Stave Churches Norway

With the establishment of Christianity in Norway one thousand years ago, the culture of continental Europe gained a first foothold in the country. The meeting between the new culture and the old gave rise to impulses which made a considerable impression on Norwegian society. Church buildings tell some of the story of this cultural convergence.

Although none of the 29 Stave Churches that now survive belongs to the first generation of Norwegian churches, we now know that those built in the eleventh century – during the early period of conversion to Christianity, were closely related to the stave churches.

The earliest ones were built of wood and had walls of upright posts and planks. However, the posts were embedded in holes in the ground. This gave them sufficient stability to function as the constructive frame-work of the building, but it also caused their bases to rot. Traces of this first generation of Norwegian churches can still be seen in the form of rows of deep post-holes at archaeological sites, and decayed remains of wood at the bottom of the post-holes clearly reveal the fate of these early constructions.

Apparently, the first generation churches did not stand for more than about a hundred years. In the twelfth century the need for more solid constructions became obvious. The problem was solved by introducing sills, upon which the planks and staves rested, thus raising the walls above ground level and protecting them against rot. The method proved so effective that churches built in the twelfth century are still standing today.

It is this method of construction that has given the stave churches their name. A stave wall consists of vertical planks with their bases in a groove in the sillbeam, and their tops in a groove in the wallplate. At each corner is an upright post connected to the sill below and the wallplate above. Thus, a stave wall has a solid frame consisting of sill, wallplate, and two corner posts. This sill is filled with vertical planks. The sills of the four walls form a solid horizontal frame on which the whole church rests. The wall-plates form a corresponding horizontal frame at the top.

Many different types of stave church have been built but they have one shared feature in that all have stave walls. The most common type is a simple, relatively small building with a nave and a narrow chancel. An even simpler construction is the long church, in which the nave and the chancel form a single, rectangular building of uniform breadth under a pitched roof. In these churches the chancel has been divided off from the nave by an open wall or chancel screen.

The largest and most ornately designed stave church in Norway is Borgund church. This consists of a nave and a narrow chancel, but in addition the chancel has a semicircular extension, or apse, at the east end. However, the distinguishing characteristic of this type is that the central part of the nave is higher than the aisles. The latter must not be confused with the external galleries which surround the entire church.

External galleries were common in all types of stave churches, and are, there-fore, not characteristic of any particular type. The higher section of the nave is supported by free-standing posts, spaced about two metres apart and placed approximately one metre inside the outer walls. These separate the aisles from the central nave.

Some of the stave churches have only one free-standing post, placed in the middle of the nave and reaching right up to the roof. These central-mast churches resemble most closely the churches of a simple type with a nave and a narrower chancel, but their system of construction is more complex.

The stave churches are constructions of high quality, richly decorated with carvings. In virtually all of them the door frames are decorated from top to bottom with carvings. This tradition of rich ornamentation appears to go back to the animal carvings of the Viking age. The dragons are lovingly executed and transformed into long-limbed creatures of fantasy, here and there entwined with tendrils of vine, with winding stems and serrated leaves. The elaborate designs are executed with supreme artistic skill. The stave church doorways are, therefore, among the most distinctive works of art to be found in Norway. However, it is difficult to connect them with the Christian gospel.

The interiors of the stave churches are dark. The only original sources of light were small,round openings high up under the roof, which shed a meagre light on the lofty room. Nevertheless, the wood carvers made some embellishment in the interior. In some of the churches the posts are equipped with capitals, giving associations with the contemporary Romanesque stone churches.

The obvious wish was to decorate the stave churches in the same way as the best known stone churches of the day. The basic construction of the stave churches – so intimately linked to the properties of wood – has, however, been preserved intact.

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