A testimony of almost 900 years, carved in timber.
No wonder these mythic churches continue to mesmerise people.
Just imagine the time it took to make all these intricately carved details.
Breathe in the scent of tarred wood when you step inside, and look for signs of the Norse gods, the old gods, that often coexist with the Christian God in the oldest churches.
There were once more than 1,300 of these wonders in Norway. Sadly, they disappeared, one by one, to be replaced by warmer, bigger and more modern churches.
Thanks to one passionate artist, the last 28 churches were saved at the last second.
The Norwegian stave churches are the oldest preserved wooden churches in Christianity. Most of the stave churches were actually quite plain, while some feature an elaborate design and complex carvings.
During the Middle Ages, immense stone cathedrals were constructed in many parts of Europe. In Norway, a similar technique was used for building in wood, although on a much smaller scale.
The churches’ wooden doors and finials are often beautifully carved. The decorations feature an intriguing combination of Christian motifs and what is often assumed to be pre-Christian Viking themes with animals and dragons.
The excellent wood building techniques and wood carving traditions of the Vikings, used in the construction of ships and houses, were further developed and are often seen in stave churches.
There are several types of stave churches, but what they all have in common are corner-posts (“staves”) and a framework of timber with wall planks standing on sills. These walls are known as stave walls, hence the name "stave church".
There is reason to believe that many stave churches were built on sacred Norse ground. In olden times, the Åsa faith did not have a house of worship and the practice of the Norse religion took place outdoors in sacred groves, by an altar, or at a heathen hov. The hov was often the great room, or the hall of the richest farmer in the village.
Once present all over Norway, today only 28 small and big stave churches remain in more or less good condition.
If you want to experience the best-preserved stave church, head to Borgund stave church in Lærdal in Fjord Norway. But you can also see some beautiful examples of elaborate stave churches in Heddal in Telemark, the reconstructed stave church at Fantoft in Bergen, and at the UNESCO listed Urnes stave church in Luster, to name a few.
A stave church from Gol was moved to the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History at Bygdøy in Oslo, where it has been restored to its presumed original form and can be seen today. You can also experience a small stave church, moved from Garmo, at the Maihaugen open air museum in Lillehammer.
These are not the only churches that have been moved over the years, however.
Stave churches weren't always as highly appreciated as they are today. By the beginning of the 19th century, most of the stave churches had disappeared. In 1851, a new law stipulated that all churches shall have enough space to accommodate 30% of the local population. Due to the rapid population growth, many of the last remaining stave churches became too small. New, warmer, and brighter churches were built, and they rapidly became more popular than the old stave churches, which were cold and dark.
This led to the demolition or sale of many stave churches between 1851 and 1890. The massive timber was often reused in other buildings. But luckily some people saw the value in these old stave churches and worked hard to preserve them.
One of the churches that was saved was beautiful Vang Church, which is the world's most visited stave church. However, funnily enough, this Norwegian church isn't in Norway at all, but is now located in Poland!
The hero of this story is Johan Christian Clausen Dahl, a painter from Bergen who became Norway's first professor of art history. He was a central figure in the creation of what is now called Fortidsminneforeningen (The Historical Preservation Society), which played a huge part in the process of preserving Stave churches. He wrote a highly influential article on the uniqueness and origin of the stave churches, and their "wildly fantastic shapes", which helped save the last remaining churches. He also introduced the history of these unique buildings to a broader audience of European art historians.
Dahl ended up purchasing Vang church at an auction and was able to convince the King of Prussia to move the church to Berlin. It was taken down piece by piece and transported south by horse, sled, and ship. A year later, the king demanded that the church be rebuilt in Lower Silesia in Poland, in what is today the town of Karpacz.
Although the church has lost some of its Norwegian heritage along the way, one thing is certain: if Dahl hadn't purchased it in his day, it would have been lost today.
Today, 28 historical stave churches remain standing. As you can see on the map below, the majority of the churches are located in the inner parts of Eastern Norway and Fjord Norway.
Most are open to the public during summer, while others welcome travellers year-round.
1. Researchers believe that there were once between 1,300 and 2,000 stave churches in Norway. 28 of these are preserved.
2. Urnes Stave Church in Fjord Norway is the oldest of Norway’s stave churches. Urnes, which is included on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, was built around 1130.
3. Heddal Stave Church in Eastern Norway is the largest of the remaining churches. The building is 29 metres high, 25 metres long, and 17 metres wide.
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