Thingvellir and Skalholt
When planning our Icelandic adventure, Barrett said he didn’t want to do the ‘traditional’ Golden Circle tour as he didn’t care about Geysirs and hydro plants with hot water bubbling out. He was interested in our Viking heritage.
So when I asked my tour guide (and friend) Jon, to make arrangements, I requested one of my favorite tours, Thingvellir. Thingvellir is where the continental plates meet and where the Icelandic parliament met for nearly 1000 years. As per Barrett’s request, I asked Jon to look into heritage locations as well. Little did I know that when we would arrive at Skalhot, a life changing moment would occur.
Jon picked us up at the Hilton Konsulat Hotel, he handed us an itinerary and I was pleasantly surprised to see several new places to me. This included one very important stop that he had set up with the Bishop of Skalholt, his friend, Christian. So off to Thingvellir and Skalholt we go!
Thingvellir, Juncture of the Continental Plates
Our day started by getting to Thingvellir before the massive crush of tourists arrived. I love Thingvellir. I love the energy of the place. We spent time looking at where the parliament had met, as well has where the women who broke laws of adultery were drowned in the beautiful, calm, clear blue water as the men were only punished by banishment or fines. Okay… they also killed some of the men, depending on the crime.
The American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet at Thingvellir. I find it amazing that the Chieftains selected this place by the large lake as the meeting place and as a place of great spiritual meaning. Is it the energy of the plates that drew them? Was it simply the water (there’s water and lakes everywhere in Iceland)….. something made this ‘the place’ and that is a curiosity to me.
Rock Formation at Thingvellir
Flag pole marks the Icelandic Parliament meeting location for nearly 1000 years
Leaving Thingvellir, Jon hit the gas pedal to get to Skalholt, and again beat any crowds that surely will arrive. Skalholt is considered to be Iceland’s first town and was very important for over 740 years (1056-1796) when it was the center of ecclesiastic power. Today, Skalholt is an important learning center as well as a cultural center.
Jon was excited for this stop because he had arranged for his friend, the Bishop, to meet us. At first I wasn’t sure about this meet and greet with the Bishop of Skalholt. I mean I’m not religious and how do you meet a Bishop anyway? Do you bow or shake hands or what is the protocol?
It turns out there was no need to worry! Bishop Christian was so kind, humble and welcoming that I felt at ease as soon as he grabbed my hand. He’s the kind of guy religion needs because you felt safe and welcomed immediately.
Church at Skalholt, from Rear
When we arrived, the Bishop was standing outside to meet us. The original church was built in 1056 on the estate of Iceland’s first bishop, Isleifr Gizurarson. The current church, built in 1963 is the 10th rendition and stands in the exact same spot as the original. The Bishop told us it was very important that the churches that were rebuilt over time always kept the same/similar footprint of the original building. And also that the surviving churchyard would always be maintained.
This drawing shows the original footprint of the church and then the subsequent footprints as the church was rebuilt.
Once inside, he explained why there aren’t symbols of saints or pictorials of Jesus and the Old Testament on the stained glass windows. It was a great surprise when he told us that the purpose of stained glass is to diffuse the light so that you realize the light comes from within, not from the outside. I liked that. He said it was a reminder to be humble.
The pulpit has survived multiple church rebuilds (and multiple church fires and other means of destruction). This pulpit dates to 1560 — and is beautiful.
The church bell is from the 1100’s and quietly sits in one of the corners of the church until Bishop Christian tells Barrett and I to ‘ring it good’ which we did and loved being able to hear the sound of this ancient bell.
Mosaic of Jesus
Then he walked us up to the pulpit and took us past the barriers keeping tourists out. As we got close to what we originally thought was a painting, we discovered it is a mural made up of 1/2” ceramic tiles. The Mosaic of Jesus is stunning and to see that it is not a painting but these tiny tiles made it even more awe inspiring.
It was a lot of fun when he pointed out the random small pieces that didn’t fit, color-wise, where they were placed and he explained that the original artists designed the mosaic but the men who put the mosaic together had told him ‘they’ put their own stamp on it by randomly placing pieces that didn’t make sense. Kind of like an autograph of ‘we did this’ but without a word. That was hilarious!
Finally, we went down narrow stairs near the entrance in what was at one time a secret passage to the basement where there is now a relic of one of the Bishops, Pall Jonsson. Bishop Jonsson resided here from 1195 until he died in 1211. Recently Bishop Christian gave permission for the bones to be DNA tested to learn more about our Icelandic history and DNA.
Resting Place of Bishop Pall Jonsson, from 13th Century
As we stood outside the tunnel looking over the ruins of the Viking era buildings, I asked Bishop Christian how far the reach of the Bishop of Skalholt had been in earlier times. Specifically, I told him that we had Icelandic history and without giving him more information, I just asked if Skalholt, being the most important church in the region in Viking times, was relevant to my ancestors.
The most beautiful moment of the day occurred as I asked him this question….. he grabbed my hand again and said, ‘I felt your energy when we first met and I knew you were Icelandic. I believe you are a Vestman Island girl. I feel the same from Barrett but I feel it very strongly from you. You are a survivor. We all, as Icelandic people are survivors. We survived famine, extreme weather, poverty, invaders, volcanoes and even in modern times, we have survived many things — we have been through a lot and you are one of us, I knew that.
A Vestman Island Girl
I had a hard time keeping the tears from running down my face and then I gave it up and let the tears flow. ‘Yes’, I told him, we are not only Icelandic but we are of South Coast and Vestman Island heritage. I am a Vestman girl.
Bishop Christian told us that he had been the Bishop on the island of Heimay in the Vestman Islands for 4 years and he came to know them very well. He described the fierceness of their pride and independence and said that they had a very specific energy that is not found on the mainland. He believed it was because of the hardships it took (and takes) to survive an environment such as Heimay.
This moment was more important than the Bishop will ever know. Having recently learned through DNA that my parentage was not what I had always believed, I have struggled. I lost half of my identity and have spent nearly a year figuring out how to manage that change. And how to move forward being someone else and losing who I was. It has been surreal and difficult to reconcile.
In this moment, without even knowing it, Bishop Christian redefined my identity to me….. he told me who I was — a Vestman Island girl, an Icelander, who along with my ancestors, I have survived a lot. It was a moment that helped reshape my life and gave me back my sense of self. During that conversation, I felt a rush of relief or release come over me.
Skalholt, A Life Changing Moment
There are many things I learn and experience when I travel. This visit to Skalholt, meeting Bishop Christian and hearing his affirmation of who I ‘really’ am is something that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. It truly was a life changing moment and he had no idea what a gift it was!