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From church to art centre

The history of St Nicholas Church dates all the way back to the 1200s. Dive into the dramatic history of Nicolaj Kunsthal right here

The history of St Nicholas Church dates all the way back to the 1200s. For a long time, it was considered the third oldest Copenhagen church, with only the Church of Our Lady and St Clement Church being older. However, recent metro excavations have proven that the very oldest church was located close to the Town Hall Square. When St Nicholas Church was originally built it was close to the city harbour, and it has therefore been named after the seafarers’ patron saint, Saint Nicholas.

In 1529, Hans Tausen was employed as a parish pastor at St Nicholas Church. Tausen was a strong advocate of the Reformation and is often referred to as “the Danish Luther”. St Nicholas Church therefore became the centre of the Reformation in Copenhagen, and the very first divine service in Danish was held by Tausen at St Nicholas Church.

Originally, St Nicholas Church did not have a tower – it was not added until 1591. At this point in time, the church had become the preferred church of the respectable Copenhagen citizens. The new spire was not allowed to stand for long: in 1628, it tumbled to the ground during a winter gale. The church was subsequently left without a spire until 1669 when it was rebuilt.

In 1795, a fire broke out in Copenhagen that raged for three days. City buildings stood close, and the fire spread rapidly and ended up by devouring a quarter of all the buildings in the city. When the fire reached St Nicholas Church the spire came down for the second time in the history of the church, and the fire left the church as a ruin. The spire pierced the ground next to the nave, and it was not found until a century later during an excavation at the Nicholas Square. Today, the top of the old spire can be seen in the entrance hall of Nikolaj Kunsthal.

The fire marked the end of the building’s function as a church. The state was in no financial position to rebuild the church, and the congregation was formally dissolved in 1805 and distributed among other Copenhagen churches. But the church ruin and the churchyard were torn down and removed, leaving only the tower standing.

Throughout the 1800s, the Nikolaj Tower served in various capacities. City watchmen used it as a fire tower. If they spotted a fire in progress from the tower, they would hold out a lantern in the direction of the fire. At the end of the century, the Nikolaj Tower was equipped with a so-called “time ball”. The ball was hoisted up a pole at the top of the tower, and every day at 1pm the time ball came down as an indication of exactly what time it was.

Over the century, small butcher’s shops started opening around the tower, and the site was in effect turned into a meatpacking district, dubbed “The Stomach” by the Copenhageners. This continued until the reconstruction of the church in 1917.

In the early 1900s, Danish brewer and patron of the arts Carl Jacobsen decided to finance a new tower spire. It was completed in 1909, and a few years later, the rest of the church building war reconstructed with the financial support of permanent secretary P.N. Rentzmann. He would have preferred Nikolaj to re-emerge as an actual church, but the then Mayor of Copenhagen decided that the building should instead house the Copenhagen Main Public Library, a function in which it served until 1958, when a naval museum moved into the building. In 1957, an art library had opened shop in the building, offering original art works to be borrowed; and around this time, a series of significant avant-garde manifestations took place there, among these some of the first international Fluxus performances in 1962. Since 1981, the building has functioned as the City of Copenhagen’s exhibition centre, since 2011 under its present name Nikolaj Kunsthal.

In 2018, Nikolaj Kunsthal for the first time opened the tower to the public. Weekly tours of the tower present guests with the opportunity to experience the spectacular view of Copenhagen from the city’s tallest church tower, while at the same time gaining a brand new perspective on the history of Copenhagen. See Events for status of current tower tours

Mads Holm