Minneparken Park, Oslo – Home to the Ruins of Three Medieval Churches

The ruins of St. Olav's Monastery on the backdrop of the former bishop residence

photography by: Omri Westmark

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More often than not, archeological sites are restricted to either paying visitors or professional archeologists. That is, unless you are talking about the multiple sites across the Norwegian capital, where the remnants of historic buildings are accessible all year round for each and every one of us. Tucked away in the borough of Oslo Gamle, Minneparken’s verdant premises is home to the ruins of three old churches, providing a glimpse to the city’s early history.


Wedged between the railway tracks of Oslo’s central train station and Oslo Gate and Egedes Gate Streets, Minneparken (aka Ruinparken) is a rather unassuming speck of greenery. What truly sets it apart from other parks of its kind are the well-preserved ruins of a medieval church, monastery and a cathedral. Together, these three archeological relics serve as a vestige of Oslo’s earliest days as a Viking stronghold. The verdant 3.4-hectare park was the brainchild of Gerhard Fischer who was also the site’s chief archeologist, conducting the excavation works across the area. In 1928, he lobbied for the establishment of a memorial park over the site, which was inaugurated four years later.

Holy Cross Church (Korskirken)

Perhaps the park’s most mysterious ruins, what little remains of the Holy Cross Church, known locally as Korskirken, is well ensconced behind a cluster of luxuriant trees, located in front of Arups Gate Street.


As not much is known about the church, it’s still widely debated when Korskirken was actually constructed. Some assert that the absence of the church from any documentation of the famous 1240’s royal skirmish between Duke Skule and King Haakon IV, Norway’s medieval version of Game of Thrones, suggests that it was built long before the battle took place.


Far less ambiguous is Korskirken’s past role, with most expert agreeing that it formerly functioned as a religious center for the city’s northern parts, which then encompassed much of the church’s surrounding area. Unfortunately, only a fraction of the original building has survived to date, including the remnants of the chancel, altar and the cemetery wall.

St. Olav's Monastery (Olavsklosteret)

Named after Olaf II Haraldsson, the King of Norway between 1015-1028 who is best known for Christianizing the country, St. Olav’s Monastery was built around 1240 next to an older, existing church with which it shared its name. While initially, the friary was built out of stone, at the turn of 14th century, it was reconstructed using primarily bricks, making it one of Norway’s first masonry buildings.


The original monastic complex was comprised of a church featuring a series of cloister vaults centered around an open atrium, a library, a sacristy, a convention room, a dining room, a conservatory and a dormitory where 10-15 monks lived in.


Following the Reformation and the subsequent rise of the Lutheran Church across Norway, the friary was converted into the bishop castle during the mid-16th century. As the seat of the bishop, the building underwent major structural changes, with its east wing being rebuilt as the bishop’s farm.


During the 1624’s Olso Great Fire which wiped out much of the city, the former monastery was partially damaged, yet much of it escaped unscathed. In the years that followed, the religious complex slowly fell into a state of disrepair. It wasn’t until the late 1800’s when a local architect named Henrik Thrap-Meyer fervently campaigned for the preservation of the delipidated monastery.


Ultimately, Meyer was entrusted with the task of designing a new bishop palace atop the friary’s medieval remnants. Featuring a neo-Gothic style, the then newly built edifice served as the residence of the bishop until 1985.


As of today, the building accommodates the administration of Oslo diocese, with one floor of the original monastic complex being fully preserved, boasting a couple of quaint frescoes and brick vaults. The rest of the ruins are scattered around the yellowish-hued building, including the cloister yard which is marked by a wooden pergola. Standing in front of the ruins is a miniature replica of the medieval friary, accurately depicting the building in its original form.

St. Hallvard's Cathedral (Hallvardskatedralen)

An unsuspecting onlooker might regard the skeletal layout along Bispegata Street as uninspiring at best, nevertheless, the somewhat unpretentious ruins apparently belong to Oslo’s first cathedral, St. Hallvard’s Cathedral. Erected during the first half of the 12th century, the cathedral is named after Hallvard Vebjørnsson, a local saint who was venerated for being killed by three men while protecting a pregnant woman.


For almost half a millennium, the cathedral was the most important church across Norway’s eastern provinces and where coronation ceremonies as well as royal weddings took place. At its heyday, St. Hallvard’s served as a pilgrimage site for Norwegians from all walks of life who flocked in masses to the church, which according to the lore, was endowed with healing powers.


Unlike other churches across the country, the massive cathedral featured naves, a pair of transepts and side naves, inspiring a series of churches throughout the following centuries. In 1624, the cathedral sustained only minor damage by the aforementioned Oslo Great Fire. However, in the aftermath of the citywide calamity, the town was rebuilt west of the ravaged ground zero. Known as Christiania, the emerging city was bestowed with its own brand-new church, replacing St. Hallvard’s as the region’s main religious institution.


As a result, the former cathedral was relegated into a parish church, eventually falling into a state of disrepair and demolished later that century. Nowadays, its remnants include a smattering of walls and graves, a far cry from its days of glory, where kings and bishops were buried within its confines.