These wooden churches, named after the load-bearing timber framing (stafr in Old Norse or stav in modern Norwegian), are perhaps the best architectural examples of the synthesis of Christian and Norse technology, architecture, and beliefs as many Viking-era societies transitioned towards Christianity from the 11th century CE onwards.

The most beautiful church in Norway?

In 1868 CE, the Norwegian government confirmed what many parishioners in Sogn had known for years; they were worshipping in a national landmark. It was in that year that the government stepped in to make the local Borgund stavkyrke a national museum accessible to all the citizens of Norway. 

Built sometime in the late 12th / early 13th century CE, a time of transition in Norway from the Viking era to the medieval Kingdom of Norway, this triple-nave church is, perhaps, the most famous example of stave church architecture. Though these were so prevalent throughout much of Northern Europe during the medieval era, they now only exist (with the exception of one in Poland and another in Sweden) in Norway.

A stave church is a wooden church that derives its name from the method of construction. The timber framing used in these churches to bear loads was made of cured pinewood, and it was these posts, named stafr in Old Norse, that gave the name to the architectural style. The Borgund stavkyrke may be only one of 29 left intact in Norway, but there were, according to the Riksantikvaren (Norwegian National Archives), possibly as many as 2,000 built all throughout the country.

An architectural style dating back from late antiquity

Archaeological excavations throughout Norway have found that the stave church architectural style descended from palisade constructions which were the dominant form of construction during the early Viking era (793 CE to 1066 CE).

Developed in late antiquity, this was a form of construction where logs were split into two halves, then rammed into the earth and given a roof. For example, under the Urnes stavkyrke (constructed in the 12th century CE in Ornes, Norway) lie the remnants of two such churches built centuries before.

The problem with palisade construction, however, is that the wood, bound in earth, was often affected by humidity leading to rotting.  To solve this problem, people in Viking-era societies started to construct these palisades on large stones. The best example of this construction is the Rødal stavkyrke, believed to have been built in the first half of the 13th century CE.

What is interesting is that in Norway, the construction of stave churches seems to have been the rule, not the exception. All wooden churches in Norway, up until the reformation in the 16th century CE, were constructed using the stave construction method. At the end of the Viking era, in the 12th century CE, for example, only 271 churches made of stone were constructed. Compare this to the 900 built, in the same century, in Sweden or the massive 1800 constructed in Denmark.

An aerial view of the Urnes village and its stave church, in Lustrafjorden, Norway. Photo: Giedrius Akelis / Shutterstock

Mentioned in one of Norway's oldest written laws

The style was so common in Norway that one of the country's oldest written laws, the Old Norwegian Homily Book, written in Old West Norse, contains a sermon discussing the construction of a stave church. Written in the early 11th century, the sermon states:

If one man builds a church, either lendmann does it or a farmer, or whoever builds a church, shall keep the church and the plot in good condition. But if the church breaks down and corner posts fall, then he shall bring timber to the plot before twelve months; if not, he will pay three marks in punishment to the bishop and bring timber and rebuild the church anyway.

So why were stave churches so common throughout Norway, and yet only 29 survive today? Stave churches were often built in areas less populated, such as high valleys, fishermen's villages, or among the fjords. These areas had the building materials quite literally growing everywhere. To build a stone church, however, a town or village needed a skilled mason and to import stones from a quarry far away. Stave churches were thus cheaper and easier to construct throughout rural and regional Norway.

However, these churches, unlike later stone ones, were far more susceptible to natural hazards. Decay, fires as well as avalanches saw them reduce to only 322 by the beginning of the 19th century CE. This was further reduced to the 29 still intact as of today.

A synthesis of Norse and Christian beliefs

Stave churches were often constructed during the 12th and 13th centuries CE, a time of great social upheaval in Northern Europe. Christianity had filtered into the Germanic societies of Northern Europe since late antiquity. 

Further north, Christianity was believed to have first spread into Scandinavia sometime during the 7th and 8th centuries CE, though its widespread adoption would take, at least, three more centuries. Given that peoples living in Viking era societies constructed many stave churches, there was a synthesis of old Norse beliefs blended in with this most visible symbol of Christianity.

Many stave churches were believed to have been built on old pagan worship sites, and some scholars have argued that the layout of such churches may have mimicked older Norse pagan temple designs. Decorated carvings on many churches include Norse mythological motifs and themes, including dragon's heads, lions, and vines that are not mentioned in any of the Christian scriptures.

For those that want to tour Norway off the beaten track, consider winding your way through the beautiful Norwegian countryside, visiting each of the 29 remaining stave churches from Grip, in the North, to Gol, in the south, and down westward to Røldal. 

However, the people living in Sogn may well think that the focus of your visit should be their triple-naved 13th-century masterpiece that now houses the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Norwegian Monuments.

For more on the Urnes Stave Church and the history behind the construction and architectural style, visit The Art Newspaper website here, whilst the National Archives webpage (in Norwegian) on Stave churches is available here.

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Norway's oldest stave church, the one in Urnes, is included on UNESCO's World Heritage List. Photo: Helge Leirdal / Pixabay

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