What is a Stave Church?
Most of the churches that were built in the medieval ages in Norway were stave churches. There are several different types, but common to all of them is that they have a skeleton or framework of timber with wall planks. These walls are known as stave walls. The timber framing/skeleton consists of load-bearing ore-pine posts, and were called stafr in Old Norse (stav in modern Norwegian), and from here comes the name Stavkirke (Stave church).
The first stave churches were mostly built with a quadrangular ground plan, but later on it became more normal with a central nave between two rows of columns and aisles on both sides.
Many believe that the stave churches were an adoption of the old heathen temples to Christian requirements, and connected with earlier Norse building techniques and traditions. The decorative animal motifs that are often found on this churches is connected with pre-Christian art. Many of these motifs were later replaced with Roman motifs.
In the 1100s in Norway, there were probably around 750 stave churches standing. Today only about 30 remain, but it is still almost unbelievable that even that many have been preserved. After all, we are talking wooden structures from the 1100-1300s.
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Gol Stave Church
Gol Stave Church from around the year 1200. It was moved to Oslo back in the late 1800s to become part of the Norwegian Folkmuseum. This is the only stave church to be found in Oslo. Every Sunday during the summer church services are held.
Undredal Stave Church
Undredal Stave Church dates back to 1147, and was re-built to it’s present shape in 1722. Its situated on the shore of the Aurlandsfjorden. The church only has 40 seats, it the smallest stave church still in use in all of Norway.
Røldal Stave Church
Røldal Stave Church is most likely from the early 13th century. The chancel and nave were decorated in the 1600s. The medieval crucifix at the altar, was said to have healing powers, and annual pilgrimages continued far into Protestant times. In 1844 some construction work was done on the church, and it was discovered that it might be constructed differently than a stave church. Still today, many would claim it is actually not a stave church, but built as its predecessor the Post church. Never the less, it’s a beautiful church.
Kaupanger Stave Church
Bjørn Erik Pedersen, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Kaupanger Stave Church is located in the village of Kaupanger, on the northern shore of the Sognefjorden. It was built around 1180, and the church was recently restored and brought back to the way it looked in the 1600s. The renaissance interior dates from the same period. The nave is supported by 22 staves (bearing columns), and it has the largest number of staves to be found in any one stave church.
Reinli Stave Church
Svein-Magne Tunli, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Reinli Stave Church was first mentioned in 1327, but it probably dates all the way back to the 1200s. From the church there’s a wide view of the Valdres district. The altar screen is made from a medieval madonna triptych. In 1734 there were plans to demolish the church and build a new one at another location. Luckily these plans were never carried out.
Urnes Stave Church
Micha L. Rieser, Attribution, via Wikimedia Commons
Urnes Stave Church is probably the oldest one in Norway, built in the early 1100s. It was partly built with materials from another church, such as the richly carved North portal. This kind of carving is known as the Urnes style and dates these elements back to around 1050. A Roman crucifix hangs above the arch of the chancel, and the interior column heads are richly decorated. The location is stunning, just next to the Lusterfjorden.
Lom Stave Church
Lom Stave Church is triple naved and many-columned, dating from the end of the 1100s. It was enlarged into a cruciform church in the 17th century. The chancel was decorated in 1608. Lom stave church is one of a very few remaining stave churches to still have the original medieval crest with a dragon head. The heads were most likely placed on the church to protect against evil spirits.
Ringebu Stave Church
Ringebu Stave Church was built at the end of the 1100s, and rebuilt into a cruciform church around 1630. After archaeological surveys of the ground under the church they found over 900 old coins from medieval times, mostly around 1217-1263. The church seats around 300 people.
Borgund Stave Church
Borgund Stave Church has become an icon and is one of the best preserved and most typical of the Norwegian Stave Churches. It was built around 1200 and has not been added to or rebuilt since (!). On the outside one notices the dragon heads on the gables, the carved portals, the ambulatory and the belfry. Inside, the central nave is supported by twelve cross-braced pillars. The pulpit dates from the 1500s, and the altar-piece from 1620.
Heddal Stave Church
Heddal Stave Church is the biggest one in Norway, and probably dates back to the 1250s. It’s triple naved with an apse surrounded by a covered ambulatory. The church is famous for its carved portals with floral, animal motifs and human shapes.