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The Stave Churches of Norway

Stave Church of Norway

The "Stavkirke," or ancient wooden churches of Norway, are in their way almost unique among the ecclesiastical buildings of Europe. True, they have not the historical interest which attaches to many other buildings, but yet I think they deserve more notice than has hitherto been taken of them, both on account of their age and the curious and beautiful carving to we found on them, and also that they date from a period when the men of the north were still the terror of many a European coast.

The History of the Stave Church

It is not a little remarkable to find at the present day wooden building from five to seven hundred years old, consisting in the main perhaps of the same timbers as those with which they had been originally constructed. Here and there, of course, they have been renewed, but still there is much which we may regard as original, to attest both the skill of the builders and the solidity and weather resisting powers of the pine trees of mediaeval Norway, which for so many centuries have withstood the fierce frosts of an almost arctic winter, as well as the scorching rays of the summer sun.

The endurance of the structure is due in no small degree to a peculiar manner in which the timbers were placed. That method of building is called in Norway "reisvoerk," a word derived from the verb at reise (to raise), and a reisvoerk building is one in which the timbers are raised, or place perpendicularly, and not laid horizontally, as in later work. "Stav" is of course the same as our word staff, or stave, and the term Stavkirke is applied to churches which are built by this ancient method of reisvoerk.

Urnesstavkirke - Urnes stavkirke foto Nina Aldin Thune

Urnesstavkirke - Urnes stavkirke Photo by Nina Aldin Thune

Materials Used to Construct the Stave Church

The material used in the construction of these churches is invariably pine. Oak is only found in the south of Norway, and the beech in but one place, the famous bogeskov, or beech wood at Laurvik. If one may judge from the massive beams to be found in many of the stavkirke, the ancient pine forests of Norway must have supplied many trees like those tall pines which Milton tells us were fit to be the mast of some great admiral.

All of the parts exposed to the weather have been coated over and over again with tar of a dark red color, and this, added to the age of the timber, gives to these churches a rich, dark brown color which forms a very pleasing contrast indeed to the white paint which is almost invariably used to cover the outside as well as frequently the inside, of the modern Norwegian country church.

The external appearance of most of these stavkirke is quite unique; it reminds us of an oriental building: roof rises above roof like a pagoda, and quaint dragon heads adorn the gables. These in many instances, resemble the prows of the ancient Viking ships, like the one found buried in the earth near the seashore.

Some Old Edifices

There are still a good many of them scattered over Norway. They are not found in the far north, where stone churches are more numerous, and many of them of considerable antiquity, but in the more central parts they are still to be seen, though the number is decidedly diminishing, but efforts are being made, not without success, to preserve those already standing. The best known, but by no means the most interesting of these churches are these at Hitterdal in the Telemarken and Borgund in the Laerdal.

To These may now be specified the specimens of this kind of architecture which are preserved merely as curiosities, such as the old church of Gol in the Hallingdall, now erected in the grounds of Oscar's hall, a small royal palace close to Christiania; or the church to be seen in a private gentleman's grounds at Fantoft, near Bergen.

This latter has had a rather curious history. It is really the old parish church of Fortun, near Skiolden, at the head of the Lyster Fjord (the innermost arm of the great Sogne Fjord); but a few years since the inhabitants resolved to build a new church, and were about to sell this curious and interesting relic of antiquity for old timber, when some patriotic antiquarians of Bergen stepped in, bought the church as it stood and transported it bodily to Bergen, to the place where it is now to be seen.

The church at Borgual, though standing in its original position, is still only a curiosity, not being used for divine service, but being under the care of a Norwegian antiquarian society. The Hitterdal church is perhaps the largest of the stavkirke, but it has been almost "restored" off the face of the earth, the interior being quite modern and but little of the original being left.

The Church at Lom

The more interesting churches of the stavkirke type are to be found in the less frequented districts, and are still used for divine service. Of these we may mention Lom, in the upper Gudbrandsdalen, Urnass, on the Lyster Fjord, Eidsborg, near Dalen, in Telemarken; Roldal, on the Hankl Fjeld, and a few others. In many ways the most interesting of these are the first two named. By saying this, I do not mean that the others are uninteresting -- there are many points of great interest about them.

Lomen stavkyrkje støpul, Vestre Slidre

Lomen stavkyrkje støpul, Vestre Slidre - Lomen stave church with the bell tower, summer of 2005. Photo by — John Erling Blad

Lom for a stavkirke is large, though not so extensive as Hitterdal. It presents the same curiously raised roofs, and is of the dark red brown color usually met with in these churches. It consists of a nave, frausept and chancel. At the east end is that curious beehive like roof, somewhat the same in shape as the beautiful east end of Trondhjem cathedral, only, of course, very different in material and size. The doors are ornamented with the characteristic carving of interlaced work and dragons heads, which is always to be found in these stavekirkes.

On entering the church, you find it smaller than the exterior would lead one to suppose, and the flat roof, which was added to it in the Seventeenth century, and which covers up the beautiful pine columns and their carved capitals, makes the church look still smaller. The interior presents the appearance which it must have borne since the early part of the Seventeenth century. The choir and chancel are separated from the rest of the church by a carved wooden screen of no particular merit. The roof of the chancel is painted in very gaudy colors, and has for its subjects the baptism of our Lord and the four Evangelists.

All around the walls are curious pictures of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries, representing scenes in the life of the Savior.

Source: Bismarck Daily Tribune, Sunday, December 13, 1891 Page 4, Column 4, Bismarck, North Dakota

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