Helsinki Cathedral is part of the Empire era centre of Helsinki, designed by architect, Carl Ludvig Engel, and planner, Johan Albrekt Ehrenström. The neoclassical church was designed by Engel, whose work was continued after his death by architect, Ernst Bernhard Lohrmann. Once the construction work of the Empire era centre began, the Ulrika Eleonora church on the Senate Square, completed in 1727, was demolished.
The building takes the plan of an equal-armed cross. The gable is supported by six Corinthian pillars. The façade is constructed out of pilasters belonging to the same order of architecture. The exterior wall is decorated with reliefs depicting the life of Christ by an unknown artist, and “Jahve”, God, is inscribed above the main entrance.
The twelve apostles on the roof form one of the largest collections of zinc sculptures in the world. The three-metre tall sculptures are the handiwork of Berlin-based sculptors, Hermann Schievelbein and Academician, August Wredow, Professor at Berlin Art Academy. The sculptures are located in the gables above the pillars, following the example of St. Isaac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg. This practice was also favoured in antique and renaissance architecture.
The patron saint of locksmiths and confessors, Peter, is holding the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven in his hand. The patron saint of architects, builders and land surveyors, Thomas, is holding a right-angle. The emblem of Simon Zelotes in ecclesiastical art is a saw. The patron saint of book engravers, booksellers and authors, John, is holding a book and a chalice, and he, according to legend, prayed for it to become non-poisonous. The emblem of Matthew, the patron saint of book-keepers, tax collectors and security forces, is writing utensils. Bartholomew, flayed alive, the protector of shepherds and winegrowers, is holding a knife, which signifies the way in which he died. The emblem of the cause of death of Paul, who became one of the twelve followers in place of Judas Iscariot, is a sword. He is the protector of tent-makers, theologians and the ecclesiastical press. James the Greater (son of Zebedee) is the patron saint of pilgrims, soldiers and cavalrymen. He is holding a pilgrim's staff decorated with a scallop shell. James the Lesser is said to have been clubbed to death. Peter's brother, Andrew, is the protector of fishermen, in particular. He is shown with a saltire cross, in accordance with the way in which he died. The emblem of the protector of carpenters, butchers and smiths, Matthias, is a halberd, again signifying the way in which he died. The protector of trinket merchants, Philip, is holding a cross in his left hand as a symbol of the way in which he died, and a book in his right hand as an emblem of dying for the Word of God.
The central dome of the Cathedral, supported by corner pillars, rises to a height of over eighty metres above sea level. Natural light falls into the interior from many directions. The austere style reflects Engel's view on Lutheran Christianity.
The statues of the great men of Lutheran Reformation, Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchton, are enlarged plaster copies of the Worms Luther monument, created in 1868 by Ernst Rietschel. The copies were received in Helsinki in 1886. The enlargements made in Paris remained smaller than expected, because of a measuring error, but sculptor, Karl Magnus von Wright, remedied the situation by making pedestals for the statues. The statue of the father of the Reformation in Finland and the Finnish literary language, Mikael Agricola, is the handiwork of sculptor, Ville Vallgren.
In Engel's original plans there was a cross in place of the altarpiece. The altarpiece was ordered from court painter, Robert Wilhem Ekman. However, his painting, Vapahtaja siunaa lapsia (The Saviour blessing children) was considered too childish for the main church of the city, so it ended up on the altar of the Old Church of Helsinki. Court painter, Timeon Karl von Neff, painted the altarpiece, Jeesuksen hautaaminen (Burial of Jesus), donated by Czar Nicholas I. Gilded angels commissioned from August Wredow but made by sculptor Gustav Bläser kneel on both sides of it. The laurel wreaths of the altar structure symbolise the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They and the small angel reliefs of the altar were also commissioned from Wredow.
Engel also designed the pulpit, which was made by mirror manufacturer, H. Höijer. Its decorative sculptures are of Swedish origin. The wooden surface of the pulpit was covered with plaster and painted to imitate marble. The work was finished with gilding by master painter, J. Källström.
The current Danish Marcussen & Søn organ, made in 1967, has 57 stops. The attractive façade of the organ was designed by architect, Lohrmann, in accordance with the instructions of the builder of the first organ of the cathedral, Edvard Friedrich Walckeer. The Cathedral choir organ from 2006 was made by the Swedish organ builder, Åkerman.
After Engel died, corner towers designed by Lohrmann were added to the Cathedral, as well as the terrace pavilions on the sides of the high main stairs. The west pavilion is the bell tower of the Cathedral. Today, it is an office facility for the parish. In summer, the Cathedral Shop is open. The east pavilion has a chapel which is still in operation. The church was originally yellow like the rest of the buildings of Senate Square, but since the end of the 19th century the colour has been light grey with white ornamentation.
The crypt of the church was originally a cellar where the heating devices and firewood storage were located. The facility with its earth floor was renovated in the 1970s in accordance with Tarja Salmio-Toiviainen's plan. The heart of the crypt is a small chapel. During the additional renovation in 1996-1998, the crypt received a new altar, an altar painting by Carolus Enckell, and church textiles designed by Päikki Priha.
The organ of the crypt chapel was made by organ builder, Martti Porthan, in 2006. The organ's model, tone-wise, was chiefly the smallish organ with two keyboards built by North German organ builder Arp Schnitger in the 17th century. The organ is tuned in the baroque way to Chorton, about half a tone higher than the current standard.
During the 1996-1998 renovation, the apostle statues in the church were restored, as were the plaster reliefs, and the exterior panel, stairs, courtyard landings and interior premises were renovated. The renovation of the apostle statues was paid for by public fund-raising.
Just before Engel died, in front of the church, by Senate Square, lined by the University and the Council of State, there was a main guard building fitted in the wall of natural stones. On the order of Nicholas I, it was replaced with a 60 metre wide staircase, said to be the highest north of the Alps. The rock material of the stairs is mostly granite quarried at the location, but there is also brownish South-East Finland rapakivi granite, viborgite, which has migrated from the direction of Vyborg in the bottom of melting glaciers. It is also present in the large cobblestones of the nearby quarters.
Upon completion, the Cathedral was called St. Nicholas Cathedral, after the Russian Czar Nicholas I who initiated the building project, and St. Nicholas the patron saint of seafarers. Once Finland became independent in 1917, the name Great Cathedral became established. When the Diocese of Helsinki was founded in 1959, the Great Cathedral became Helsinki Cathedral.
The Cathedral is the main church of the Helsinki Cathedral parish and Helsinki Diocese. The annual ecumenical opening and closing services of the Parliament, as well as the Independence Day service, take place there. Furthermore, it serves the University of Helsinki and other institutes of higher education, by organising degree ceremony services.
The Cathedral is also a popular festive, concert and wedding church. The church and its events are visited by 500,000 people from different parts of the world annually. The church is used for services and concerts every day of the week.
Celebrations at the church
Members of the church can organise a baptism, a wedding or a funeral free of charge in the Cathedral or its chapel. For facility reservations at the church register office, contact the reservation secretary at tel. +358 (0)9 2340 6111
The church seats 1,300 and the crypt 500. The chapel seats 70. The Bulevard parish meeting hall, Annankulma hall and Kajanokka parish hall are available for festive occasions.