Mariakirken, St Mary’s Church, holds a special position in the history of Bergen. The first high mass in the church was held in the middle of the 12th century, something that tells us that the church is in fact the oldest remaining building in Bergen. Mariakirken had, and still has a central location in town. Still, it had a far more dominating position in medieval Bergen, when the country’s centre of power was a stone’s throw away.
Mariakirken has two towers, with a Romanesque style and High Gothic characteristics in the stalls. The church received the country’s first stained-glass window in 1336, when a German glass painting was willed to the church, and put into the northern wall.
With its three naves and two towers, the church resembles a small cathedral. This leads us to think that it is likely to have been Bergen’s main church very early. However, we do not know this for certain. What we do know, is that it used to be the parish church of an economically strong group of people – the Hanseatics. The merchants on Bryggen got the church in 1408, after which it was popularly called “the German church.”
The German society kept Mariakirken as their own a long time after the Hanseatic dominance in Bergen had been broken. However, the Norwegian Parliament passed a bill in 1839, which annulled the German congregation in Bergen. After this it was no longer an obligation for German descendants to belong to the congregation, only a hereditary and voluntary right. From now on, Mariakirken turned more and more into a local parish church, even though sermons were held in German until after the First World War.
Late in the 19th century, author Elisabeth Welhaven described the German society within the church. The Hanseatic descendants were strongly tied to each other. The congregation at Mariakirken was like “a family who participated in each other’s well-being with great seriousness, much like Freemasons. Anyone who has entered into their House of Worship has felt the holy and grave atmosphere that rests upon the old German Temple.”
Thanks to the wealthy Hanseatic society, the church is richly adorned, exhibiting pieces of art reaching over a period of 700 years. On the walls surrounding the pulpit we find 15 full sized statues which symbolize the 12 apostles as well as John the Baptist, Moses and Paul. The statues were sculptured by Søfferen Oelsen in 1643. The most magnificent piece, which is also unique in Norway, is the pulpit. Its origin is unknown, but we know that it was donated to the church in 1676. The pulpit is decorated with eight Christian virtues, presented as women with different attributes. The decorations on the pulpit, and in the church in general, are very rich and beautiful and are inspired by both religious history and science. Mariakirken also has a rich musical history, having had one of the country’s first organs. Still today music holds a central position in the parish. The choir Maria Vocalis has given performances in Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral in London.