Round churches are not unique to Bornholm or Denmark but exist in various locations throughout Europe. In fact, there are about twenty-two round churches in Europe alone. The prototype of the round church appears to be the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, also called the Church of the Resurrection to Eastern Orthodox Christians, located in Jerusalem, Israel.
This church was built in 336 A.D. by Helena, the mother of Constantine, then emperor of Rome, at his orders. The site had previously been used for the Temple of Venus, constructed by Hadrian in 135 A.D. The Temple of Venus was ordered razed by Constantine and the church was built near by. There persists a story that the tomb of Christ is located nearby based upon the Gospel of John. Also, Constantine claimed to have found three crosses during the excavation of the site.
Association with Knights Templar
Round churches are also associated with the Knights of the Templar which existed from 1119 to 1314 during the Crusades. One of these churches, located in Rome, is named for St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a sponsor of the Knights of the Templar.
The round church of London was built by the Knights Templar in 1185 A.D. Rick Steves book Rome mentions a round church dedicated to St. Stephen built over Roman barracks about 410 A.D. So there appears to be a mythology and a close association with Christianity and later, the Knights Templar in the construction of a round church.
History of Bornholm
Bornholm, located about 40 kilometers from Sweden but a part of Denmark, was first settled about 3600 B.C. during the Neolithic period. The island has many carved dolmens and symbols of that period. In medieval times the island was called Burgundland or Burgunderholm. The word “holm” was medieval Danish for “island.” During the conversion of Denmark to Christianity under Harald Bluetooth, who lived from about 935 to 985 or 956 A.D., Denmark began the construction of churches. However, the round churches of Bornholm were built later.
The most famous and oldest of Bornholm’s round churches is Østerlars Church which was built about 1160 and was dedicated originally to St. Lawrence. The name was later changed to Østerlars to avoid confusion with the Ny-Lars church. The church consists of an apse, an oval church, a round nave and is three stories tall. There is some evidence that it was once fortified and that the top floor was a shooting gallery.
Construction of Østerlars
The church’s construction date is based upon some coins dated 1157 found in the floor. The double arch bears a resemblance to the Lund Cathedral. The central column is decorated with frescos or kalmalerier from 1350 showing biblical scenes from the Annunciation through the Passion, ending with the Day of Judgment where Christ judges mankind. Many of the naked figures are sent to hell where a huge dragon awaits them.
These frescos had been hidden by whitewash since the Reformation and were uncovered in 1882. The National Museum of Denmark undertook much of the work in uncovering them.
Theory associating Østerlars with Knights Templar
Erling Haagensen, co-author of The Templars’ Secret Island, believed that there was a connection between the round churches of Bornholm and the Knights Templar. He believed that there were similarities between the geometrical precision of the four round churches on Bornholm and those of the churches in Rennes-le-Chateau in France. He concludes that Østerlars and the other round churches on Bornholm could have been used as storehouses for the Knights of the Templars during the Crusades.
Possible Mystical connection to Christianity
Whether the Knight’s of the Templar were influential in the construction of these round churches or not, there appears to be a mystical connection in early Christianity to round churches given that one of the first churches was round. Experts have also postulated that the round shape was a form of defensive structure perhaps supported in Østerlars in its earlier form as a kind of fort and with a shooting gallery at the top.
However, the round form is more difficult to build and in the medieval period there were fortified structures far more competent in affording protection. So we are left to speculate until further research is undertaken.
Other Round Churches on Bornholm
The other round churches on Bornholm are Nyker, Nylars and Olksker. They are all impressive and share some common architectural features with Østerlars.