The Great Christ Chuch on Holmen was the cathedral or bishop’s church of the diocese of Bergen, and therefore the first in rank among all the city’s churches. It was founded by King Olav Kyrre (1066-1093) and dedicated to the Holy Trinity. Building began under his reign but the church was probably only finished around the middle of the twelfth century. On 7 September 1170 the relics of St Sunniva were transferred here from Selja and installed on the high altar in a shrine.
Sunniva was a Christian Irish princess of the tenth century who fled to Norway to escape forced marriage to a heathen chieftain. Sunniva and her entourage were martyred on the island of Selja, some 150 km north of Bergen, where miracles started occurring around Sunniva’s tomb. Her success as a saint led to her relics being moved to the capital city of Bergen. Sunniva then became the patron saint of Bergen and Western Norway.
Great Christ Church Cathedral was the religious centre of Norway’s political powerhouse during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The Norwegian kings were crowned and married here and the church served as the royal burial church.
In 1531 the Great Christ Church was pulled down because it was said to impede the defence of the next-door royal castle. Sunniva’s shrine was most probably transferred to St Michael’s church on Nordnes on the west side of Vågen (Bergen harbour). The relics and shrine’s fate after the Reformation five years later is unknown.
It is no longer easy to gain an impression of what the cathedral looked like. It is assumed to have been composed of three aisles with a transept and crossing tower. Another possibility is that the tower was on the west side. At any rate, the view of Great Christ Church must have been imposing to those who approached the city over the water.
Today, only some fragments of the foundations of Great Christ Church can be seen. In addition, the church’s ground plan is made visible in the Bergenhus park with hedges indicating the outline of the building and pavement evoking the chancel area.
A memorial obelisk with a relief of St Sunniva and a list of Norwegian kings and queens crowned and buried in Great Christ Church marks the location where the high altar once stood.
To the north of Great Christ Church stood Little Christ Church, which was originally built of wood, and a church dedicated to St Olav. The latter belonged to a Dominican friary that was closed down after a fire in 1528.
Walk through the Bergenhus park past the thirteenth-century Håkonshallen to the Parade ground (Paradeplassen) (distance c. 200 m)