The History of Copenhagen Contemporary Art Center

Historien om Nikolaj Kunsthal

The History of Copenhagen Contemporary Art Center

St. Nicholas Church was built in the early 1200s, and is Copenhagen’s third oldest church. The oldest churches, St Clement Church and The Church of Our Lady (Vor Frue), were in the village of Havn around Gl. Torv and were farmers’ churches. St Nicholas Church  (Skt. Nikolaj) was close to the shore, and was the church of fishermen, sailors and visiting traders. The church was named after the patron saint of sailors.

The original building was a late-Romanesque, three-winged, brick church, which was replaced by a larger Gothic building with three naves, choir aisles and ridge turrets around 1500.

In 1529 Hans Tausen was hired as priest of St. Nicholas Church, and the following year the church became the centre for the spread of the Reformation in Copenhagen. Towards the end of the century a tower was built to the west of the nave. It was completed in 1591, and is a monumental example of the Renaissance architecture that became fashionable during the reign of Christian IV. The tower’s impressive buttresses were added soon after. The ground the tower was built on was so sandy that the surface supporting its foundations had to be extended to stabilise it. The name of the architect is unknown, but it could have been the Flemish Hans van Stenwinkel.

In 1628 the spire collapsed during a storm, destroying the nave. Hans van Stenwinkel’s son, who had the same name as his father, was responsible for the reconstruction, which made the nave larger and lighter. Over the next century St. Nicholas Church was the church of the upper classes and nobility. The Danish statesman Count Peder Griffenfeld had his own seat here, and many prominent citizens were buried either in the church or cemetery. After The Church of Our Lady (today’s cathedral), St. Nicholas Church was the most ornately decorated church in Copenhagen, but almost everything was lost during the Great Fire of Copenhagen in 1795. The new spire, added in 1669, the nave, and most of the furniture and fixtures were destroyed. The congregation and priest wanted the church to be rebuilt, but with state bankruptcy following in the wake of the Napoleonic wars other buildings had higher priority. The parish was dissolved in 1805, and the congregation moved to neighbouring parishes.

This marked the end of St. Nicholas’ life as a church. The thick walls of the tower had, however, survived the fire and some years later it was taken over by the fire brigade, who installed fireguards at the top and a fire station at the bottom. The empty space where the nave and cemetery had been now housed a butcher’s market. Throughout the 1800s people discussed the square, but nothing happened until 1909 when J. C. Jacobsen, the founder of the Carlsberg Brewery, donated a new spire. A few years later Permanent Secretary Rentzmann donated the funds to build a Gothic nave – a shorter version of the one that had burnt to the ground. The new building was to house a library, city museum, lecture hall and be used for religious ceremonies, but because of difficulties with supplies after World War I, the Nutrition Council became its first occupant. The city museum was never established, but in 1922 Copenhagen Central Library moved in and had its home here until 1957. Then the Salvation Army’s helpline moved into the south chapel and stayed until 1972, and in 1958 The Royal Danish Naval Museum moved in and lived on the first floor until 1979. From 1957 the large hall was rented by the art enthusiast Knud Pedersen for his art library – something that was to have lasting consequences.

Since 1957, when Knud Petersen opened his art library, the building has played a significant role in contemporary art. During the 1960s a whole series of key avant-garde manifestations took place here, including some of the first Fluxus concerts in 1962. During the 1970s the Danish Visual Artists’ Union was affiliated with the building, and in 1981 Copenhagen Council’s Exhibition Hall – Copenhagen Contemporary Art Center today - was opened.


1261 The oldest written document referring to St. Nicholas Church.

1479 Copenhagen University’s biannual Vice Chancellor elections are held in the church until 1487.

1517 The consecration of the Gothic church that replaced the smaller Romanesque church of the 1200s

1520 The first Lutheran sermons in Denmark by Reinhardt of Wittenberg. Since the sermons were in German, not many people understood them.

1529 Hans Tausen was employed as priest and brings the Reformation to Copenhagen.

1591 The current tower is completed.

1628 During a storm the spire collapses and destroys the nave. After reconstruction the nave is larger and lighter.

1669 A new spire is erected at the top of the tower.

1670 The wedding of Count Peder Griffenfeld.

1795 The Great Fire of Copenhagen destroys the nave and spire. The cemetery falls into disrepair.

1805 The parish of St. Nicholas is dissolved.

1822 The fire brigade take over the tower.

1829 Hans Christian Andersen writes the vaudeville ’Love in St. Nicholas’ Tower’.

1843 The poet J. L. Heiberg writes an ode to the tower.

1845 Permanent butcher’s stalls are built on the square, which becomes popularly known as ‘Maven’ (‘The Belly’).

1868 A ‘clock’ where a metal ball falls down at 1pm every day is installed at the top of the tower for the benefit of ships in the harbour and people in the city.

1909 Inauguration of the new spire.

1917 Inauguration of the new nave.

1922 Copenhagen Central Library moves in.

1931 Inauguration of the organ.

1957 Copenhagen Central Library moves out. The Salvation Army’s helpline, The Royal Danish Naval Museum and Knud Pedersen’s art library move in.

1962 The first Fluxus concerts.

1972 The Danish Visual Artists’ Union take over the ground floor.

1975 A restaurant and café open in the south chapel.

1981 Copenhagen Council takes over the administration of the building. The tower and first floor are used for exhibitions.

2006 On April 1st the name is changed from Nikolaj Exhibition Hall to Nikolaj – Copenhagen Contemporary Art Center

2011 The name is changed from Nikolaj – Copenhagen Contemporary Art Center to Copenhagen Contemporary Art Center


At the bottom of the tower you can see a ‘snapshot’ of the disaster that hit the church in 1795 – the top of the 1669 spire that plunged to the ground during The Great Fire of Copenhagen. On the opposite wall you can one of the two remaining gravestones from the old church. It marks the grave of Jacob Nielsen, who was a priest at St. Nicholas Church and father to 20 children. He died in 1571. And behind the glass in the wall opposite you can see Permanent Secretary Rentzmann and his sister’s will bequeathing the funds to rebuild the nave. Under the stairs you can see an engraving of the year of the tower’s construction: 1591.

In the main hall you can see the organ built by Marcussen & Son in 1931. The organ was the first in Denmark with electric pumps, and is still used on special occasions.

In the upper gallery you can see a chandelier with the towers of Copenhagen, brick banisterswith the city arms of Copenhagen, as well as the words "Kiøbenhavns Musæum" (‘Copenhagen City Museum’) on the ceiling. Plans for a city museum here were never realised.

Outside, above the west portal of the tower, you can see a sandstone figure from the early 1900s depicting the patron saint of sailors, St. Nicholas. In the northeast corner of the church building there is a plaque commemorating the bicentenary of the missionary Hans Egede’s arrival in Godthåb, Greenland (present-day Nuuk). Hans Egede was buried in the cemetery of St. Nicholas Church.

In the southeast corner of the building there is a bust of the painter and bohemian Svend Aage Tauscher, a local and regular visitor to the art center’s exhibitions.

Rentzmann’s memorial suite and the top of the tower are only open to visitors with special permission.