Christmas in Iceland 2000 - Main Page

Þorláksmessa - The Day of St. Thorlakur
The Icelandic Saint St. Thorlakur

  St. Thorlac Thorhallsson b. 1133 d. 1193

Born in Iceland, he became a deacon when he was fifteen and was ordained when he was eighteen. He was sent abroad to study, reportedly visited London, and returned to Iceland in 1161. He founded a monastery at Thykkviboer, became its abbot and in 1178 was named bishop of Skalholt, one of the two dioceses of Iceland. He reformed the see, insisted on clerical discipline and celibacy, abolished lay patronage and fought simony. He planned to resign and retire to Thykkviboer, but he died on Dec. 23 before he could do so. He was canonized by the the Iceland Althing five years later, but his cult has never been formally approved by the Holy See.

From Catholic Saints On-line


Article from Arnastofnun
about Þorlákur Þórhallsson:

St Þorlákur Þórhallsson

Þorlákur Þórhallsson was born in 1133 at Hlíðarendi in the Fljótshlíð district. He was educated at Oddi by the priest Eyjólfur, son of Sæmundur the Learned, and was ordained priest at an early age. He then spent six years (1153-1159) studying in Paris and Lincoln, which were famous centres of learning in the 12th century. After his return to Iceland, he served as a priest at Kirkjubær á Síðu until he became a prior and later abbot at the newly-founded monastery at Þykkvabær í Veri, the first house of the Augustinian Order in Iceland. Þorlákur was elected Bishop of Skálholt at the Althing in 1174, replacing Klængur Þorsteinsson, but it was not until 1177 that he went abroad to be consecrated bishop; the ceremony was held in Niðarós on 2nd July 1178.

He served as Bishop of Skálholt until his death on 23rd December 1193. As a bishop, Þorlákur was headstrong and determined, and played a large part in developing ecclesiastical power in Iceland. His demand that the church should have undivided control over its property and tithes, and his campaign for a reformed attitude towards marriage, aroused great opposition among the ruling class in Iceland. Reports of his sanctity began to circulate shortly after his death, and his relics were translated on 20th July 1198. Accounts of miracles associated with him were first read out at the Althing in 1199, and the anniversary of his death was subsequently adopted as his feast day. The Summer Feast of St Þorlákur, on the anniversary of the translation of his relics, was formally adopted in 1237. In the pre-Reformation period there were over 50 churches dedicated to St Þorlákur; only St Peter, the Virgin Mary and St Olaf had larger numbers of churches dedicated to them. Pope John Paul II issued a directive designating him as the patron saint of Iceland on 14th January 1985.

The Rythmic Office of St Þorlákur, AM 241 a II fol

It is not known for certain when music specifically dedicated to St Þorlákur became part of the church service on his feast days in Iceland, but the preserved Office of St Þorlákur is not older than the 14th century: the scholar Róbert Abraham Ottósson (later Director of Music in the Church of Iceland) demonstrated in 1959 in his doctoral thesis that the most recent foreign model for the melodies did not pre-date 1328.

The Office was sung on the feast days of St Þorlákur at the traditional canonical service hours: matins, lauds, prime, terce, sext, none, vespers and compline. For the most part, the services consisted of particular Psalms and other canticles from the Bible. On saints' feast days, special texts praising the saint's virtues and his good deeds were also sung, these featuring partly as antiphons to the Psalms and versicles and responses during the service. In the mass, the texts of the propers, such as antiphons to the introit and the gradual and also the hymns were adapted to commemorate the saint.

The Office of St Þorlákur is preserved on 12 leaves which ended up distributed between 25 leaves of another manuscript from the early 14th century containing the Psalms of David and other material. Árni Magnússon probably acquired all this material from Skálholt, and it originally received the catalogue number AM 241 a fol., but subsequently it was separated, most of the leaves remaining in the Arnamagnæan Institute in Copenhagen while those containing Þorlákstíðir were sent back to Iceland in November 1996. They are not as old as the leaves containing the psalter, and one leaf containing a part of a sequence is missing. They also appear to have formed part of a larger antiphonarium manuscript, but it is not known what became of the rest of it.

In the margin of one of the leaves of Þorlákstíðir is the note: 'This book belongs to the church at Skálholt, and to nobody else anno 1597'. The manuscript was probably written at Skálholt, since the scribe seem to have been the same as the scribe of the main part of the law code manuscript AM 354 fol., and he was probably active at Skálholt about the year 1400.

The bishop of Skálholt at that time was Vilkin, a Danish monk who showed initiative and enterprise in his time as bishop. Amongst other things, he 'built around St Þorlákur's head with pure silver, placing the whole head inside, unbroken', i.e. he had a silver shrine made for bishop Þorlákur's skull.

The Life of Bishop Þorlákur the Saint, AM 382 4to

Bishop Þorlákur's campaign for chastity and the position of the church lead to his beatification. He was a contemporary of St Thomas à Beckett, the English archbishop who died a martyr's death in 1170 defending the rights of the church. Many legends about St Thomas became known as his veneration was adopted throughout the Christian world, and four versions of his Life in Icelandic are preserved in medieval manuscripts. The most important of them dates from the same time as AM 382 4to, which contains the only version of Þorlákur's Life recording the events and speeches that formed part of Þorlákur's struggle to advance the interests of the church.

There is a fragment of a Latin Life of St Þorlákur dating from about 1200, or shortly thereafter; the oldest Icelandic manuscript containing his miracles dates from the same time. The Life of St Þorlákur exists in three Icelandic medieval versions of varying antiquity; all are derived from the same original and are preserved in about 17 manuscripts or manuscript fragments written between c. 1200 and 1700. AM 382 4to, which was written in about the middle of the 14th century, is the only surviving copy of the second-oldest Icelandic version of the Life of St Þorlákur. It opens with a praise poem about St Þorlákur in Latin; the Life itself opens with a prologue stating that the older version did not give a sufficiently full account of the malice that he suffered at the hands of his enemies. The account of his life that follows relates in dramatic style Þorlákur's struggle for the rights of the church; his main opponent in this was Jón Loftsson of Oddi in Rangárvellir, the most powerful figure in Iceland, who was related both to the Norwegian royal line and to many of Iceland's important scholars. The Life ends with an account of the miracles associated with St Þorlákur, related in chronological order.

The first letters of each section of the manuscript are beautifully illuminated. Near the beginning, in a capital Þ, is a drawing of a young man with high cheekbones, curly blond hair, a goatee beard, small eyes and high eyebrows. The manuscript is far from whole: many leaves have been lost from the middle and the end, and some have been cut out so that only a thin strip is left near the binding. The complete manuscript probably originally consisted of 86 leaves; now only 36 remain whole or reasonably whole, and there are fragments of another 18. The lacunae in the text can be filled in to some extent using the manuscripts of the last version of the Life of St Þorlákur. The vellum is of a high quality, the ink is thick, the script is firm and practised (the identity of the scribe is unknown) and the margins are wide. There are about 23 lines on each page. All in all, the manuscript is lavishly and professionally produced, and there is no doubt that it must have been made for a church which honoured St Þorlákur on his feast days.

Before Árni Magnússon acquired this manuscript, it was in the possession of Guðríður Gísladóttir (d. 1707), widow of Bishop Þórður Þorláksson of Skálholt (d. 1697). She was a highly respected woman, and had been brought up at Hlíðarendi in the Fljótshlíð region, the birthplace of Bishop Þorlákur Þórhallsson.

AM 382 4to was returned to Iceland on 25th May 1984.

St Þorlákur's propers, AM 241 b V fol

This vellum leaf preserves a fragment of a large and important tradition. It is derived from a manual written in the first quarter of the 13th century, i.e. not long after Bishop Þorlákur began to be venerated as a saint. Only this leaf now survives. Amongst other things, manuals contained the Latin texts that were sung in honour of the saints on their feast days. This leaf contains three such texts and the beginning of a fourth.

The first text was intended to be sung on the Winter Feast of St Þorlákur (23rd December). The other texts are connected with Christmas; thus, it can be seen that the manual followed the order of the church festivals through the year.

As very few Catholic Latin texts connected with saints have survived in Icelandic manuscripts, this vellum leaf is particulary valuable. Latin religious writings lost their place in religious observance in Iceland when Lutheranism was introduced in the middle of the 16th century and were lost; some were even burned by Protestant zealots. In most cases, the few isolated fragments that have survived have done so because the vellum was used to cover or repair other books.

The text at the top of the page reads as follows:

[thorlaci episcopi]

Deus qui hodiernam diem sacratissimam nobis in beati thorlaci confessoris tui atque pontificis solempnitate tribuisti. adesto propicius ecclesie tue precibus; ut cuius gloriatur meritis muniatur suffragijs. Per.


Sacrificium tibi domine laudis offerimus pro sancti thorlaci celebritate pontificis; ut propiciationem tuam. quam nostris operibus non meremur. pijs suffragatoris precibus assequamur. Per.


Tua sancta sumentes quesumus domine deus noster; ut beati thorlaci confessoris tui atque pontificis foueant nos continuata presidia. Per.



God, thou who hast given us this day this holy day on the feast of the blessed Þorlákur, thy confessor and priest, be merciful to the prayers of thy church so that it may enjoy thy protection for the sake of him who increases its honour with his deservings. Through [Christ our Lord. Amen.]

[The Secret]

To thee, O Lord, we make our sacrifice of praise for the feast of Saint Þorlákur the priest so that through the pious prayers of our intercessionary we may gain thy mercy, which we have not earned through our own deeds. Through [Christ our Lord. Amen.]


Now, as we receive thy sacrament, we pray thee, O Lord our God, that the protection of the blessed Þorlákur, thy confessor and priest, may be our constant defence. Through [Christ our Lord. Amen.]

Christmas in Iceland 2000 - Main Page