The Church of Our Lady (Norwegian: Vår Frue Kirke), erected in the 12th century, is besides the Nidaros Cathedral, the the only medieval building in Trondheim. After the Reformation in 1536, it was expanded and parts of the original brickwork is very well preserved. The church is the third largest medieval church in Norway.
In the 1060’s, Harald Hardrada built a church devoted to St. Mary. Today, it is referred to as “the Old St. Mary’s Church”. It was demolished in the late 1100’s. The present Church of Our Lady was built soon after, and is thus often referred to as “the younger St. Mary’s Church”.
An Old-Norwegian inscription on the wall tells:
“Hin helga Maria á mik – Biorn Siguarsson gerðe mik”
“St. Mary owns me – Bjorn Sigvardsson made me”.
Bjorn Sigvardsson was probably a rich man who funded the work although he is not known from any other sources. Such inscriptions are very unusual in Norwegian medieval buildings. The Church of Our Lady was one of the nine Catholic parish churches in the Middle Ages, and was first mentioned in 1280.
The building has undergone several restorations, including after city fires in 1531, 1599, 1651 and 1681. In 1708, after the last great fire in Trondheim, the Nidaros Cathedral clergymen refused to rebuild it so that the citizens would gather in the Cathedral.
The population barely managed to persuade the King to restore the old church. The only condition was that it would finance the reconstruction without economic contributions from the King. However, this became the last great city fire and much of the work from the reconstruction is still preserved.
The present altarpiece was made between 1742 and 1744 for the Octagon in the Nidaros Cathedral by Heinrich Kühnemann, a master carpenter from Archangel. After about 90 years in the Octagon, the colorful altarpiece ‘went out of style’, and in 1837 it was donated to the Church of Our Lady.
In the Middle Ages, burials inside churches were very rare, and only clergy were buried there. Early in the 1600’s the wealthiest citizens could buy their own tombs inside. This became popular among the upper classes and the Church thus received large donations. In 1805, people realized that the tombs were a source of infection, and it was banned. The empty tombs below the Church of Our Lady are very elaborate and referred to as “Trondheim’s catacombs”.
In 1906, a large gap between the tower and the nave was covered with a rococo wall, flanked by two life-size (and unusually voluptuous) female sculptures. They are representing the virtues Caritas (charity) and Faith (hope), that are also represented in the altarpiece.
Unlike Norwegian churches, the Church of Our Lady is open 24 hours, run by the Church City Mission. In addition to Sunday services, the site is also used as a concert venue. Every Saturday, students from the Department of Music at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology hold a free mini-concert.
Fun fact: On a dark night in March 1803, Bishop Johan Christian Schönheide died from shock after he stumbled upon a deranged man who crawled out of an open grave in the cemetery next to the church.
Text and photos by: Anette Broteng Christiansen, ThorNews