Lying 12km down Route 767, which runs east off Route 76 about thirty minutes from Sauðárkrókur, the hamlet of HÓLAR Í HJALTADAL, or simply Hólar, was very much the cultural capital of the north from the twelfth until the eighteenth century: monks studied here, manuscripts were transcribed and Catholicism flourished until the Reformation. Now home to just sixty-odd people, most of whom work at the agricultural college – this and the cathedral are the only buildings remaining – it was the site of the country’s first printing press in 1530, set up by Iceland’s last Catholic bishop, Jón Arason (who was beheaded twenty years later at Skálholt for his resistance to the spread of the Reformation from the south).
A church has stood on this spot since Arason’s time, but the present cathedral was built in 1759–63 in late Baroque style, using local red sandstone from the mountain Hólabyrða, and is the second-oldest stone building in the country. Inside, the fifteenth-century alabaster altarpiece over the cathedral’s south door is similar in design to that in the church at Þingeyrar, and was likewise made in Nottingham, England. The main altarpiece, with its ornate carvings of Biblical figures, originated in Germany around 1500 and was given to the cathedral by its most famous bishop. Arason’s memory is honoured in the adjacent bell tower: a mosaic of tiny tiles, by Icelandic artist Erró, marks a small chapel and headstone, under which the bishop’s bones are buried.