Tiles of Theology – Cathedrals and Churches of Helsinki

The skyline of Helsinki is not dominated by skyscrappers but by spires, mainly the spires of cathedrals. It’s not something unique to Helsinki, many European cities and towns (with the notable major exceptions being London, Paris and perhaps Berlin) are centred around, and shorter than the church. It was the same in Gamla Stan in Stockholm, in the old towns of Warsaw and Gdansk. It is the same with the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

The reason behind the pre-eminence of ecclesiastical buildings in these cities is theological – since God is the most important, the house of God must be the most important, tallest and most luxurious looking place in the town or city. Carried to its logical end, it also means that the church should the grandness building in the city. The most stark example of which is the Catholic Cathedral in the Ivory Coast, the Yamoussoukro Basilica.

Traces of this Catholic obsession with grandness and beauty can be caught when you look up at the exterior of the Helsinki Cathedral. Laid out in a Greek cross plan with triangular pediments held up by neoclassical colonnades the church sits on top of a large flight of stairs overlooking the senate square and all the other surrounding buildings. Almost like a representation of God overlooking man. This was the plan of Carl Ludvig Engel.

The plan obviously worked since the Cathedral is the central feature of the Senate Square as well as of Helsinki to the rest of the world. is featured as the picture of Helsinki to the world.

Most famously in the music video Sandstorm by Darude in 2009.

Look closely however, and you will find something odd about this church, unlike the more conventional looking Lutheran Churches, such as the one in Suomenlinna, the Helsinki Cathedral seems a little too over the top, especially at its exteriors. At its top is a large dark teal dome is surrounded by four smaller domes with gold stars and Orthodox Christian crosses on top, looking similar to an Orthodox Christian Church instead of a Lutheran Christian one. Stanind atop each of the pediments, three a side, are the twelve apostles, a design feature more in line with Catholicism than the less showy Lutheranism.

None of these were part of Engel’s design, because the cathedral building today is not a product purely of Engel’s design. These touches were added by Engel’s successors Ernst Lorhmann. These differences can be put down to the different views of religion between the two men, because unlike the staunch Luthern Engel, Lorhmann was Catholic and he had very different ideas of how a church should look.

Lutheranism stresses the three sola – sola scriptura (scripture alone as compared to scripture and tradition in the Catholic church), sola fide (faith alone, as compared to faith and good works in the Catholic Church), sola dio gratia (grace of God alone).

In a nod to his patrons, Lorhmann added the fall small domes to give the cathedral the Orthodox cathedral a look similar to Saint Isaac’s Cathedral in St Petersburg. Taking from his Catholic roots, Lorhmann added the statues of the 12 apostles and gave them a place of honour that does not usually occur in Protestantism.

The interior of the church was left relatively plain as most Lutheran churches are designed. High, white ceilings and walls surround a central altar that is as basic as they come. I was actually a little surprised that there was a painting at the altar of the disciples removing Jesus’ body from the cross and later simply because there was a painting. Don’t let the symbolism be lost on you too, the implication that Jesus had been crucified was removed from the cross (painting and angels) and had risen (small cross at the altar). True to form there is no crucifix but there is a cross – this is again an important theological concept, Catholicism emphasises the sacrifice of Christ through the Crucifix while Lutheranism emphasises the resurrection through the empty cross.

Considering the liberties that Lorhmann took with the exterior, I’m more surprised that he did not squeak in a Marian item into the church design although he did add a Catholic-esque flourish with the collection of statues of the heroes of the Protestant revolution: Martin Luther (and here), Philip Melanchthon and Mikael Agricola.

You could say that the Lutheran Cathedral is an amalgamam of Catholic, Orthodox and Lutheran traditions. Now, in most cases, the story would be left here, most small cities and towns especially in Europe are centred around a church, but in Helsinki there is not one pre-eminent church but two. The other church is located a short walk away, the Uspenski Cathedral.

The church is dedicated to the Dormition of the Theotokos (the theological name to describe the ‘falling asleep’ of Mary, the Mother of God). It was built in 1862 and consecrated (an act of blessing to make a religious church holy and ready for services to be performed) in 1868. Now, unlike Western Christianity that had a very evangelical outlook (think of the missionaries that were sent all over the world to the harshest conditions (speaking of which, check out this amazing movie by Martin Scorcese, Silence),

Eastern Orthodox churches are less aggressive in winning converts as they are serving the ethnic or national population. Hence the establishment of specific national or ethnic churches such as the Russian Orthodox Church, Ethiopian Orthodox Church and Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria headquarted in Cairo, Eygpt. This cathedral likewise was set up not to evangelise to the Lutheran Finns but to serve the religious needs of the Russian soldiers posted to the island of Suomenlinna to defend against the Swedes.

An orthodox church is decorated with icons – religious images and is extremely rich and gaudy on the inside, giving the worshipper a glimpse through material items the richness of the prize awaiting them in heaven.

The high walls of the church are also an acoustic dream, since it allows for sounds to be trapped and reverbarating vibrations to be carried to every corner of the church. The reverberation has a way of engendering a sense of holiness. I felt that acutely because we walked in on baptisms that day, and heard grand chanting from the choir.

Here’s a video from an important ecumenical service just to give you a sense of it.

Whereas the Helsinki Cathedral was a Lutheran Church with Catholic-Orthodox elements, the Uspenski Cathedral is an Orthodox Church with Finnish style – particularly the bricks used to construct the exterior of the church.

It’s all the same God, but different ideas and beliefs lead to very different ways of worship and workmanship.

ON THE MAP (Helsinki Cathedral)

ON THE MAP (Uspenski Cathedral)


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