It is unknown exactly when people settled near the mouth of the Aarhus River on the coast of Jutland. Certainly in the years 900 there was a Viking town there. Recent research has dated the building of the first city wall to 934. Aarhus was a town of some importance, as there are six runestones in or near the city. Aarhus was called Aros, Arus, Aarhus or Aars, as early as the 15th century. The city's charter of 1449 names it "Aarss". After the Reformation in Denmark, the name "Aarhus" became current.
Aarhus' first church, Holy Trinity Church, a timber structure, was built during the reign of Frode King of Jutland around year 900 on a pagan burial site in what was then the center of town. The first bishop was Reginbrand, a missionary bishop of Aros in 948 under the Archbishop of Hamburg. Aros came under the rule of the Archbishop of Viborg in 1060. According to Adam of Bremen, Aros was made a dependent diocese before 998.
St. Nikolai's church was the first cathedral of Aros. The second cathedral was a timber structure built in 1102 by bishop Ulfketil near the present site to house the relics of St. Clement. St. Clement was an early Bishop of Rome who was martyred by having an anchor tied to his neck and thrown into the Black Sea, according to a fictional biography of the saint. Clement was the patron saint of sailors and especially popular in Scandinavia. The first St. Clement's church burned at some point before the 1190s. This timber church was the center of the local veneration of St. Niels of Aarhus (also called St. Nickolas).
St. Niels was a younger son of King Canute V. As a young man, Prince Niels lost interest in life at court and withdrew to the village of Skibby near Aarhus and built a church with his own hands. He lived a saintly life and helped the people in the area around Aarhus. One day, as he and a few men from the town were felling trees to build the church at Viby near the sea, one of the men complained that he was thirsty. St. Niels prayed for water and a spring appeared to slake the man's thirst; St. Niels's Spring has run ever since. It has been a place of pilgrimage for hundreds of years and many miraculous healings are said to have taken place there, especially on St. John's Day. On his death bed in 1180, St. Niels asked to be buried in "the little church by the sea" (St. Clements). He was buried in the churchyard at St. Clements.
The construction of Aarhus Cathedral began in the decade after year 1190, by Bishop Peder Vognsen of the powerful Hvide family from Zealand. Bishop Vognsen built the cathedral around St. Clement's church because local people venerated St. Niels, and Vognsen wanted to harness that devotion for his cathedral. Vognsen also established the cathedral school of Aarhus Katedralskole, before the cathedral was completed. The church was finished in 1300 in typical Romanesque style with half-rounded arches supporting a flat timber ceiling. The second St. Clements was built of large red bricks, a new building material that became popular all over Scandinavia and northern Germany for ecclesiastical and public buildings. Four chapels were built into the north transept. The episcopal chair was moved from Our Lady Church to St. Clements.
However, in 1330, the cathedral and much of the town burned down, and the church was abandoned until 1449. By then the Gothic style of architecture had reached Denmark, and the cathedral was enlarged in stages until it reached its present size in year 1500. The nave was lengthened to 93 meters, the longest in Denmark. The transept was widened, and the typical Gothic vaulting raised the ceilings and permitted high windows which fill the building with light.
The Reformation changed life in and around the cathedral in many significant ways. In 1524 Hans Tausen, the Danish Luther, taught a Good Friday sermon at Antvarskov Abbey proclaiming the doctrines of Luther. His superior ordered him imprisoned in the Hospitallers monastery in Viborg, Jutland. Tausen taught from his cell and ordinary people responded with enthusiasm. His superior tried to silence Tausen, but a near riot forced his release. In the beginning, he was allowed to preach in the open air but his supporters broke open a Franciscan church, and soon Tausen had more followers than the church could accommodate. Within a year, he was the king's own chaplain. Luther's ideas quickly spread to Aarhus and soon the townspeople demanded the right to hear the liturgy in Danish. The bishop and canons attempted to stop the spread of the Lutheran doctrine in their diocese, but Tausen had caught the imagination of the people and they would not be cowed by anything the bishop might threaten. Most nobles were staunchly Catholic, and that brought even more support from common people. By 1528 most of the cities had begun the process of reforming their churches. Tausen taught that tearing apart ancient churches was wrong and that orderly change should be used to reform the church.
In 1533 Frederik I died and his son, Christian III was proclaimed King of Denmark at the Viborg Assembly (Danish: Landsting), but the State Council denominated by the Catholic bishops refused to accept the election and called upon count Christopher of Oldenburg to assist in restoring Catholic Christian II to the throne. This resulted in a two-year war called the Count's Feud. Despite the odds, Christian III prevailed and in the summer of 1536 arrested several of the bishops and threw them into prison. The last Catholic Bishop of Aarhus, Ove Bilde, was imprisoned in the summer of 1536 when Denmark officially became a Lutheran nation.
In 1642 lightning struck the tower and set it ablaze, destroying some of the historic bells, but damage to the interior of the church was minimal.
The tower is the tallest in Denmark at 96 meters. It received its present form in 1931.
Aarhus Cathedral has a number of fresco paintings dating from the 1470 to 1520. Until the Reformation, most of the church's walls were covered in frescoes, of which many were lost. The cathedral still has 220 m2 of frescoes, more than any other church in Denmark. One pre-1470 painting was saved from the first Romanesque-style cathedral in the northwest corner, the so-called Lazarus Window, painted about 1300. It is believed that the window was used to give food to the lepers who weren't permitted inside the building.
The paintings of St Christopher and St Clement are the tallest in the country. Other figures include St Michael and St George with the dragon (pictured, left).
St Clements only has one stained glass window. It was created by the Norwegian artist Emanuel Vigeland in 1926. Its theme is taken from Grundtvig's psalm Da livtræet fæstet i graven rod. It stands 14 m high and is the largest stained glass window in all of Denmark. Three scenes are painted on the window: at the bottom, Christ's lying in his grave on Golgotha; next, Christ crucified, and topmost, Christ standing in golden light. The most unusual feature is the Crucifixion scene, which (for an unknown reason) shows Jesus's head falling to the left, unlike traditional scenes which always show Jesus's head falling to the right.
The cathedral has a wonderful altar piece (pictured, left) carved by the famous Lübeck sculptor and painter Bernt Notke. It was dedicated on Easter Sunday 1479 and is one of Denmark's great treasures. The altarpiece is unusual in that it has movable sections, so different scenes may be viewed during the liturgical calendar.
The pulpit was carved in oak by sculptor Michael von Groningen and dedicated in 1588. It shows scenes from the Old and New Testaments.
The baptismal font was created in copper by the famous bell maker, Peter Hansen of Flensborg, in 1481. It was a gift of Bishop Jens Ivarsen Lange, who just two years earlier had given the great altar piece to St Clements. The font stands on the heads of the four evangelists in human form, but with the heads of the animals that often symbolize the four gospels in ecclesiastic art: John is eagle-headed, Mark is lion-headed, Luke bears the head of an ox, while Matthew alone has the head of a man.
The font has four scenes, carved in relief, from the life of Christ and nine of the apostles (the rest of the figures cannot be identified). The scenes are the Baptism, the Crucifixion, Christ on Judgement Day, and Mary's heavenly coronation.
For the first hundred years the font was open and the priest dipped the child three times; later there were added a brass top and a silver tray used for the baptism of children, which is now over 300 years old.
The "Golden Door" is one of five wrought iron gates that separate the nave from the choir, a reminder of the separation between the clergy and public in Catholic times. The gates were made by Kaspar Fincke, a German-born artist.
In the huge bell tower hang eight bells. In 1642 lightning struck the tower and set it ablaze and damaged some of the bells. The oldest (dating from the mid-13th century is the "Martinus"; "pl" is cast in 1493, Per Tidichsøn's bell is of 1505, Caspar Kønig's is cast in 1746, the M. C. Troschell bell is cast in 1762, and a pair of L. Andersen's bells are from 1893, and lastly came the 1894 S. Frichs bell.
As is the custom in many parts of Denmark, a ship hangs at the crossing as a reminder of those lost at sea and of Denmark's close connection to the sea (pictured, left). The cathedral's ship (dated 1720) is named Enigheden (lit. English Unity) and it might have been built in Holland: the Russian tsar Peter the Great ordered war ships from ship builders in Holland; instead of sketches, he was offered a model of the upcoming ship, which was sent by sea to Russia. A storm sank the transport by Skagen, and the model made it to shore almost intact. Some fishermen from Aarhus bought the model, and subsequently offered it as a votive gift to the Aarhus Domkirke.
With the model ship's length of 2.65 m and height of 3.50 m, it is the largest church ship in any Danish church, and it is thought of as a symbol of man's sail from cradle to grave.
The church has several chapels and tombs (in both Romanesque and Baroque styles), and a number of memorials. The most striking is the Marselis Chapel, built for the Marselis family by the Flemish sculptor Thomas Quellinus; the chapel's high Baroque memorial is the largest of its kind in Denmark, and beneath the floor is the family burial vault.
The crypt of the cathedral houses the remains of thousands of people of all ranks.
The main pipe organ was built by the organ builder Lambert Daniel Kastens in 1730. He was a student of one of Europe's best-known organ makers, Arp Schnitger of Hamburg. It has been restored, enlarged, and updated several times, but the baroque facade has been maintained. The majority of voices in the current organ are built by the organ builders Th. Frobenius & Sons between 1928 and 2001. With 89 voices it is now Denmark's largest church organ. In 1885 Robert William Otto Allen became an organist.
Manual compass = C–c4, Pedal compass = C–g1.