The stave churches are Norway’s unique contribution to the world architecture. Their distinctive design and construction represent some of the finest creations of the Norwegian Middle Ages.
Stave churches are concentrated om North-West Europe. However, aside from Hedared Church in Sweden and Greensted Church in England, the most interesting and best- preserved examples are located in Norway.
Stave churches are characterized by the “staves,” or thick wooden posts, that hold them up. Using the same woodworking prowess that made the Vikings such adept shipbuilders, traditional stave churches were often built using nothing more that expertly crafted joints and joins, with no nails or glue. The only stones used were in the base of the structures.
Visitors spending time in Norway can see some of these beautiful stave churches throughout the country, most of which date from the 12th and 13th centuries. The stave churches that have been preserved to date are, however, by no means identical. They consist of different types: built at different times, by different types of craftsmen and at differing levels of ambition.
Today there are only 28 remaining stave churches from this era, all of which are in Norway:
Haltdalen (vist Sverresborg Trøndelag Folk Museum, Trondheim)
Garmo (visit Maihaugen, Lillehammer)
Gol (Visit Norsk Folkemuseum, Oslo)
During the thirteenth century, the Kingdom of Norway was at the height of its powers and had its own archbishopric, with its seat in Trondheim. At that time there were still just under a thousand stave churches, spread over most of the country. In all, it is thought that the country had over two thousand churches.
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Today, there are only 28 left. Most of these are to be found in the inner part of Eastern Norway and in Sogn.
Standing as striking reminders of the early days of Christianity in Scandinavia, these churches are a sight to behold. Take a look at some of the most beautiful stave churches ever cobbled together.
The largest stave church in Norway
The largest of all stave churches in Norway is Heddal Stave Church. Heddal was constructed in the beginning of the 13th century, and its origins have some unusual roots. Legend says that the entire church, an enormous structure by stave standards, was built in just three days by five local farmers. Whether or not that is true, it adds intrigue to the church. Heddal’s exterior was restored in the 19th and 20th centuries, and its interior had serious changes under Lutheran control in the 16th century.
The best-preserved stave church in Norway
Arguably one of the best-preserved stave churches in Norway is Borgund Stave Church. Built roughly between 1180 and 1250, Borgund Stave Church has what is known as a basilica layout, and it has several tiered, overhanging roofs. Since the late 19th century, the church hasn’t been used for religious purposes, but it is now a museum for the public. Of particular note for visitors are the inscriptions found on the wall, which are believed to date back to the 13th century.
The stave church on the UNESCO World Heritage List
Surrounded by picturesque beauty, including fjords and lush green fields, stands the 12th century Urnes Stave Church. Since it is one of the earliest stave churches, it serves as a link between the Viking religions and a more Western Christianity. The church is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. There is a lot of animal imagery, some of which comes from the Bible and some of which comes from Norse mythology. The church is not used for regular services, but locals still have weddings and baptisms in the unique structure. The church receives approximately ten thousand visitors per annum.
One of the oldest stave churches in Norway
Outside the tiny village of Vikøyri, you’ll find Hopperstad Stave Church. Constructed in the beginning of the 12th century, the structure is one of the oldest stave churches in Norway. By the 19th century, however, the church was abandoned. Even some of the wood siding was removed from the building. Thankfully, the church was purchased and restored. The triple nave is still an important feature, as is the altar dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
The most traditional looking stave church in Norway
The 12th century Reinli Stave Church in Oppland County is likely the third structure to have stood in that exact spot. While that isn’t unusual, what is definitely uncommon is that the previous structure was a pagan building. The Reinli Stave Church looks more traditional than some other stave churches in Norway, but it is still a wonderful glimpse into the past. In the 20th century, some renovations updated the building, adding in things like electricity, lights and heating.
In continuous use for more than 800 years
The 12th century Kaupanger Stave Church has been in continuous use for more than 800 years, which makes it a great example of local culture, history and heritage. It has a large number of staves, or weight-bearing columns, which sets it apart from other older churches in Norway. In the 19th century, there were drastic renovations to the Kaupanger Stave Church. Thankfully, however, most of these unattractive changes were undone in the 1960s, creating an image of the church that more accurately reflects its medieval origin.
Both a museum and a functioning church
Røldal Stave Church is unique in that today, it serves as both as museum and a functioning church. On two Sundays each month, parishioners gather in Røldal Stave Church for services. The rest of the time, the 13th century structure is open to the public and preserved as a museum. Inside the church, wooden sculptures dating to the 13th century depict biblical stories like the Virgin Mary with child and the Archangel Michael visiting Earth.
One of the smallest stave churches in Norway
In the year 1147, the Undredal Stave Church was constructed in the small village of Undredal, which is situated right on the banks of the Aurlandsfjorden. This church is one of the smallest of its kind still operating in Norway. It has just 40 seats, and the floor plan of the building is a scant 4 by 12 meters (13 by 39 feet). Like many of the medieval stave churches, Undredal has been relocated several times, often with minor changes made along the way.
The most replicated stave church in Norway
As the name suggests, the Gol Stave Church was originally located in Gol. Today, however, this stave church is found at the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History in Oslo. The entire structure was to be replaced a century ago to make way for a new church, but King Oscar II decided to preserve it. The unusual design, with multiple pitched roofs, is so impressive that multiple replicas have been made. There is even one found in North Dakota, America!
The farmers’ stave church
The Flesberg Stave Church is located in Buskerud County, and was constructed toward the end of the 12th century. The church was renovated in a significant way in the middle of the 18th century. As a result, little of the structure is entirely original. What makes Flesberg Stave Church particularly interesting is the slate fence surrounding the building, which has iron rings attached to it. Historically, each ring belonged to a local farmer and was where he would tie his horse when in church.
A book on the Norwegian stave churches
The book The Norwegian Stave Churches presents all 28 stave churches in Norway as well as Vang Stave Church, which was purchased by the King of Prussia in the mid-1800s and was later rebuilt in the former German province of Schlesia, now a part of Poland.
Norwegian stave churches
These medieval churches were notable for mixing Christian iconography and pagan designs like dragons and animals, giving them a distinctive look found nowhere else in the world.
Norwegian Stave Churches, compiled by Tor Kjolberg