On the south western tip of Iceland, near to the parish of Selvogur, lies Strond, an old area of farmland.
Here, there is a little church standing on a dune, looking out to sea. In front of it, the Atlantic Ocean crashes angrily over lava reefs and onto the shore. Down the coast a bit there’s a lighthouse, and all around is evidence of what nature can do when it’s feeling volatile. Mountains and ice caps hiding volcanoes underneath. Lava fields and flood plains. Snow and ice. Iceland is magnificent but deadly. The lighthouse might not save you if nature decided to do it’s worst here. The church is called Strandarkirkja and it’s small and calm, in the face of all of this terrifying and dramatic beauty.
The legend of the church at Strond
‘A long time ago, a young farmer who lived inland went to Norway on his own ship to obtain goods for building a house. On his way back to Iceland with his companions, the seas were getting rough. They were lost in the dark storm not knowing where the ship was heading. In desperation the farmer promised that if he came ashore safely, he would give all his wood to build a church at the landing site.
Then a vision of a shining angel appeared to him, in front of the ship and he steered towards it. Nothing is told of the progress of the ship until it landed in a sandy cove between low cliffs. The angel disappeared and dawn broke upon the sailors, who then saw that they had been led along a winding channel between dangerous reefs on the surf-pounded coast. Upon that shore, beyond a low gravel dune, the first church at Strond was erected from the farmers’ wood as he had promised.’
– A popular legend about the church at Strond, chronicled by Konrad Bjarnason in Selvogur in 1988. The events probably took place in the 11th or 12th century.
The origins of the church at Strond
The church is mentioned for the first time in a register of churches compiled by bishop Pall Jonsson shortly before 1200. It is dedicated to two saints of the Catholic church – Mary, the mother of God and Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury who was martyred in 1170.
The oldest description of the church dates from 1624, during the time of Oddur Einarsson, the bishop of Skaholt, who detailed a restoration of the church, including new beams and a pulpit. The church has been restored several times over the centuries, but it has always stood in the same spot, despite plans to move it in 1751, 1759 and 1820.
How I came to be standing in front of the church at Strond
I was on a coach tour of southern Iceland during the first week of March 2015. It was spectacular. We had seen hulking glaciers and mountains that stretched away into the distance. The edges of continents and crashing waterfalls with rainbows running through them like ribbons.
We had seen the Northern Lights shining in the sky above us and the waves of the north Atlantic attempting to rush up beaches with volcanic sand as black as night, to capture us and sweep us away. It was our last day and we were on our way back to Reykjavik. This church was one of our last stops. It was a sunny day but very cold, and it had snowed earlier. There was snow still on the ground, and thick sheet ice all around. As we descended the steps from the coach, several of our party slipped over. Wind battered the faces of those who chose to venture towards the edge of the dunes to stare out to sea. I turned around and made a beeline up the hill, towards the church.
It looked so small and innocent standing there on the low dunes, surrounded by a small churchyard and a smattering of gravestones. Why had the ocean not risen up and swept it away? Surely it could not remain here unharmed for long? Our Icelandic tour guide told us that this church was known as the ‘miracle church’ and this area as ‘angel’s cove’ in homage to the legend of the seamen lost in the storm, who were brought safe to shore by a shining angel.
The locals believe that the church has divine powers, and that no harm will come to sailors who sail within sight of it.
Next to the church, there is a path that winds up a little hill to where a stone statue of an angel stands tall and looks out over the ocean.
The sculpture is called ‘Landsyn’ or ‘Land in Sight’. It was carved of Norwegian stone in 1950 by Gunnfriour Jonsdottir, who is buried in the churchyard at Strandarkirkja. It reminds men to compare the ‘low and insignificant here on Earth to the high and heavenly’.
We were called back to the coach all too soon and were on our way, leaving the little church on this remote coastline behind us. I was sad to say goodbye so soon. I could have stayed there all day.
All photographs by Christina Owen, copyright March 2015