Beginning in the eleventh century and continuing for several centuries wooden stave churches were constructed in Norway.
By the thirteenth century there were more than a thousand stave churches.
In the middle of the fourteenth century the plague came to Norway and much of the country was left unpopulated.
The farm my family came from about 50 miles from Trondheim was not resettled until the 1600’s.
Still the Grip church was built as late as the 15th century, and the Hedared church in Sweden dates as late as 1500.
Today only around 30 remain. In 1992 the Fortun or Fantoft church near Bergen was the victim of arson.
Several of the churches have been moved, re-erected and preserved at new locations.
The Gol church was moved and reconstructed at Bygdoy at the National Folk Museum.
Parts of others are also stored there. There is a stave church in Hedared, Sweden
and one in Greensted, Essex in England. The old Vang stave church from Valdres Valley, Norway was sold to
the King of Prussia, Fredrik Wilhelm IV, who moved it to Karkonosze (Mountains) in Karpacz Górny
(now Polish territory) and rebuilt it there.
There are replicas of the Borgund church at Rapid City, South Dakota
and at seven-eights scale at Washington Island, Wisconsin.
The replicas at the Epcot Center, Disney World, Florida and Hallingdal, Buskerud, Norway, are of the Gol church,
and a copy of the reconstruction has been built in Gol.
There is a replica of the Hopperstad church at Morehead, Minnesota. And a replica of the Haltdalen church was built in 2001 on Heimwæy, one of the Vest-manna Islands, on the site of Iceland’s first church, built by Olav Trygvasson.
The Haltdalen church was placed in the Sverresborg Museum in Trondheim in 1882-1883.
There are also plans to build a replica of the stave church in Haltdalen.
The stave construction method uses vertical posts that rest on a foundation as the
main support structure, rather than a horizontal planks or beams laid upon a foundation (as in a log cabin, for example).
The site was usually a high, open area which was conspicuous and prominent, places which bore
“the special imprint of God the creator.” These locations were often on a peninsula, overlooking a fjord,
or at the bend in a river.
The ground at the site was leveled-out and the first wooden beams were laid out in a rectangular pattern atop a stone foundation.
Next, the staves (or vertical posts) were erected.
Cross-braces were then constructed between the posts.
Bent wooden arches were also added to most churches between the staves for enhanced stability and decoration.
Finally, carvings, paintings, and other ornamentation were added to both the interior and exterior of the churches.
Stave churches were made entirely of wood except for ironwork detailing like door locks or hinges.
The wood used was specially cut and dried to prevent cracking.
The only tools used in the construction of the stave churches were axes, augers, primitive planes,
and various knives and chisels.
The planks and pieces of wood were dovetailed,
pegged, and wedged so each joint could expand or contract with the temperature and humidity, which varied greatly from season to season in Norway.
Of the churches that remain, 3 churches, and carvings, paintings, and tapestries from others
have appeared on Norwegian stamps.
Urness ~ ca. 1150
The church in Urnes was built around 1050, and is generally agreed to be the oldest stave church.
The church was declared a “World Cultural Heritage” in 1979 by the United Nations.
According to the WCH, “The church brings together traces of Celtic art, Viking traditions
and Romanesque spatial structures.”
The Urnes stave church in Sogn, built in the second half of the twelfth century, contains a 100 year older church doorway.
A four-legged animal beset by dragons is the main motif on the jambs.
On the curved upper part dragons engage in battle. Serpents and dragons entwine in writhing figures-of-eight, forming the basic element in the impressive and delicately executed composition, with its roots in Viking art.
Borgund ~ ca 1150
The Borgund stave church is the best preserved of the Norwegian stave churches – it stands more or less as it was
when it was built in 1150.
Heddal ~ ca. 1250
The oldest part of Heddal stave church, the chancel, was probably built in 1147.
This was quite a small church, and only 95 years later the church was enlarged to the present size.
It is the largest stave church in existence.
Ål Church ~ late 1200’s
The Ål church was pulled down in the 1880’s, and a new church was built on the site.
The timber vaulting above the chancel, complete with painted decorations dating from the later part of the 1200’s,
were acquired by the University Museum of Antiquities in Oslo.
Baldishol Tapestry ~ 12th Century
Two months, April and May, of the Baldishol Tapestry, from the twelfth century have been preserved,
and are now in The Oslo Museum of Applied Art.
The section which has been preserved measures 118 by 203 centimeters. It is made out of wool from the Norwegian sheep,spellsau. In some places flax has been used.
The yarn, which was dyed with vegetable dye, is red, yellow, green, or one of many shades of blue.
The fragment depicts an eleventh or twelfth century knight similar to those of the Bayeux Tapestry. Although the tapestry was discovered in an 18th century church, it is believed that it was originally hung in a stave church.
Skodvinar Church of Hemsedal ~ ca. 1207
Skodvinar Church of Hemsedal ~ ca. 1207
The Skodvinar church was built between 1207 and 1224.
It was a triple-nave church, with eight staves supporting the central nave. There were no seats except for a bench on the outer walls.
Everyone, except the old, sick, or handicapped stood. Also, by law, everyone over the age of twelve, except the sick, had to attend the services under penalty of law.
When the church was torn down in 1882, the two portals were preserved in the Museum of Antiquities in Oslo.
The carving on the stamp is from the west portal and represents one of the Three Holy Kings who came to worship the Christ Child.
The stamp was issued in 1972 to mark the 1,100th anniversary of unification of Norway by Harald Haarfager in 872.
His descendents ruled Norway until the death of Haakon V in 1319.
Hylestad Church of Setesdal ~ 13th Century
The Hylestad stave church was pulled down in the 19th century, and one of its portals is now exhibited at the University Museum of Antiquities in Oslo.
The carving on the portal shows several scenes from the legend of Sigurd Fåvnesbane.
Sigurd and Regin, a master swordsmith forged a sword with which Sigurd killed the dragon, Fafnir.
When Sigurd tasted the broth from Fafnir’s heart he was able to understand the language of birds who reveled that Regin planned to betray Sigurd. Sigurd then killed Regin and took Fafnir’s treasure.
Sigurd married Gudrun whose brothers Gunnar, Hogni, and Guttorm killed Sigurd and took the treasure.
Gunnar sunk the treasure in the Rhine. Gudrun married Atli (Attila, the Hun), who threw Gunnar into a snake-pit in
a vain effort to induce him to reveal the location of the treasure. The design on the stamp shows
Sigurd and Regin forging the sword.
I would like to thank David M. Walsten (firstname.lastname@example.org) for his help in preparing this page.
For further details I refer you to his 1994 book, Stave Churches of the World, An Introduction.