Day 2, Part 2: Culture

Read Part 1 here

So after the Directorate of Immigration adventure and a cup of coffee at the student center, I figured it was about time I actually start seeing a bit of Reykjavik. I decided to make the walk over to Hallgrímskirkja, Iceland’s largest church, because you can see it from freaking everywhere and I happen to love churches.

I looked up directions from my phone as a formality, since all you really have to do is look for the giant church on the skyline. It’s not difficult. I did get schooled a little bit when I was walking up a hill and I could not, in fact, see the church tower because of all the trees and buildings immediately in front of me. But no matter; it was more or less a straight line, and I found Hallgrímskirkja with no trouble at all.

Hallgrímskirkja is a church (kirkja) built for Hallgrímur Pétursson, a 17th century religious poet from Iceland. His most famous works were his Passíusálmar, Passion Hymns; they have been widely translated and remain part of Iceland’s religious identity. The church itself was consecrated in 1986, after 40 years of planning and construction.

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Hallgrímskirkja is built out of concrete, with jagged pillars framing the main entrance in a way that the architect, Guðjón Samúelsson, designed to reflect local basalt formations.

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Because if it doesn’t include some homage to volcanoes, it’s not really Icelandic.

The interior is rather curious for an art history student who’s only ever really paid attention to Medieval church architecture. It’s clearly Gothic, with high groin vaults and all the airiness one can expect from flying buttresses, but none of the stained glass. Here’s the stained glass situation: There is one stained glass window in the front, which is hidden by the huge ass organ:

and another that is not, in fact, a stained glass window at all, as proven by the photograph of the exterior wall behind this “window”:

I mean maybe it’s because it’s a Lutheran church and they spent all their money on the fancy lectern, but as far as I’m concerned masking a beautiful stained glass window with an organ and then blocking the public from viewing it is barely short of criminal. I hope someone lights a votive candle for whoever made that call.

Don’t get me wrong; the church is still incredibly beautiful. I’m told the view from the tower is lovely too, but I did not have both 900 krona and the patience to wait in that line. One of them, I could swing. Not both.

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After I left the church, I stumbled upon the Einar Jónsson Museum. I, like many of you, had no idea who Einar Jónsson is or why he has a museum, but hey, it’s there, I’m here, museums are almost always either free or have a sizable student discount. What do I have to lose?

As it turns out, Einar Jónsson was Iceland’s most prolific sculptor around the turn of the century. He studied art in Copenhagen and lived for a time in Rome; by the time he returned to Iceland, he had had it with the classical style and committed to doing his own thing. “His own thing” turned out to be quite heavily symbolic and allegorical, which meant I was quite a fan of his sculptures. He didn’t reject naturalism in human form so much as he rejected the presence of laws of physics in artistic expression: his pieces have realistic human forms suspended often impossibly in space, with prone figures extending into space at a 90 degree angle.

Regrettably, photography was not allowed in the museum, and while I don’t respect the law, I respect art museums. Particularly Iceland’s first. But I encourage you to look up his work and consider the pieces in relation to their titles. It’s a bit like trying to solve a mystery using only the piece’s name– often only one, maybe two words– and the motifs and archetypes present in each sculpture. He certainly earned the epithet of “Poet Sculptor.” If you don’t care, take a minute to rejoice that there are no pictures from the museum, I guess.

I would like to dwell on two pieces for now, based only on my memory for me and my ability to communicate the picture in my memory for you. It will be an exercise in patience for both of us.

The first is actually a pair of sculptures, which I have to assume where meant to be a pair. The first is called “The Mother,” and it’s a roundel depicting in bas-relief a mother holding her young child, facing outward toward the viewer with a calm, almost confident expression. Above her, in much shallower relief, what looks like a meteor hurtles down toward her.

I didn’t really know what to make of this piece, until I saw another sculpture, also a bas-relief roundel, this one called “Guardian Angel.” The arrangement was exactly the same, except in this case an angel stands center, with the same quiet calmness and confidence of The Mother as a meteor descends upon her. I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.

The other is a piece from the sculpture garden outside. Again in bas-relief, except much larger and within a rectangular frame, a man crouches with his head buried under one arm in the bottom middle. Behind him, a man and a woman dance together, their arms extended toward the man’s back. His other hand reaches upward to a woman depicted only as a shallow outline, lying as if in a tomb. The piece is called “Grief” and here’s a picture I snagged from google.

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Suck it, art haters.

There was also a statue of Leif Eriksson outside of Hallgrímskirkja. It was a gift from the United States.

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