Stave Churches

While watching a television documentary about Norway recently, I got my first glimpse of a stave church, having never seen one or even encountered the name before. I found the structures, their decorations, and their history to be quite fascinating. Some further research was clearly called for.

A stave church is a medieval wooden church, named after its load-bearing corner posts (stafr in Old Norse, stav in Norwegian). Upwards of 2,000 stave churches once existed in Norway, and similar churches were quite common hundreds of years ago elsewhere in northern Europe, especially in Sweden and Denmark (the Transylvanian wooden churches of Maramureş also share some design elements). While this style of church quickly became obsolete elsewhere in Europe, they continued to be built in Norway. Many have been destroyed over the centuries, but around 28 remain intact, all but one in Norway (the other is in Sweden, although another Norwegian one was moved to Poland during the nineteenth century). They are the only surviving medieval wooden churches in northern Europe. Some modern copies have been built as well, in places ranging from Iceland to the United States.

Christianity was introduced into Norway during the reign of St Olav (1016-30), and very often stave churches emerged on the sites of earlier churches built around that time. Initially the old palisade form of construction was used, in which logs were split in two, driven into the ground, and given a roof (many post holes from such buildings have been found). Prominent locations, very often on a fjord or peninsula or river, were typically chosen as locations. Eventually the posts that give the stave churches their name were put on top of large stones, which helped prevent rot and made them much more durable. Later those stones became a true foundation, with posts and a framework of vertical timber wall planks standing on sills laid over the stone. Pretty much the only tools used to build the stave churches were basic axes, augers, planes, knives, and chisels. The pieces of wood were dovetailed, pegged, and wedged so that the joints could expand or contract with temperature and humidity changes.

Stave churches are nowadays dated by their style, radiocarbon dating, dendrochronology, or historical records and inscriptions. Those that survive date from as early as the mid twelfth century to as late as the fifteenth, although most were built in the late twelfth or early thirteenth centuries. Creation of the churches was virtually ended by the arrival of plague, the Black Death, around 1350. Obviously these churches were being built at the same time as the great European Gothic stone cathedrals. But Norway, with its longstanding traditions of boat and home construction in wood, went in a different direction.

Some stave churches had freestanding internal posts (Type B), and some didn’t (Type A). Some also had outer galleries attached to the walls. Single nave churches had square naves and choirs. Long churches or Langkirke were more rectangular. The simplest stave churches had only a nave and chancel. Larger ones were sometimes cruciform (cross-shaped), and included an ambulatory and apse. As can be seen in the surviving stave churches, the interiors tend to be quite dark, the only sources of light being small, round openings up by the roof. One of the most intriguing and best-known aspects of the stave churches is their decorations, on door frames, interior posts, and elsewhere, which often combine Christian symbolism with what is thought to be pre-Christian Viking motifs.

Perhaps the best preserved, and most photogenic, of the surviving stave churches is the Borgund church in Lærdal, by the Sognefjord. Built between 1180 and 1250, with some later additions and restorations, the church takes the form of a basilica, with small side aisles, a raised central nave surrounded by an arcade, and an ambulatory that runs into the chancel and apse. As is frequently found on stave churches, there is an additional outdoor ambulatory that runs around the building under a shingled roof. The ceiling is held up with “scissor beams,” a pair of supports that cross each other in an X shape, held up from beneath by a bottom truss. The original roof would have been covered with boards running lengthwise, but in later times wooden shingles became more commonplace.

The distinctive tiered, overhanging roofs are topped with a tower. Four dragon heads, similar to those found on the prows of Viking ships, top the roof gables (while the current dragon heads probably date from much later, they are similar to those found on other churches of the medieval period). The carved ridge crests, with their vines and vegetation, are probably original. The altar and lectern likely date from the seventeenth century. Otherwise there is little to be found inside, partly due to the use of the church for Protestant worship in later centuries. The beauty of the Borgund church has led to the building of several replicas elsewhere in Norway and in Germany, as well as a pair in the United States (in Rapid City, South Dakota and Washington Island, Wisconsin).

Dating from very early in the thirteenth century, Heddal church in Notodden is the largest stave church in Norway, and still functions as a church for the local congregation. Runes on the walls indicate that the church was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. A wooden chair from around 1200 can still be seen there. Paintings around the walls are mostly a bit later, from the seventeenth, but a few remnants of the thirteenth century originals can still be seen.

Some restoration took place after the Reformation, in the mid sixteenth century, and more in the 1950s. According to legend, five farmers had the original idea for the church. One of the farmers met a stranger who agreed to build the church in three days if the farmer could guess the stranger’s name. Stymied, the farmer took a walk on the night before the third day, and he heard seemingly from nowhere a lovely song that told him that the stranger was a mountain troll called Finn who was also responsible for the creation of other churches.

Urnes stave church in Luster, Norway, on the north bank of the Sognefjord, is the only stave church to be named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Perhaps the oldest of all the stave churches, it was built somewhere between 1130, originally for a single powerful chieftain and his family that lived near there, and features wonderful decorations – doves, elks, snakes, and even fighting dragons and centaurs, often entwined within elaborate foliage – on the inside. So distinctive are these carvings that they are now known as Urnes style.

The interior is an intimate space with mostly seventeenth century furnishings and a number of medieval carvings, including a portrait of a pilgrim on a capital. The cushion capitals, as well as the columns and arches, are an adaptation of those found in Romanesque stone churches elsewhere in Europe. The bishop’s throne is also medieval. A carving suspended above the nave of a Crucifixion scene is thought to represent the oldest Christian figures in Norway.

Photo credits
Deer detail from Urnes church by gari.baldi
Borgund Stave Church by Agnieszka
Acanthus stave church portal by saamiblog
Dragons from Lom by gari.baldi
Urnes church from the Seize the Day blog

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3 thoughts on “Stave Churches

  1. These stave churches are really fascinating and neat to look at. I had not known about them so thanks for the post! I have relatives in Norway and must go check these out.

  2. Pingback: The Thirty-Two Minutes Top Ten List! | Thirty-Two Minutes

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