The goal of Trondheim’s pilgrims in times past was the rambling Nidaros Domkirke, Scandinavia’s largest medieval building, whose copper-green spire and multiple roofs lord it over the south end of Munkegata. Gloriously restored following several fires and the upheavals of the Reformation, the cathedral, which is dedicated to St Olav, remains the focal point of any visit to the city and is best explored in the early morning, when it’s reasonably free of tour groups. In the summertime, there are free English-language guided tours and you can climb the cathedral tower for a panoramic view over the city and its surroundings.
The crowning glory of this magnificent blue- and green-grey soapstone edifice is its west facade, a soaring cliff-face of finely worked stone sporting a magnificent rose window, rank after rank of pointed arches, biblical, religious and royal figures by the dozen and a fancy set of gargoyles. The west facade and the nave behind may look medieval, but date from the nineteenth century: the originals were erected in the early Gothic style of the early thirteenth century, but they were destroyed by fire in 1719 and what you see today is a painstakingly accurate reconstruction. The fire did not, however, raze the Romanesque transepts, whose heavy hooped windows and dog-tooth decoration were the work of English stonemasons in the twelfth century. English workmen also lent a hand in the thirteenth-century choir, where the arches, flying buttresses and intricate tracery are the epitome of early Gothic – and are reminiscent of contemporaneous churches in England.
Inside the cathedral, the gloomy half-light hides much of the lofty decorative work, but it is possible to examine the strikingly ascetic early twentieth-century choir screen, whose wooden figures are the work of Gustav Vigeland. Vigeland was also responsible for the adjacent soapstone font, a superb piece of medievalism sporting four bas-reliefs depicting Adam and Eve, John the Baptist baptizing the Christ, the Resurrection and a beguiling Noah and the Ark: Noah peers apprehensively out of his boat, not realizing that the dove, with the telltale branch, is up above. The other item of particular interest is a famous fourteenth-century altar frontal (front panel of an altar painting) displayed in a chapel off the ambulatory, directly behind the high altar. At a time when few Norwegians could read or write, the cult of St Olav had to be promoted visually, and the frontal is the earliest surviving representation of Olav’s life and times. In its centre, Olav looks suitably beatific holding his axe and orb; the top left-hand corner shows the dream Olav had before the Battle of Stiklestad, with Jesus dropping a ladder down to him from heaven. In the next panel down, Olav and his men are shown at prayer before the battle and, in the bottom right-hand corner, Olav meets a sticky end, speared and stabbed by three cruel-looking soldiers. The final panel shows church officials exhuming Olav’s uncorrupted body and declaring his sainthood.
What you won’t see now is the object of the medieval pilgrims’ veneration: St Olav’s silver casket-coffin was taken to Denmark and unceremoniously melted down to be made into coins in 1537.