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Helsinki’s Lutheran Cathedral Facing Its Russian Orthodox Cathedral

Helsinki, Finland

On Senate Square, two grand cathedrals face off. The interior of the austere Lutheran Cathedral highlights the pulpit and organ, while the interior of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral is a busy riot of colorful icons and flickering candles.

Complete Video Script

Back in town, Helsinki's Senate Square — with the Lutheran cathedral as its centerpiece — is one of the finest Neoclassical squares in all of Europe.

The buildings which formed the original square burned down in 1808. Then, after Finland became part of the Russian Empire, the czar sent in his leading architect, Carl Engel, to rebuild the square and give it the stature and elegance it has today.

This statue honors Russian Czar Alexander II. While not popular in Russia (in fact, he was eventually assassinated), Finns liked him. He gave Finland more autonomy in 1863 and never pushed the "Russification" of Finland.

The staircase leading up to the cathedral is a popular meeting (and tanning) spot. This is where students from the nearby university gather… and couples meet.

With its stately dome and statues of twelve apostles, the Lutheran Cathedral overlooks the city and harbor. Finished in 1852, its austerity is striking. I like to take a moment, surrounded by Finland's great reformers, to savor neoclassical simplicity.

Physically, this church seems perfectly Protestant — unadorned — with the emphasis on two things: preaching with its prominent pulpit, and music with its grand organ. Statuary is limited to the Reformation big shots: Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon (Luther's intellectual sidekick), and the leading Finnish Reformer, Mikael Agricola.

A follower of Luther in Germany, Agricola brought the Reformation here to Finland. He also translated the Bible into Finnish. Agricola's Bible is to Finland what the Luther Bible is to Germany and the King James Bible is to the English-speaking world.

Nearby, also overlooking Helsinki, is the Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral. It faces the Lutheran Cathedral much as Russian culture faces Europe. Built in 1868 for the Russians back when Finland belonged to Russia, its main dome represents the "sacred heart of Jesus," while the smaller ones represent the hearts of the 12 apostles.

Today this is the spiritual home of the city's Finnish Orthodox community. Its interior offers a rich experience. Icons of saints oversee flickering candles which represent prayers of the Orthodox faithful. These plush Eastern images are a stark contrast to the spare Lutheran Cathedral.