For 750 years, the tall, white church at Trondenes has been reflected in the waters of Vågsfjord. Over the ages the northernmost mediaeval church in the world has provided protection to the people of the Harstad area – not just spiritually, but physically as well.

A Gothic defence church

It is likely that Trondenes Church was built in the 1200s, although some people believe that it only dates back to the fifteenth century. Of course, it may have been built in several stages. The doorways feature Gothic arches and details. Nevertheless, the church is a solid construction with thick walls, because it was also intended to serve as a defence installation. The narrow windows are positioned high up in the walls, as they were designed to be used as embrasures if the church came under attack. From the 1200s until the end of the fifteenth century, Northern Norway was often the target of devastating raids by the Karelians – a Finnish people allied with the Republic of Novgorod. The royal forces were often far away, so the locals had to learn to fend for themselves.

Remains of a colourful interior

The interior of the church is richly decorated with numerous details. However, it is quite simple in relation to what it must have looked like at the time of the Reformation. In the chancel, you can see the remains of chalk paintings that may once have decorated the entire church before being painted over after the Reformation. Three of the original nine triptychs have been preserved in the church. The choir screen and the pulpit date from 1762. They are in wonderful Rococo style and feature an hourglass. When the sand ran out, it was time for the minister to end his sermon. It may be that sermons tended to run on and on in the 1700s. The organ dates back to 1790 and is one of the oldest in Northern Norway. Just inside the north door hangs a measuring stick, in case anyone needed to check the precise length of an “ell” (two feet).

Art treasure

The greatest treasures of the church are the three triptychs from the Late Middle Ages. The one in the middle is the finest of them all. It was carved by the German artist Bernt Notke, who also made triptychs in Lübeck for the entire Hanseatic world. Among his most famous works are the statue of St. George and the Dragon in Stockholm Cathedral and the “dance of death” altar in the Church of St. Nikolai in Tallinn. So how did art of this quality migrate all the way up to Trondenes? The answer to this question can probably be traced to the dried fish trade and the wealth it created along the coast of Northern Norway.

An historical environment

The churchyard walls are even older than the church itself. They date from the 1100s and were probably built to protect an earlier stave church that stood on the same site from attacks from the north and east. On the upper side of the church lies the inland lake Laugen, where the first Christians in the area were baptised in the 1000s. Farther up in the hills stands Trondenes fort, with its Adolf Guns from World War II. But that’s another story …

More Harstad

The church is found on the outskirts of the city of Harstad. For more information go to www.destinationharstad.no.