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The Marble Church

In memoriam
Servatæ per tria Secula
Regiæ Domus Oldenburgicæ
Grato in Deum animo
Fredericus V Rex Dan. Noev.
Hujus templi
Primum posuit Lapidem

I erindring om det Oldenburgske Kongehus som har bestået i 3 århundreder.
I taknemmlighed til Gud har Frederik den 5. som er Danmark og Norges konge nedlagt den 1. sten til dette tempel.
Den 30 oktober 1749.

The Marble Church - or Frederik’s Church, as it is rightly named - is, to my mind, the most beautiful church in Copenhagen, indeed in all of Denmark. With its dome, coppergreen and gold, rising high above the surrounding rooftops, it looks like a small Saint Peter's Basilica, and this is no coincidence since the architect did get his inspiration from that very wonderful piece of Roman architecture.

The church was to be built on st. Annæ Plads (st. Annæ Square), facing Bredgade (Broad Street)2 and overlooking the harbour and Amalienborg Slotsplads (Amalienborg Palace Square). Years earlier Princess Charlotte Amalie had donated a large part of her gardens to the project. As part of a new quarter called Frederiksstaden (Frederik's town), the church - and the rest of Frederik's Town, were put in the hands of architect Nicolai Eigtved.

On October 31, 1749 the King, Frederik V laid down the first stone for the church. In it was "en deel kostbare Jubel og andre Medailler baade af Guld og Sølv." ("some precious jubilation- and other medals, of both gold and silver"). The stone is still there, located somewhere under the altar.

The first obstacles
Work on the church progressed very slowly. Eigtved's first drawings show a much grander church; higher and wider, with flanking towers. The dome was to be 45 m across, and the whole church was to be built out of limestone and bricks. But Eigtved's original plans were disapproved of, and changed time and time again. In 1753 it was decided to cover the church with marble, inside and outside3, and Eigtved's last and best proposition was sent to Paris to be approved by the architect Ange-Jacques Gabriel (known for e.g. Chateau de Versailles). In May 1754 they came back, with the final stamp of approval - sadly, almost precisely two months later, Eigtved died.

The French architect, Nicholas-Henri Jardin, was called to Copenhagen to take over where Eigtved had left. But Eigtved had ben a rococo-inspired architect, and Jardin represented the neo classicism, so Jardin revised the plans yet again. He came up with a number of propositions, and in 1756 the king approved of the least costly.

Still the church was proving to become very expensive, and during the next 20 years very little was actually getting built. In 1766 King Frederik V died, and his son, Christian VII, became king. His cabinet's secretary, Struensee, did not approve of the extravagancies involved in the building of Frederiks Church, so in 1770 he called the project to a halt by cutting off the funds. By this time, almost 21 years after the first stone was laid, the walls of the church were no more than 10m high.

The church ruins
After Struensee's demise in 1772, it was unclear what could be done about the church. 100 years passed, and the church building site became a tourist attraction. Sheds and lean-tos were erected among the half finished walls, and vines and weeds grew around the marble blocks. Alternative uses for the site were discussed: museum for Bertel Thorvaldsen's works, koncert hall, a monument for "Grundloven" (the Danish constitution), and even a storage tank for gas. Fortunately, none of these ideas were approved.

At last, in 1874, the Danish banker and businessman Carl Friedrich Tietgen, bought the building site and surrounding properties. He hired architect prof. Meldahl to make new plans for finishing the church. The towers were discarded, the dome made smaller (31m across rather than 45), and the opulent portal downsized to something more befitting a House of God. The walls were made of Ølands- and Fakse limestone, a very beautiful material, also known as Fakse Marble. Only the first 10 m are real marble.

A church, at last!
On August 19, 1894, more than 140 years after the first stone, Frederik's church was finished. King Christian IX attended the consecration ceremony, and finally Frederik's Church was finished. Ironically, the church was meant to be a monument to the Oldenburger branch of the Danish royal family, but King Christian IX was the first king from the Glücksburger side!

The church has undergone some restoriation through the years. Along the parapet around the dome are placed 18 statues of various saints. They were supposed to have been made out of marble, but it proved to be too expensive. Instead they were made out of zinc, a fairly cheap material at the time - but unfortunately not as sturdy as marble. They were painted grey, and from below nobody would be any the wiser. In 1939, though, the statues had to be strengthened as they were threatening to fall down. In 1999 one of the saints - Polycarp - lost his left hand, and it was decided to take them all down for a complete makeover. A couple of them are still resting in one of the small gardens surrounding the church, but they will be up and about again, as soon as possible.

The Marble Church is really an amazing structure, and until 1989 it was actually the largest self supporting dome in Europe. The Globe, a sporting arena in in Stockholm, Sweden is now, with its diameter of 110m, the largest - not only in Europe, but in the world.

  1. 'In remembrance of the Royal House of Oldenburg, which has stood for 3 centuries
    In gratitude to God, Frederik the fifth, who is king of Denmark and Norway, has laid down the first stone to this temple.'
  2. Bredgade and Store Kongensgade (Great King's street) are two rather narrow, almost parallel streets with a lot of traffic. During World War 2, while Denmark was occupied by Germany, the Germans decided to make Bredgade and Store Kongensgade into two one-way streets, in opposite directions. To this day, they still are.
  3. The plan was to use Norweigan marble, as it was a national resource, and thus relatively cheaper.

Sources: "Salmonsens Konversationsleksikon", Second Edition (1915 - 1930), Vol.VIII, pages 881,882.
http://www.marmorkirken.dk/hist.html.(Take the vitual tour of the church: it gives you a very good idea of what the church is like on the inside.)

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