The Church of Our Lady
By Jeppe Villadsen, journalist, 2006
The Church of Our Lady
The history of the Church of Our Lady is grim. Over the centuries, it was burnt down and destroyed six times.
The last time was in 1807, when the English fleet bombarded Copenhagen aiming at the spire of the church, which rose above everything else and was the pride of the city. The spire burst into flames and lit up the centre of Copenhagen like a giant torch. The architect C.F. Hansen was given the task of designing a new main church for Copenhagen to be built on the ruins of its predecessor.
No time for luxuries
It was a dark period marred by the defeat to England, the national bankruptcy and Denmark’s surrender of Norway to the Swedish king. It was not the time for luxuries. C.F. Hansen’s quiet style and pure lines matched the mood.
He created a temple-like building which did not resemble other churches at the time. From the outside, the church was built in the neoclassicist style, inspired by ancient Greece. This is obvious from the large Greek Doric colonnade that greets you from the street. The compact tower was also remarkably different from the ostentatious spires seen in the rest of the city. In fact, C.F. Hansen would rather have avoided spires and towers altogether - the ancient temples did not have them. But King Frederik VI believed a tower could not be avoided. The tower was meant to inspire devoutness in the citizens! In order to underline the classical look, Bertel Thorvaldsen, the great Danish sculptor of the period (see the Canon of the Arts) who lived in Rome, was asked to decorate the church with sculptures.
Forerunner of modernism
C.F. Hansen succeeded in creating a church room that radiates peace and harmony with its pure lines. With the subdued use of decoration and detail, the Church of Our Lady represents the beginnings of modern architecture in Denmark. Unlike the pompous and gold-adorned churches of earlier times, the simple and informal expression in the Church of Our Lady points towards our era.
Did you know?
The man behind the Church of Our Lady, the architect C.F. Hansen, was certainly not a "late start", already at the age of ten he began at the Academy of Fine Arts Architecture School.
The committee's justification
By the Committee for Architecture, 2006
Romantic classicalism represents a time of change: The classicists believed that art had achieved its pinnacle in ancient times, and it was the goal of classicalism to seek that balance of art and architecture evident in the ancient past. However, to the revolutionary architects of the Enlightenment, who inspired C.F. Hansen, the architecture was only beginning. This tension between a well-known model and a new beginning is simply and clearly manifested in the architecture of Vor Frue Kirke. It can be seen in the restrained complexity between the church’s exterior and inner space. And in the quiet monumental juxtaposition of the building elements, in which the church’s nave, apse, tower and portal form a close association of independent elements, each with its own character.
The revolutionary architecture that Vor Frue Kirke represents in Denmark is the beginning of modern architecture. A simple cubic form, a rational organisation of space and a sense of liberation in social convention are new characteristics that point forward to our time.
The church’s space emphasises the difference between the ground floor, highlighting the ceremonial dimension of the space’s longitudinal axis towards the altar – in contrast to the open, columned walls of the first floor spanning the church. Thorvaldsen’s figures stand on the floor, free of their niches, and the overall impression of the space is, in C.F. Hansen’s own words, a “spiritual art museum”. A powerful room, which is also a church. A building with marked differences, which also form a whole. A milestone and a refuge in the ebb and flow of the city.