I have been in awe of stave churches since my first trip to Norway during high school when my relatives took me to see Fantoft stave church near Bergen.

Fantoft Stave Church_Per Nybø – VisitNorway.com.jpg

Stave churches are not ordinary churches. These mysterious, fascinating structures are built entirely of wood, including the pegs that connect them. They date back to the Middle Ages, built between 1150 and 1350, and during that time they numbered 1000 or more! Over time, many were lost to fire, torn down to build other churches, or they deteriorated and were destroyed. There are only 28 remaining, and they are all designated preservation sites. Some are still in use today as parish churches, and it’s possible to visit or even attend a service (in Norwegian, of course!). Others are open to visitors where tours are offered by knowledgeable and enthusiastic guides.

It has been said that the stave church is Norway’s contribution to world architecture, and they are amazing examples of engineering and skilled work done by hand. It’s difficult to comprehend how these amazing structures were conceived! Their designs & sizes vary considerably, but their basic structure is universal. The foundation is made from flat stones rising above ground to protect the structure from moisture. The interior frame is wooden pillars, the “staves,” from which the church style gets its name. Horizontal support beams cross over, then more staves, which determine the height of the church. The exterior is wooden planks, with a steep roof of wooden or slate shingles. The entire structure is preserved with coats of pine tar (which has an unmistakable odor that becomes more familiar with each church you visit!)

Blueprint Gol stave church Gol_stavkirke_1883.jpg

In terms of exterior decoration, some of the churches are rather plain, while others have ornate carvings depicting vines, animals, serpents and dragons. The dragons were placed to ward off evil spirits during Pagan times. When Christianity came to Norway, either crosses replaced the dragons completely, or a combination of the dragons and crosses were used since they weren’t quite sure which to trust to ward off evil.

Beautiful iron hinges and handles adorn the doors, and some interiors include carvings and paintings.

Some have pews, which were added in later years, others still have just empty space where parishioners stood. Originally, the churches did not have windows, although windows were added to some over time, and other changes were made including additions to accommodate the growing population at those which are parish churches. 

Norway’s preservation laws are very strict, and require the use of traditional materials and methods when working on any historic building. The stave churches underwent significant repairs and reconstruction to bring them to their current condition, and all require extensive maintenance to continue the long-term preservation. This demands extensive research by those entrusted with the care of these national treasures. As the churches are restored over the years, more is understood about their construction, how they were decorated, and their age. Some of the processes have uncovered beautiful artwork and artifacts, which have also been preserved. 

One thing that is significant to me is how these structures exist, just as they always have been, with communities, farms and life just progressing around them. The National Trust of Norway (Fortidsminneforeningen), founded in 1844, oversees the protection of many historical sites in Norway, including eight of the stave churches. The rest of the stave churches are taken care of by the parish or municipality. Their hard work restoring and preserving this significant history has allowed so many to marvel at and cherish these beautiful structures.

I’ve been fortunate to see several of the stave churches during my travels to Norway, and whenever I come to one, it always strikes me as truly magnificent. More than part of the landscape, they are part of the historical fabric of Norway, each incredibly unique and highly appreciated. Naturally, some just stand out, such as these: 

Gol – This church, dating to 1200, is located in Oslo at the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History (also known as the Norwegian Folk Museum). In 1884 when Gol built a new church, their stave church was moved to Oslo, reassembled and restored for everyone to enjoy. 

Urnes – The oldest and most decorated, the Urnes stave church dates back to 1130, and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It sits on a hill overlooking the Lusterfjord, and the idyllic setting is magical. With extensive carvings on the exterior, it is a masterpiece (in my opinion!)

Urnes Stave church Luster in Sogn_Per Eide – VisitNorway.com.jpg

Heddal – Located in Telemark, the Heddal stave church is the largest, and is still used as the parish church during the summer. (There’s no heat, so it can’t be used during the winter). This is an example of a church with both pagan and Christian symbols – dragons and crosses. Its size is remarkable.

Heddal Stavechurch _Vidar Moløkken – Visit Norway.jpg

Borgund – It sits in a beautiful valley, where sometimes the clouds hang low which adds some mystique. This church dates back to 1180, also with a combination of Pagan and Christian symbols. On one of my visits to Borgund, it was undergoing a huge renovation and I was given one of the shingles they were replacing. A priceless souvenir!

Borgund Stave Church, Borgund in Lærdal_Øyvind Heen – VisitNorway.com.jpg

Undredal – This is Norway’s smallest stave church, and the only white one! It’s located in the hamlet of Undredal on the Sognefjord between Gudvangen and Flåm. The interior features a carved wooden chandelier and paintings on the walls, which may date back to the date it was built. It only seats 30 in the pews.

Undredal Stave Church_FOAP _ VisitNorway.com.jpg

Why not incorporate visits to stave churches into your own trip to Norway? They’re located throughout southern Norway, some rather close to one another. Our Travel Specialists can design your self-drive itinerary route to pass by one or more of them – then you can do your own comparisons!

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