The Ruins of St. Mary’s Church, Oslo (Mariakirken)

What left today of St. Mary's Church, Oslo

photography by: Omri Westmark

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For more than three centuries or so, one of Norway’s most historically significant churches was unassumingly buried under meters of soil. With a nationwide role in governance, the medieval St. Mary’s Church was far more than a mere place of worship, and as such, was also a coveted target for the kingdom’s multiple adversaries. Nestled in the middle of a verdant park in Oslo’s Gamlebyen borough, the unearthed remnants of the church now serve as a testament for the city’s tumultuous past.

Considered as the oldest part of the Norwegian capital, Gamlebyen district is replete with old quaint houses and protected historic sites, including a couple of ruins that date back to Oslo’s early days. Among the most conspicuous vestiges of the city’s bygone era is Mariakirkens Ruiner, the fragmented walls of a church which formerly occupied a pivotal position in national politics.


Originally constructed as a wooden edifice somewhere around 1050, St. Mary’s church was then rebuilt as a stone building a century later. The single-nave church underwent a series of renovations and expansions in the following centuries as well, when a formidable Gothic tower was added during the 1200’s, and a pair of towers and a cross-shaped choir were added in the 1300’s.


In its heyday, the ever-expanding church became a royal chapel, whose provost (the head of the chapter) was automatically appointed as the Chancellor of Norway, who was in charge of the kingdom’s daily affairs. As the church’s importance continued to grow, it also served as a burial place for members of the royal family, the most notable of whom were Kinh Håkon V Magnusson and his wife, Queen Eufemia.


Unfortunately for the church, its sheer significance played out as a double-edged sword. As part of the Swedish War of Liberation, where Sweden sought to succeed from the Kalmar Union (between Denmark, Norway and Sweden), St. Mary’s church was set ablaze in 1523 and then left in tatters for years on end. While there were plans to rehabilitate the dilapidated building, the Reformation ultimately sealed its fate. The church was demolished in 1542, falling into a complete and utter oblivion.


It wasn’t until 1867, when the area’s first archeological excavations led by Nicolay Nicolaysen revealed the skeletal remains of the once lavish chapel. After two more expeditions took place in the 1930’s and 1960’s, the site was integrated into the surrounding Middelalderparken (The Medieval Park). As not much is left of the original building, visitors who wish to have a glimpse of the church as it was in the 14th century can have a look at the nearby miniature replica, which depicts Mariakirken during its days of glory.