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Stave churches in Norway

Stave churches in Norway

The stave church is the Norwegian contribution to the world heritage. The building technique was known elsewhere in Northern Europe as well and became very popular in Norway. Most of the remaining churches are found here.

It is believed that between 1130 and 1350 at least a thousand and perhaps twice as many stavkirker (stave churches) were built in Norway alone. Today only 29 churches remain, 28 of them in Norway. The oldest, most decorated and most intact church, Urnes, has been inscribed by UNESCO on their World Heritage List.

This blog post provides a short introduction to the building technique, the history of the churches, and presents the 10 stave churches I have visited.

Denne artikkelen er også tilgjengelig på norsk.

Map of stave churches in Norway. It is dynamic so move around in the map as you like or expand into a new window/tab. The green pins with church icons indicate those I have been to. Click a pin to reveal basic information (in Norwegian) like name, municipality, county, year of construction and GPS-location.

 

 

The construction of the stave churches

The basic building technique

“A stave church is a medieval wooden church with a post and beam construction related to timber framing. The wall frames are filled with vertical planks. The load-bearing posts (stafr in Old Norse, stavin Norwegian) have lent their name to the building technique.” (Wikipedia)

The stave churches descend from two earlier construction techniques, of which only bits and pieces have been found underneath the present stave churches.

The “palisade” construction is known from the Viking era. They divided the logs into two, drove them into the ground and put up a roof on top.

The next technique was to place a horizontal sill under the vertical logs forming the wall. Only the corner posts would be in the ground, hence the term “post” construction technique.

The next step gradually moved into the defining characteristic of the “stave” churches. Here the horizontal sill on the bottom of the wall and the corner posts were put to rest on stones. Removing the wood from direct contact with the ground clearly increased its lifespan.

 

The stave church in a nutshell. This northern wall of Urnes shows it all: The vertical logs planted in a sill, and the horisontal sill and the corner posts resting on stones. Furthermore the wood-carved portal for decoration and the black tar on the surface for protection.

 

Types of churches

One usually divides the stave churches into two types.

The “single nave church” has no free standing internal posts raising the central roof higher than its walls. Some of them are squared, some rectangular and some in this group does have a singular post in the middle inside supporting the roof. 14 of the 28 remaining churches are of this type.

The other type is a more complicated construction and is called a “church with a raised roof”. 11 of the 28 churches have this characteristic construction. (These figures do not add up to 28 and I can’t explain the difference.)

 

Roof detail Borgund stavkirke (stave church)

 

Use of timber

The old Vikings certainly knew how to pick their timber. For the stave churches they logged (Scots) pine trees in mountainous areas. These would have been growing very slowly and were rich in heartwood, making them very hard and durable. This timber was used for the parts of the church particularly vulnerable to weather.

 

Decorations inside and outside

The stave churches are not lavishly or colourfully decorated. The most admired elements are probably the carved portals, of which the one at Urnes is the most notable.

 

Detail of ornament on Urnes stavkirke (stave church)

 

History of the stave churches

The historical period they appeared in

Norway was largely christened through influence from Britain. One often says that the last battle against the heathens was fought at Stiklestad in the year 1030 when King Olav was killed, and later sanctified. In the following years a number of churches were set up, and the stave churches as we know them today date from a hundred years after this battle. These medieval churches drew heavily on influence from Christianity but also from Celtic ornamentation and Old Norse traditions and mythology.

 

Why they stopped building them and why so many were demolished

From the beginning of the 12th century until around 1350 more than a thousand stave churches were built in Norway, perhaps as many as 2000. Then the Black Death hit the country and decimated the population. From 1348 to 1350 it is believed that 60 % of Norwegians died from this plague. A series of other plagues hit the country (and Europe) over the next 300 years as well.

This contributed to a large degree to the weakening of Norway as an autonomous country and it fell under Danish and later Swedish rule. In this situation there would be no need for more churches and indeed a number of parishes were merged as a result of the declining population.

The maintenance of the existing churches was neglected, and the Reformation from the middle of the 16th century put up other demands for churches. The final blow came in the middle of the 19th century when new regulations stated that larger congretations needed larger churches. The remaining 28 churches are all located (apart from the ones relocated to central museums) in remote and poor areas of the country, probably contributing to their preservation of sorts throughout the centuries.

It was not until late in the 19th century that the idea of preserving the stave churches as a national heritage became viable.

 

Medieval notes on wall of Kaupanger stavkirke (stave church)

 

Changes in appearance over the years, reconstruction and deconstruction

The stave church construction is simple and recognisable. Viewing the churches from the outside and inside the dominant perspective is however a different one; that of variation. Not two of them look alike, and some do not look like a stave church at all. The only common denominator is the basic stave construction.

Some churches have been removed from their original location and set up elsewhere. All 28 have been reconstructed, restored and changed multiple times over the centuries.

 

Preservation of stave churches today

All remaining stave churches are today prime national heritage objects. The Urnes stave church is also enscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List as a representative of the rest.

Quite a lot of voluntary and public efforts (and money) goes into preservation of the churches. The main idea is not to restore to a previous (original) state, but to preserve the churches as they are now, by using the same old techniques, tools and wood as they did 900 years ago.

 

Ten stave churches

In the alphabetical list of the ten stave churches that I have visited, Borgund comes first and Urnes last. I visited these two and Kaupanger in a single day on a road trip to the fjords of Western Norway in the summer of 2012.

These three churches are the only ones I have intentionally made a trip to visit. The rest have merely been places I have passed by on vacations in Norway making natural stops to see these wonderful buildings. Some of them I recalled visiting only after browsing my photo albums preparing this article.

 

My 10 out of 28 visited stave churches are, in alphabetical order:

 

Borgund

 

Borgund stave church (picture above) dates back to the end of the 12th century. It had a strategic location in Sogn og Fjordane County on the old road connecting the eastern and western parts of Norway. This is an absolutely stunning beauty. It is the best preserved of all stave churches and it looks like a stave church should.

More images (and text in Norwegian) are found in a special Sandalsand article about this church.

 

Eidsborg

Eidsborg

 

Eidsborg stave church in Telemark is from the middle of the 13th century. It is well preserved and looks good.

More images (and text in Norwegian) are found in a special Sandalsand article about this church.

 

Garmo

Garmo

 

Garmo stave church from Lom in Oppland County was built around 1150 and has been relocated to the Maihaugen Museum in Lillehammer.

 

Gol

 

Gol stave church is dated to 1212 and was moved to the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History in Oslo. A replica has been set up in Gol and another in North Dakota, US.

More images (and text in Norwegian) are found in a special Sandalsand article about this church.

 

Heddal

Heddal

 

Heddal stave church is presumed to date back to the beginning of the 13th century. It is located in Notodden, Telemark and is the biggest of all the stave churches.

More images (and text in Norwegian) are found in a special Sandalsand article about this church.

 

Kaupanger

 

Kaupanger stave church in Sogn og Fjordane was built in 1137 and is one of the oldest stave churches. It has been rebuilt and enlarged and was even painted white like other churches in Norway a hundred years ago. However the medieval construction is intact and it is regarded as a well preserved church.

More images (and text in Norwegian) are found in a special Sandalsand article about this church.

 

Lom

Lom

 

Lom stave church (picture above) in Oppland was built in the second part of the 12th century. This is one of a few stave churches with the characteristic dragon heads.

 

Rollag

Rollag stave church in Buskerud is small single nave church built in the second half of the 12th century but not much remain from that time. (I have no photo of this church, only a very old and short video clip of no public interest. Google Pics search.)

 

Røldal

Røldal

Røldal stave church in Hordaland was built sometime in the first half of the 13th century.

More images (and text in Norwegian) are found in a special Sandalsand article about this church.

 

Urnes

 

Urnes stave church in Sogn og Fjordane is the stave church that UNESCO enlisted as a World Heritage. It dates back to the first half of the 12th century. It is generally regarded as the oldest of the 28 stave churches and recognized for its very fine woodwork. The carvings are amazing.

More images (and text in Norwegian) are found in a special Sandalsand article about this church. Read also my introduction to the UNESCO-listing of Urnes.

 

Further reading

If you are interested in reading more about stave churches you can check out the sources I consulted in preparing this article.

  • Wikipedia’s articles about stave churches in EnglishNorwegian and Swedish.
  • The Society for the Preservation of Norwegian Ancient Monuments (Fortidsminneforeningen) owns and runs nine stave churches.
  • Stavkirke.info is a website in Norwegian run by a Jørgen H. Jensenius. The site has information in English and Norwegian.
  • The term “Stavkirke” in Store Norske Leksikon (Encyclopedia in Norwegian)
  • Stave churches, English language page on the website belonging to Norwegian tourism authorities.
  • The Directorate for Cultural Heritage has information in Norwegian about their restoration programme.
  • “De norske stavkirkene” by Leif Anker (ARFO, 2005) is the most comprehensive book yet about the Norwegian stave churches. It presents updated information from research, stave churches in general and gives thorough presentations of all churches – in Norwegian.

Many stave churches are set in the beautiful fjords of Western Norway. There are many more relevant articles on this blog. Read my introduction to Norway, the fjord country. These posts all have videos describing them in more detail. The videos are collected in a Norway playlist on my YouTube channel.

 

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