Where: Throughout Norway, Northern Europe
When: Originally constructed 11th Century making these some of the oldest wood buildings in the world
History: Based on Viking longship design
Famed For: Exquisite ornate wood carvings
Stave churches are unique to Norway, and amongst the oldest wooden buildings in the world. These beautiful historic buildings are a surviving record of the intermingling of paganism and Christianity in the Norwegian people as far aback as the 12th century, and only about 30 originals of these unique structures remain.
The stave churches that exist today are not the very first to have been built in Norway. These are believed to have been built in the 11th Century, but the design of construction meant that they all rotted within 100 years. The design was similar to those of the surviving stave churches, with the essential difference in constructing that has meant these slightly later buildings have lasted nearly 1000 years instead.
Things to see in the Stave churches
One of the most distinguishing features of these churches is their ornate carvings, particularly around the door frames. These carvings usually depict dragons, intertwining vines and serrated leaves. These beautiful patterns are also found inside the churches, but to a lesser extent, as the buildings were typically dark inside, the only light coming from small holes in the ceiling, making ornate decoration virtually pointless in the gloominess. The carvings themselves have little relevance to the religious purpose of the buildings, and appear to originate from the animal carvings of the Viking age, some say they even resemble an upturned Viking ship. These carvings have come to be regarded some of the most unusual and attractive traditional art work in Norway. The interiors of the buildings are, in contrast to their external decoration, very simple. They usually consist of just one large room, divided into a nave and chancel by a simple screen wall, though some do deviate from this pattern.
The three most significant Stave churches, and most worth a visit are:
– Urnes at Urnes near Sogndal in the Western Fjords, is the oldest, and has been declared a UNESCO Heritage Site. It has been standing since 1150, but the carvings on it are more likely to originate from an even earlier church, which stood on the same spot previously.
– Heddal, at Nottodden, is the largest, and just a day trip from Oslo. It also features some traditional rose painting on one of the interior walls, and extensive, attractive carving throughout
– Borgund, also in the Western Fjords, is the most visited and photographed of all 30 Stave churches, despite being a long way from anywhere. This is because it is also that has the greatest proportion of its original structure intact, though many if its internal features have been replaced over the years.
If you’re just visiting Norway for a short break and don’t have time to make a special trip to see a Stave church, there is also one in the Bygdoy Folk Museum in Oslo.
Odin: The stave churches of Norway
Detailed information on the history of Stave Churches, and details on the ones still standing
By Guilia Vincenzi