Its striking white triangular exterior set against the dramatic slopes surrounding Tromsdalen, Tromsø's Arctic Cathedral is neither a cathedral nor, strictly speaking, in the main settlement of Tromsø. 

The little community in which architect Jan Inge Hovig sited his strikingly original masterpiece is over the Tromsøysundet strait, overlooking the world's third largest city north of the Arctic Circle, allowing those crossing Tromsø Bridge to gaze in wonder as they approach.

A century of worship

In ecclesiastical terms, the Arctic Cathedral is nothing more than a parish church. Tromsø already has a cathedral, an austere wooden building consecrated in 1861 when this was a small municipality slowly developing around Arctic trade and hunting. 

While neither of Norway's two great Polar explorers, Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen, were religious men, they may well have visited the church at some point before setting out on one of their epic voyages in the late 1800s or early 1900s. Tromsø is 350 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle and became a base for these intrepid pioneers, both from the far south of Norway, to learn how to cope with harsh conditions. 

Certainly, you can imagine locals convening at Tromsø Cathedral to pray for Amundsen's safe return when his plane went missing, never to be found, after taking off from here in 1928. 

Today, Tromsø is the seat of the Norwegian Polar Institute and the Arctic University Museum of Norway. The city in which Hovig planned his revolutionary structure was now a more modern metropolis. 

Tromsø airport opened the year before the church, in 1964, replacing the pre-war water aerodrome. Tromsø Bridge, at 1,036 meters, then the longest in northern Europe, was unveiled the year Hovig drew up his first plans, in 1960, allowing drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians to enjoy that view framed by Tromsdalstiden mountain. 

Oil would soon be discovered off the coast of Stavanger, transforming the Norwegian way of life forever. This was a pivotal moment in Tromsø's history, moving from a quaint backwater to a booming modern economy, transforming the cityscape.

The Arctic Cathedral has quite a modern appearance. Photo: vichie81 I Shutterstock

Let there be light

We cannot say for sure what exactly inspired Jan Inge Hovig to create such an unusual house of worship – he would die days after his wedding, to Norway's most famous TV chef – but having been the chief architect on the reconstruction of nearby Narvik immediately after the war, he would have been familiar with the light of the Nordland region and beyond. 

The midnight sun in summer, the Northern Lights, and the near-constant snow-white backdrop for so much of the year, all come into play as the walls of 11 aluminum-coated concrete panels and bright chandeliers of Czech crystal exude warmth surrounded by an unforgiving landscape.

It was consecrated towards the end of 1965 by Bishop Monrad Norderval, at the time based at the Diocese of Nord-Hålogeland, seated at Tromsø Cathedral, the historic house of worship in town. The Church of Norway, an evangelical Lutheran denomination of Protestant Christianity, has been the main state church since the Viking era, around 1020 CE, just under a century since the introduction of Christianity in Norway.

The Arctic Cathedral has often been compared to a beacon or a lighthouse – it's certainly a landmark to look out for as your plane comes in to land on the other side of the narrow island of Tromsøya, upon which the main part of Tromsø sits.

Once you enter, the first thing you notice is the monumental glass mosaic set behind the altar, the work of Victor Sparre, depicting the second coming of Christ. A member of the Oxford Group, a Christian organization active in the 1930s under the four maxims of "absolute honesty," "absolute purity," "absolute unselfishness," and "absolute love," Sparre was still enrolled at the Norwegian National Academy of Fine Arts when the war broke out. 

He joined the Norwegian Resistance as well as the Illegal Academy, an underground institution for artists, untouched by Norway's Nazi régime. After the Liberation, Sparre made it his mission to decorate churches, some 25 in all, right the way across Norway, including Stavanger Cathedral and this huge work in the Arctic Cathedral. 

Among the books he also wrote, one is called Flame in the Darkness (available to buy on Amazon, here), and his mosaic tiles shine cobalt blue when the midnight sun falls upon them. The glass is French Dalle de verre, deliberately created with chipped edges to enhance the effects of refraction and reflection. Each tile is approximately 3 centimeters thick.

The combination of light and acoustics combine to perfect effect for midnight concerts here in the summer, when a chamber orchestra of professional musicians accompanies the five choirs attached to the congregation. The whole experience is magical, and presumably what Jan Inge Hovig had in mind when first designing the church more than 60 years ago.

A more recent addition is the enormous church organ, all 2,940 pipes and 42 stops of it, fashioned in the same sail shape as the church itself. It was created in 2005 by the Grönlunds Orgelbyggeri, a family-run firm based in Kåge, Sweden, for the last 120 years. The bellows are made out of reindeer hide.

Despite its modern appearance, the Arctic Cathedral also embraces tradition, its pews made of solid oak, able to accommodate a congregation of 720 worshippers. The church operates as any other parish church does, holding weddings and funerals, just as the planning committee of Tromsøysund council would have envisaged it back in the late 1950s.

Ishavskatedralen, Hans Nilsens veg 41, 9020 Tromsdalen. Open Jan 2-May 31, Aug 16-Dec 30 1pm-5pm (Wed from 2pm), June 1-Aug 15 9am-6pm (Sun 1pm-6pm).

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