørn Nørgaard.

Boy's Choir

Since 1987, the cathedral has been the home of one of Denmark's leading boys' choirs, the Roskilde Cathedral Boys' Choir. The choir is a key resource in the parish youth work. All choristers go to normal school but meet 2-3 times a week to rehearse. Every second year the choir travels abroad; with destinations as different as New Zealand, Scandinavia, England, Greenland, France and Canada.


In 1554 a new organ built by Herman Raphaelis was donated to the cathedral for services. It was enlarged in 1600 and 1833 and restored once again in 1988 and 2000.

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