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Stave churches in Norway

A testimony of almost 900 years, carved in timber. 

Borgund stave church in Lærdal, Fjord Norway .
Photo: Anders og Magga AS /Trigger Oslo / Visit Norway
Borgund stave church in Lærdal, Fjord Norway .
Photo: Anders og Magga AS / Trigger Oslo / Visit Norway

No wonder these mythic churches continue to mesmerise people.

Fantoft stave church .
Photo: Carol Bartnik / Visit Bergen
Fantoft stave church .
Photo: Carol Bartnik / Visit Bergen

Just imagine the time it took to make all these intricately carved details.

Urnes Stave Church .
Photo: Lene Buskoven / Riksantikvaren
Urnes Stave Church .
Photo: Lene Buskoven / Riksantikvaren

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. 

Kvernes stave church .
Photo: Vilde Ulriksen
Kvernes stave church .
Photo: Vilde Ulriksen

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. 

Heddal stave church in Notodden .
Photo: Visit Telemark
Heddal stave church in Notodden .
Photo: Visit Telemark

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.

Viking heritage 

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 old Norse religion did not have a house of worship, but was instead practiced 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.

Heddal stave church coverd by snow in the winter
Heddal stave church in winter.
Photo: Vidar Moløkken – Visit Norway

Where to find the stave churches

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.

The end of stave churches

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.

Vang Church's protector

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.

A postcard of the Vang church when it was in Germany
The Church of Vang.
Photo: Postcard

Open to the public

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.

Explore Norway’s stave churches

Remaining stave churches
Borgund Stave Church is a unique example of impressive medieval architecture and is a distinctive landmark on the tourist route to Lærdal. Read more
Borgund Stave church
Charming, small stave church. Located by West Telemark Museum in Eidsborg. Read more
Eidsborg Stave Church
The old stave church was built in Fortun in Sogn in 1170 and moved to Fantoft in 1883. Fantoft Stave Church has now been rebuilt as it was before the… Read more
Fantoft Stave Church
Flesberg stave church dating back to approximately 1150-1200, this church are famous for interior decorations. Church services are still held in the… Read more
Flesberg stave church
Located at the top of the hill near the entrance to Maihaugen Open Air Museum, the stave church is the most striking building at the museum. Read more
Garmo Stave Church
Gol Stave Church, which is in the mediaval park Gordarike, is a true copy of the Gol stave church built in the 1200s. The copy was built in the 1980s… Read more
Gol Stave Church
Grip Stave Church is located on Grip, a small island 14 km out to sea from Kristiansund on Nordmøre. There is a boat to Grip in the summer season from… Read more
Grip stave church
The Hedalen Stave Church may be the oldest of its kind in Valdres today. It comprises an unusual amount of catholic items and among these a reliquary.… Read more
Hedalen Stave Church
Visit the magnificent Heddal Stave church in Notodden - the largest wooden stave church in Norway. Read more
Heddal Stave Church
The Hegge stave church dates back to 1216 and celebrated its 800th anniversary in 2016. The church is still in use as a parish church in the… Read more
Hegge Stave Church
The richly decorated Hopperstad stave church in Vik would have been lost but for the intervention of cultural conservationists, who managed to save it… Read more
Hopperstad Stave Church
Høre Stave Church is rich in dragon and lion carvings from the Middle Ages, and among these are two beautiful portals. What used to be the… Read more
Høre Stave Church
Its size and numbers of posts is what makes Kaupanger stave church stand out from other stave churches, as well as its interior. Read more
Kaupanger Stave Church, Sogndal
Experience Kvernes Stave Church in Averøy, a 30 min drive from Kristiansund and The Atlantic Road. This is Norway's only stave church built after the… Read more
Kvernes Stave Church
Lomskyrkja – the church in Lom - is one of the biggest and most beautiful stave churches in Norway. Read more
Lom Stave Church
Lomen Stave Church is believed to date back to around 1192. The oldest coin found is from King Sverre`s era 1177-1202. In 1750, the church was… Read more
Lomen Stave Church
Nore Stave Church Nore Stave Church is located in Nore and Uvdal municipality in Buskerud. Nore Stave Church was built according to an architectural… Read more
Nore Stavkirke
Reinli Stave Church dates back to around 1326. Prior to this, the site has been home to two other churches. The only remains left of the first… Read more
Reinli Stave Church
Ringebu Stave Church dates back to around 1220, and is one of the country's 28 remaining buildings of its kind. Read more
Ringebu Stave Church
Rollag Stave Church The church is located a few kilometres north of the centre of the village Rollag. It was probably originally built in second half… Read more
Rollag Stave church
Rødven Stave Church is beautifully situated by the Romsdalsfjord with the Romsdal Alps in the background, 34 km outside Åndalsnes center and well… Read more
Rødven Stave Church
Ål Stave church was erected around 1170 and demolished in 1880. The stave churches are a wooden building with a carrying construction of poles.… Read more
The old Ål Stave Church site
Undredal Church is built as a stave church in 1147 and was called St. Nicholas Chapel. The church has white clapboard sidings and is the smallest in… Read more
Undredal Stave church
Urnes Stave Church , the oldest of Norway's stave churches, is included on UNESCO's World Heritage List. It was built around 1130 AD, but the… Read more
Urnes Stave Church
Uvdal Stave Church, as it stands today, does not have its original appearance but is a result of steady expansion and modifications until the 1800s.… Read more
Uvdal Stave Church
The Ål Stave Church dated from the latter part of the 12th century was richly decorated at the time of its demolition in 1880. The main doorway… Read more
Ål Stave Church Museum
Øye Stave Church was probably built towards the end of the 1100s. Its original location was in the fields facing Vangsmjøsa. This was an… Read more
Øye Stave Church
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