Magnus Cathedral, Kirkjubour

From THE CATHEDRAL and other Historic Relics at KIRKJUBOUR.
Published by Foroya Fornminnissavn. 1989
Simon V. Arge is credited as the author of the first article in the booklet. Translated by Shiela Arnskov.

Magnus Cathedral

It is commonly believed that it was Erlendur - bishop in Kirkjubour from 1269 to 1308 - who started the build­ing of the big cathedral, the Gothic cathedral, which would be a credit to the bishopric. This, however, along with so much else to do with Kirkjub0ur, cannot be proved with certainty. This magnificent building was perhaps never completed. It is likely that it was built at the end of a prosperous period both for the state and church in Norway - about 1300. After this there were bad times, and that can have affected the church in the Faroes. It is said that the Faroese rebelled against the bur­den of heavy taxes and work that the building of the church laid on them. If this is true, it indicates the impos­sible economic conditions for embarking on such an enormous building project in this little country.

The style of the building is from the best period of Gothic architecture. The characteristics of the style point to West Norwegian church building from around 1300 -thus contemporary with Erlendur. Sculptures and vari­ous ornamentation that decorate the cathedral are of such a high standard that craftsmen from abroad, with special skills, must have been involved - along with Faroese. Probably this foreign work force came from places where similar buildings were being built at that time. The cathedral at Kirkjubour has often been likened to the Gothic choir in the cathedral in Stavangerin Nor­way, which was built after the fire in 1272. The same resemblances in style and ornamentation are also found, for example, in churches from this period in Britain.

The main part of the cathedral is a simple rectangle, 26.5x10.75 m on the outside, in which the choir is in continuation of the nave. The height of the walls is 9 m, which is probably the full height. At the east end of the north side, there is an adjoining building, 9.8x5.6 m, which is often called «The Nuns' Cloister». It seems un­likely that the walls in this building are at their full height. It may be that they are the lower part of what was to be a tower in the choir.

In the west end there is a 7 m high and about 2 m wide opening, which has been intended as a portal into the church from the tower which was to be built there. Marks indicating the addition of the tower can be seen in the wall.

The walls, which are 1.6 m thick, are made of basalt. They are double walls in which both the interior and ex­terior walls are made with the smooth side outwards. Be­tween the layers is a filling of small stones and sand and shells. Bits of stone in various sizes act as wedges and fill­ing between the building stones. Where the original stonework is preserved, these small stones are so close together that no mortar is visible. The mortar used was a mixture of burned animal bones, the shells of mussels or other shell fish and shell sand, this was slaked with water to form slaked lime. For the masonry round windows and portals and other specially worked stone, a softer, more porous stone has been used.
High up on the walls there are corbels for six arches to rest on. The two innermost arches of the choir were to be supported by the capitals on pilasters, the arches in the nave by corbels. On the inside of the southern wall, where there is most ornamentation, the transition from the choir to the nave is clearly seen. The window openings are more ornamented in the choir than in the nave and they are placed half a meter higher. The choir floor must have been intended to be a few steps higher than that in the nave.
It is probable that the arches in the annex on the north side were completed and that this building was roofed. Much still remains of these arches. In the north wall there is a door opening into a room which has a spiral staircase in the wall. The floor in this room is paved with small flat stones - probably as a foundation for the floor that was to be laid later. The place of the altar has been found under the east wall - the only sign at all of an altar in the building. This room probably served as a chapel.
In 1772 there was a great avalanche at Kirkjubour. It fell on the village, and the north-east corner of the cathedal was crushed in. It is possible that the arches in the side building fell at the same time. It is apparent that the north-east corner has been reconstructed - this was probably done after the avalanche.

Soapstone relief in the choir wall, behind which the reliquary was found. Under the triple arch are Christ on the cross, on his left the Virgin Mary, and on the right John the Baptist (or Mary Magdalene). The twisted figure of Christ and the form of the cross are characteristic of Norwegian style in 1300-1350. The surrounding text says that relics of Saint Magnus are inside. On a long narrow stone under the relief and forming a part of it, the text says that relics have come from the grave of Saint Tollak. The cathedral is called Magnus Cathedral.


It seems that the above account was written by Simon V. Arge who was known for his antipathy towards the idea of any Irish involvement in Faroese Christianity. In the entire booklet on Kirkjubour there is no mention of St Brendan, except the depiction of Brandansvik on the map.