15 January 2023
Helsinki Cathedral has become
Finland’s best-known building
Helsinki Cathedral faces onto Senate Square in central Helsinki and is probably the best-known building in Finland, featuring prominently on postcards, posters and tourism promotions.
The cathedral, with its impressive domes with its high flights of steps, stands on a prominent hill above the harbour of Helsinki and stands out dramatically in the winter snow.
The cathedral towers above its next-door neighbour, Holy Trinity Church, the oldest Orthodox church in Finland, which I was visiting this week with the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) and the Diocese in Europe, to see church responses to the Ukrainian refugee crisis.
Both Helsinki Cathedral and Holy Trinity Church were designed by the same architect, and they were built at the same time with similar funding from the czarist state.
This is the cathedral of the Diocese of Helsinki in the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church, which is one of Finland’s two national churches, along with the Orthodox Church of Finland. The Church is in full communion with the Church of England, the Church of Ireland and other member churches of the Anglican Communion through the Porvoo Communion.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland was part of the Church of Sweden until 1809, when the Grand Duchy of Finland was established as a part of the Russian Empire. With about 3.7 million members, it is one of the largest Lutheran churches in the world, and is Finland’s largest religious body: 66.5% of Finns are members of the church. The present head of the Church is Archbishop Tapio Luoma of Turku, who succeeded in 2018.
Helsinki Cathedral is a distinctive landmark in the cityscape of the capital, with its tall, green dome surrounded by four smaller domes. Helsinki Cathedral was originally built in 1830-1852 as a tribute to the Grand Duke of Finland, Tsar Nicholas I of Russia. It was also known as Saint Nicholas’s Church until the independence of Finland in 1917.
It was built in the neoclassical style and was designed by the architect Carl Ludvig Engel (1778-1840), who also designed Holy Trinity Church, the Orthodox church next door. Engel saw the cathedral as the climax of his layout of Senate Square, and it is surrounded by other, smaller buildings also designed by him.
The church plan is a Greek cross, or a square centre and four equilateral arms. It is symmetrical in each of the four cardinal directions, with each arm’s façade featuring a colonnade and pediment. Engel originally intended to place a further row of columns on the west end to mark the main entrance opposite the east-end altar, but this was never built.
After Helsinki became the capital of the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland in 1812, Alexander I decreed in 1814 that 15 per cent of the salt import tax was to be collected into a fund to build two churches, one Lutheran and one Orthodox.
The cathedral was built on the site of the smaller church, Ulrika Eleonora Church, built in 1724-1727 and dedicated to its patroness, Queen Ulrika Eleonora of Sweden.
Helsinki Old Church was built in nearby Kamppi in 1824-1826 to serve the parish while the Ulrika Eleonora Church was being demolished and until the new cathedral was completed. The bells of the old church were reused in the cathedral.
The construction of the cathedral began in 1830, although it was only officially inaugurated in 1852.
Engel died in 1840, and the building was later altered by his successor, Ernst Lohrmann, whose four small domes emphasise the architectural connection to the cathedral’s models, Saint Isaac’s Cathedral and Kazan Cathedral in St Petersburg.
Lohrmann also designed two extra buildings to the sides of the steps: looking from the square the left building is a bell tower and the right building a chapel, which was once used by Saint Nicholas’s Church, the Anglican church in Helsinki.
Lohrmann also erected larger-than-life sized zinc statues of the Twelve Apostles at the apexes and corners of the roofline in 1849. They were sculpted by August Wredov and Hermann Schievelbein and cast by SP Devaranne in Berlin in 1845-1847.
The altarpiece was painted by Carl Timoleon von Neff and donated to the church by Emperor Nicholas I.
The cathedral crypt was renovated in the 1980s by the architects Vilhelm Helander and Juha Leiviskä for use in exhibitions and church functions. Helander was also responsible for conservation repairs on the cathedral in the late 1990s.
Today, the cathedral is one of Helsinki's most popular tourist attractions, and in pre-Covid times it attracted half a million visitors a year. The church is in regular use for services and special events.