More than a thousand years ago, viking raiders traveled the seas in their dragon boats and viking traders carried goods along the fjords. When raiders turned to more peaceful pursuits and traders found different ways to connect, what happened to the ship builders?
One thing they did was use their skills to build churches. Stave churches, they are called after the Norwegian word for stave or staff. At one time there were more than a thousand such churches in Norway.
Today, fewer than thirty still stand.
Their distinctive architecture and ornamentation offer connection to life in Norway in medieval times, and to those viking lives, as well.
To build a ship, carpenters would mark out a straight pine in the forest. They’d cut off branches and allow the tree to grow tall and its resin to concentrate in the trunk, helping the wood to become both strong and flexible. That would form the keel of a seagoing ship.
Builders did the same with the heart pine for the staves which would frame a church. There were also X-shaped cross beams in the interior of the churches which added to the strength and flexibility of the building. The form of an X also honored Saint Andrew, who is a patron saint in Norway as well as in Scotland.
Other ornamentation in a stave church comes from viking connections. Along the roof lines and over the doorways of many stave churches, there are dragons.
It’s thought that in addition to making connection to the dragon prows of ships from viking times and allowing workers to use their creative skills, the dragons may have had the same function as gargoyles had on stone churches elsewhere: to scare away evil.
Though built of wood rather than stone (wood was a more abundant resources in Norway) still, the interior architecture and ornamentation of stave churches tend to draw gazes upward, toward the heavens, just as stonework in great cathedrals does.
Stave churches do not have the light filled interiors of those buildings though.Though some stave churches have had larger windows added, most original windows were small, in the form of portholes.
Climate, resources, construction techniques, and traditions meant that carvings on doors and in the wooden interiors were a major form of interior ornament.
The carved ornamentation draws on viking and earlier Celtic roots, too. Some, such as the one at the church at Urnes, have plant and animal motifs similar to what’s been found in viking art. — and in the Book of Kells.
It’s thought that both construction and artwork at stave churches may have been done by crews of craftspeople who traveled from place to place, using their handed down skills across many parts of Norway.
Why is it that so few stave churches have survived? Three things played into the disappearance of stave churches.
Wood is a more fragile resource than stone. Though the wood of the churches was covered with tar (another technique borrowed from building viking ships) it’s subject to wind and weather damage, and to fire. The Black Death plague in the fourteenth century meant that there were smaller communities left to support parishes. Then, in the 1500s, there was the reformation. .
Yet, some stave churches have survived. A few are active parishes; some have been moved to open air museums; a few have been rebuilt; and some remain in their original sites as places to connect with this part of history.
Several stave churches which you may want to explore when it is time to travel again, and some notes about how to learn more about stave churches on line, too:
Hopperstad Stave Church has an impressive exterior, to be sure, with many levels and many dragons. It was built around 1140, and the interior was restored to its medieval spare appearance in the late nineteenth century. The interior rafters recall that ship connection.
Borgund Stave Church is one of the most visited stave churches in Norway as it is on many tours and nearby well traveled routes. It holds both original atmosphere and a pulpit, altar, and baptismal font along with painted decorations which are later additions. All this invites thought about how subsequent generations lived with these iconic structures from the past.
History is present in the church at Urnes, too, although there have been many changes. it was built in 1129. It is believed to be the oldest of the still standing stave churches and is a Unesco World Heritage site. The carvings at the church are so distinctive that they gave their name to a style of medieval art.
Especially where they stand in the original locations, stave churches are in conversation with the landscape of fjord, mountain, island, and forest around them. The small church at Grip, at the highest point of an island and surrounded by its community, is one such place.
Ways to learn more:
Stavkyrkjeeigarforum (organisation of Norwegian stave church owners), in cooperation with The National Trust of Norway offer the site stavechurch.com in both English and Norwegian. There is information about each of the 28 churches, and ways to contact those who own and/or manage them. also.
Through FutureLearn, Norwegian University of Science and Technology and Riksantikvaren/The Norwegian Directorate for Cultural Heritage offer an interesting course about how the stave churches are being preserved and the challenges in that. There’s no cost to take this course.
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