Architecture Cultural Heritage

Heavenly Design: The Stave Churches of Norway

They seem to have been designed by mythology and built by legend. The stave churches of Norway are unique heritage. When you first encounter these mysterious black wooden structures, starkly contrasting with the green valleys and the blue sky, they represent a fragile humanity within a huge and overwhelming, natural setting. Despite their unusual appearance, they are strangely at ease with their environment, like they were purposely designed to complete an almost perfect scenery. Perhaps they were. These churches were not created by architects, but by local craftsmen, incredibly skilled in woodwork. It feels as if the surrounding forest was tamed and tarred and turned into a building.

Urnes stave church

The history

The history probably goes back to the Viking age, but the earliest examples of the 28 surviving churches in Norway, date back to the 12th century. Today the churches contain a magical quality, but the medieval realities of the north of Europe were far from fairy-tale like. These were harsh times, where farmers had to work hard to scrape a meager living of the scarce bits of fertile soil. The Viking gods taught the people to face the challenges of life by putting up a tough and fearless fight, while the new Chistian god made the villagers live in a state of perpetual fear and guilt and much time was wasted to find ways to stop the man upstairs from tormenting them. It was a tough life where a God was not a close, comforting friend but a harsh master. It is not hard to imagine the poor but resolute congregation, their worn faces lit up by candlelight and the reflection of the snow outside, praying for an early spring, a good harvest, the health of a sick child.

Interior Nore Stave Church

The construction

The wooden churches have survived for centuries for several reasons. One was the idea to put the staves – which are the main supporting structure of the church – on stone foundations, thereby preventing rotting of the wood. It was also easy to replace parts of a wooden log-building without losing structural integrity. On top of that, every few years the churches were tarred to safeguard the wood against the challenging weather conditions. Over the years the wood would become more and more light and more vulnerable, indicating it was time for another layer of this protective black coating. The tar was not made of crude oil, but coaxed out of charcoal after a lengthy process of burning wood in artificial mounds until a black molasses would ooze out.

Close-up of the outside of the Uvdal Stave Church

The interior

There may once have been more than a 1000 of these churches, dotted along the fjords and forests, little beacons of light during the long months of darkness. The churches were cold in winter and the congregation had to dress warmly as they stood listening to the sermon. These were sober buildings since only later were the walls covered with colourful paintings, exotic flowers and abstract decorations inspired by European examples.

Interior Nore Stave Church

Benches were slowly introduced and each local family might have their own name and symbol carved on the sidebar. Even today these ancient names are still connected to the people in the village and surrounding farms. Women would sit separately, on the side facing north. Important families would sit closer to the pulpit. The widow of a former pastor would sit next to the altar in a specially made wooden structure away from prying eyes. The minister and the altar were difficult to see from some positions in the church, especially from the benches on the second floor, but holes were made in the wood to gain limited visual access.

Urnes Stave Church

The Lutheran Reformation in the first half of the 16th century had a decisive influence in Norway. Catholicism became illegal and Catholic property was confiscated by the state. Priests became pastors. Monasteries were deserted. Luckily many of the unique features of the churches – from the intricate woodwork re-telling ancient pagan stories to the wonderful paintings that cover some of the stave churches from top to bottom – survive to this day.

 

Detail wood carving Urnes Stave Church

Mythology

The stave churches are often decorated with incredible intricate woodwork. Roofs are lined with dragons and portals retell some of the ancient stories of the land. One such story can be found around the entrance of the Uvdal stave church.

Gunnar playing the harp with his toes, Uvdal Stave Church

The slain dragon Fafnir and his treasure is the source of much deceit and treachery. The story has many twists and turns, but one of the protagonists, Gunnar, is throw into a snake-pit by the evil Atli, which may be representing Attila the Hun. Gudrun – his malevolent sister and wife of Atli – feels sorry for him and throws him a harp. Although he is chained, he manages to pacify the snakes by playing the harp with his toes. But because this is a Norwegian myth and not a fairy-tale, one adder fails to fall asleep and kills him.

Borgund Stave Church and the 19th century parish church

The last 28

At the end of the 19th century, it was officially decided that churches should be able to house at least one third of the population. The stave churches were also considered a fire hazard as the doors traditionally opened to the inside, potentially locking in the congregation at a time of panic. In every town new and larger churches were built, and therefore the stave churches lost their usefulness. Some of them were dismantled, and parts used in other buildings, while others started to deteriorate due to lack of maintenance.

Uvdal Stave Church

Today only 28 are still with us. The church of Urnes is the only one of them to be included in the UNESCO World Heritage list. Maybe the listing could be enlarged to include all Norwegian stave churches? This might help to ensure a bright and safe future for the remaining stave churches of Norway. 

Lom Stave Church

2 Comments

  1. Mark Watson

    Yes, there should not just be one representative on the world heritage list because there are different types in different settings. There could be a case for a serial site, mostly Norwegian. Some of these look like Chinese dragons, others like longships upside down. There is one stave church in Sweden, one in Finland and a small group in Poland that is on the UNESCO list but which is v different.

  2. Thanks Mark, I agree. There is a much wider, collective story behind the history of all these churches.

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