Stave churches are wooden churches from the Middle Ages, located in Scandinavia (mostly in Norway). Ok, we’ve cleared that up; so, what is so unique about stave churches and why should you see them? There is more than one thing. First, they are entirely built out of wood and built in the 12th and 13th centuries, making them an amazing feat of survival in and of themselves. Second, the stave churches are a unique combination of local architecture, with singularly their Norwegian decorations and framework, Christian and Viking designs, the fascinations of the Runic alphabet (the Viking’s alphabet) and a certain Romanesque spatial outlook to the entire construction. A final reason to see them (while you still can) is that there are not many original stave churches left in the world: from a total of around 1,000, there are only around 25-30 churches to still be enjoyed today.
The architecture of the stave church differs depending on its size. The smallest churches are simple, with one nave and a roof with wooden shingles that rests directly on the walls. As the church gets bigger, the design is more complicated as well. The Borgund Stave Church, for example, one of the best preserved and well-known, has an area in the middle with a higher ceiling and an aisle that surrounds this part. The roof is supported by pillars around this central area. The Borgund Stave Church should be one of your stops on the tour: other than the intricate design of the roof and the fact that it is very well preserved (it still stands in its original form though it was built around 1150), it is a great example of the mixture of Christianity and Paganism in these parts. Several rune inscriptions, a reminder of Pagan times, read “Ave Maria” or “Tor wrote these runes in the evening at the St. Olav’s Mass”.
The stave church of Urnes is also an interesting stop in your stave churches tour, if only because it is the oldest stave church in Norway. Not as architecturally impressive as the Borgund Church, it compensates with some unique architectural innovations for the time, such as the use of semicircular arches (trust us: it is really more difficult to make these out of a solid piece of wood) and impressive capital structures with cubical terminations. Viking and Pagan traditions are obvious here as well, notably in the sculptural work on the outside of the church. Don’t miss the view of the entire surrounding landscape, taking you back to medieval times in its simplicity and beauty.
The largest stave church is in Heddal. So large it looks like a castle. Built in 1250, it was restored several times throughout history, including once in the 20th century, which makes it a very well conserved construction. The legend has it the church was built in three days by five brothers (quite a feat, if you think of it). Even some of the new stave churches, like the Church of St. Oluf, are worth a visit, at least to see how the modern architects were able to continue medieval traditions.
The stave churches are unique in their architecture and their capacity to withstand centuries. Because they are so amazingly well preserved, visiting a number of stave churches is like stepping back into medieval times – you can almost see the knights and fair maidens walking through the doors and hear the lyricist play.
Max Manus is a famous Norwegian resistance fi ghter from World War II. So famous that a movie with the same name was made after his experiences in the war. A living James Bond…