Text and photos by Michael Scott year 1
The Helsinki Cathedral is perhaps one of the most iconic buildings in the center of Helsinki. Built in a prominent place in the very heart of Helsinki, it reminds us of the wealth and glory of the Russian empire, this is because it was built during the Russian times. Immediately surrounding Helsinki Cathedral is the Senate square – an area entirely different to anywhere else in Helsinki – it was also built by the Russians from the 1800’s-1850’s, and modelled to look like St Petersburg in Russia. If you have ever been there (or if you go) you will see how similar the two are! This style is very specific, it is called “Empire Style”, and is a branch of Neoclassicism. It was a modern and fashionable style at the time, which it was why it was chosen for Helsinki.
Originally, Helsinki Cathedral was built in 1852 as a tribute to the Grand Duke of Finland, Tsar Nicholas I of Russia. It was built by a German architect called Carl Ludvig Engel. The church used to have a different name – at the time It was built, it was called the Saint Nicolas Church.
For a long time, Finland has been a Lutheran country. Being heavily influenced by the Swedish kingdom (The Swedes ruled over Finland for more than 600 years before the Russian Period), the Finnish people were turned from paganism (believing in several gods) into Christianity and Lutheranism. Lutheranism has its origins from Germany (we have all heard of Martin Luther), and it was introduced to the Finns by Sweden – when Finland was under the Swedish rule. Nowadays, Lutheranism is the predominant religion that the majority of Finnish people still consider themselves as being. Inside the cathedral, you can in fact see a statue of Martin Luther, and additionally, a statue of Luthers follower – Philip Melanchthon.
Helsinki Cathedral is also a great example of the freedom that was granted to the Finns by the Russians, particularly during the first half of the 19th century. Helsinki cathedral was built as a Lutheran church from the very beginning, even though it is clearly in the style of a Russian Church. In fact, the design is loosely based on that of the Kazansky cathedral in St Petersburg. The Russian Tsar at the time wanted to show that he will ensure that various freedoms of the Finnish people were respected. For the first time, he allowed the Finnish language to become the official language of Finland (under the Swedish rule, only the Swedish language was the language of governance). He also allowed the introduction of the first official Finnish currency – the Finnish Markka. The cathedral was also built as a part of another freedom – religious freedom; and this was a huge statement from Russia – that they wanted to give the Finns freedom and autonomy. In fact, during the Russian governance of Finland, the Finns were not once forced to turn to a Russian Orthodox religion, and all these freedoms (for a time at least), caused many Finns to have a great respect for the Russian Empire.
The cathedral itself was a grand project of two famous architects – the first was Carl Ludwig Engel and the second was Ernst Lornmann. The original design of the cathedral was made by Engel. His love for neoclassical style found inspiration for Helsinki, in Saint Isaac’s Cathedral – located in Saint Petersburg. So Engel – the German architect, built a Russian looking church, under Russian times, for the Finnish people, in a Lutheran style. Got all that..?!
The cathedral is actually a unique piece of architecture and it has some very unusual features which you can see as you enter the building. The layout of the church is designed like a Greek cross – it has 4 areas inside that can all be used for service. The second unusual feature is that the cathedral does not have any bells inside, even though it has what appears to be a bell tower. After the dome on the Helsinki cathedral had been built, it was found that the tower had not been designed to be strong enough to bear the weights of the bell. As a result, the bells had to be relocated somewhere else – and hence another building was created adjacent to the cathedral, and the bells were placed in here. In order to make symmetry (symmetry was important to Engel and this style of construction), another building was created which is opposite the bell tower – and this building serves no specific purpose. Now-a-days, it houses the local scout group meeting in Helsinki! You can find the bell tower in a white building to the left of the Helsinki cathedral (when you face it from the senate square). Listen out for the bells, they are quite beautiful.
Another interesting feature on the cathedral can be found if you look up – here you can see 12 zinc statues on top of the roof. These 12 statues are larger than life, and there are representing the 12 apostles. In addition to this feature, the cathedral has a very unusual crypt that has also never served its purpose. In the old days, the crypt used to be a cellar where wood storage was located. Nowadays, you can have a buffet lunch there or enjoy an organ concert. The cafe Krypta is open only during the summer months: from June until August, and is definitely worth a look. Today, the Helsinki Cathedral is the most popular tourist attraction in Helsinki – with more than 350 000 visits each year. The Cathedral is FREE to visit, and located closely to the central railway station. Make sure you visit during your time in Helsinki!