The twelve large marble statues in the church portray the apostles: Peter, Andrew, James the Greater, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, James the Less, Jude, Simon and Paul.

The biblical text

“And when he had called unto him his twelve disciples, he gave them power against unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all manner of sickness and all manner of disease. Now the names of the twelve apostles are these; The first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; Philip, and Bartholomew; Thomas, and Matthew the publican; James the son of Alphaeus, and Lebbaeus, whose surname was Thaddaeus; Simon the Canaanite, and Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed him”. Matthew 10:1-4 Thereupon they are commanded to go forth and preach to the Jews.

Their story

Jesus surrounded himself with many disciples, but it was these twelve he specifically called upon, and they were the ones that followed him to the crucifixion. After the death and resurrection of Jesus, it was also those with whom he met, and they were the witnesses to the Ascension, with the notable exception of Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him to the Roman soldiers, and later, bearing the shame, committed suicide.

In place of Judas Iscariot, the Apostles drew lots between two others. The lot fell on Matthias, who joined the group, so that they were twelve once more, because the number twelve is symbolic, adding up to the twelve tribes of Israel: “And Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel”. Matthew 19:28.

When the apostles gathered in Jerusalem, ten days after the ascension of Jesus, they were met by a forceful wind, followed by cloven tongues as of fire, which sat upon them. It was not a consuming fire, but rather the Holy Spirit which filled them, so that they were able to speak all languages.

With these new gifts the Apostles could travel out to all peoples and tell the story of Jesus, the Son of God, who had brought with him the New Covenant between man and God; salvation and the eternal life. When the Apostles are portrayed, Matthias is rarely among them, but Paul joins the row instead. Cf. Paulus [link]

How do we know of the life of the Apostles?

In the four Gospels of the New Testament, we are told how the Apostles were called to follow Jesus and their days spent with him. In the Acts of the Apostles and the letters to the Christian congregations, a little more is revealed of their background and their work preaching to both Jews and Gentiles. However, most stories are what we call ’legends’, which have come to life and have been composed during a span of many years in both local tradition and collective heritage.

The most common and widely spread collection is ’Legenda aurea’, ’The Golden Legend’, which is composed of many orally and written deliveries by Jacobus de Voragine from around 1260. Both preachers and artist drew inspiration from the Legend. Several of the Apostles were executed and suffered martyrdom due to their beliefs, and they are therefore often portrayed with the tools utilised in their execution.

The Commission

The building Commission responsible for the reconstruction of Church of Our Lady following the bombardment in 1807 wanted a decoration with twelve Apostle Statues for the church. The young sculptor H.E. Freund received the order, but simultaneously the same was requested of Denmark’s most famous sculptor, Bertel Thorvaldsen, who lived and worked in Rome. To accommodate this Thorvaldsen travelled to Copenhagen in 1819-20, and here it was agreed upon that he should receive the order: twelve Apostle Statues and some reliefs for Church of Our Lady as well as a Christ statue for the Christiansborg Castle church.

When Church of Our Lady was consecrated in 1829, all the statues (including the Christ statue) were displayed, but only in plaster. It was long thought that it would remain like this, because carving them in marble would be expensive. Fortunately, however, funds for the work were found, and in 1848 all the sculptures in marble were in place. It was also decided that the Christ statue would remain at Church of Our Lady and never made it to the Castle church. Bertel Thorvaldsen made sketches on paper as well as larger and smaller sketches in clay, but he never carried out the hard work of carving the figures in marble. He left that to his many workers.

The niches

The church’s architect, C.F. Hansen, had planned for the twelve figures to be placed in individual niches in the church’s wide wall posts. He must have been quite surprised when the plaster sculptures arrived here from Rome – because they were huge! It was briefly considered carving out larger niches, but the King approved walling up the niches and putting the Apostles on display on marble bases in front of the posts.

It is slightly unclear what went wrong, but it is probably a matter of the two artists’ different perspectives on the relationship between sculpting and architecture. The story goes that Thorvaldsen did not like his figures to be placed in sentry boxes, but in reality they could have been placed in the niches, even though they would have made a very tight fit. Thorvaldsen made no efforts to document if wrong measures were given, but wrote confidently: “It pleases me that this change has been made necessary”.

Looking at the detailed and lifelike manner in which the sculptures are crafted from behind, it seems plausible that he never planned for them to stand withdrawn in wall niches. C.F. Hansen apparently also saw the advantage of having the Apostles standing clear of the wall. It does not appear as if he pleaded his case very strongly, and he even later wrote to Thorvaldsen: “… I would wish that you saw what a marvellous impression your Apostles make, and how it torments me that I dare not hope that I see these (at least some of them) in marble, before I leave this world... ”.

The error becomes an amusing dispute between C.F. Hansen and Thorvaldsen. And when the matter of making sculptures for the front of the church is brought up, Thorvaldsen asks twice for the measures and later sends Hansen an example of the unit of measure for both a Danish foot and a Roman foot.