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Destination: the Borgund stave church, and 7 more stave churches for your bucketlist

If you're here for the list, scroll straight down. Might you be keen on a small history lesson; hold the line!

The notion that Christianity pioneered the art of marketing holds some truth. Globally, the unconventional church gained ground by interweaving local folklore, myths, and symbols with Christian elements, facilitating the conversion of local populations.

This trend was not exclusive to Scandinavia, where the rugged landscapes of Norway gave rise to a distinctive approach to church construction. The wooden structures, named for their unique vertical posts or "staves," were once prevalent across northwestern Europe. With steep roofs adorned by dragon heads and intricate carvings, stave churches reflected a fusion of Christian and Norse pagan influences.

Norwegian stave church

Stave construction, characterized by vertical wooden columns connected by horizontal elements, defined these churches. While the extensive use of wood posed preservation challenges, it also contributed to their aesthetic appeal. The roofs, often steeply pitched with overhanging eaves, featured decorative ridge ornaments and dragon heads, adding a touch of Norse mythology. Elaborate carvings on portals depicted religious scenes, mythological figures, and intricate patterns. Some stave churches adopted a cruciform floor plan with multiple naves, enhancing their visual and symbolic significance. During the early Middle Ages, stave churches flourished in Scandinavia, particularly in Norway, serving as places of worship and community gatherings.

Most existing Norwegian stave churches were built between 1150 and 1350. It's estimated that as many as 1000-2000 stave churches were constructed during the medieval period, likely found in nearly every village in Norway. In contrast, only 271 stone churches were built during the same period, with 160 remaining today. Comparatively, Sweden boasts 900 and Denmark 1800 medieval stone churches. Provisions in the Frostating Law and Gulathing Law suggest that stave construction was the norm, despite the Catholic Church's preference for stone. Before the Reformation, all wooden churches were constructed using stave techniques, with only one or two small churches possibly built with timber framing. Timber framing, introduced around the year 1000, was a younger technique in Norway than stave construction. Stave construction remained largely unaffected by timber framing techniques.

The majority of stave churches were situated in less populated areas, such as mountain valleys, forested regions, fishing villages on islands, and smaller fjords. Stone churches were prevalent in cities, along the coast, in wealthy agricultural areas, and in the largest church parishes in fjords on the Vestlandet. Few new churches were built in Norway during the 1400s and 1500s. By the mid-1700s, most Norwegian stave churches had disappeared, replaced by churches constructed with timber framing. Some stave churches underwent modifications or expansions in the 1600s and 1700s, such as the conversion of Flesberg Stave Church into a cruciform church with a timber framing extension. Fires, storms, avalanches, decay, and the need for larger spaces led to the demolition of most stave churches to make way for new constructions. In 1650, around 270 stave churches remained in Norway, but 136 disappeared in the following century. By 1800, 95 stave churches still stood, and over 200 former stave churches were known by name or through written sources. From 1850 to 1885, 32 stave churches were lost, with only Fantoft Stave Church disappearing since then.

If you've been following my previous blog posts, you may have read about Luster and its surroundings, home to the Urnes Stave Church. Regarded as the oldest preserved stave church in Norway, it was constructed around 1130, potentially incorporating parts from the 11th century. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, its original stave construction and intricate carvings, blending Christian and Norse motifs, offer a glimpse into medieval wooden architecture. Despite its diminutive size, it sparks a wealth of imagination.

There are approximately 180 standing stave churches today, with the following list featuring the most prominent ones. I added links to Google-maps for easy location marking in anticipation of your epic road-trip through Norway ;).

  • Urnes Stave Church: Ornes, Luster municipality - Oldest preserved stave church with intricate carvings blending Christian and Norse motifs.

  • Borgund Stave Church: Borgund, Laerdal municipality - Well-preserved with a distinctive triple nave design, dragon heads, and decorative carvings.

  • Heddal Stave Church: Notodden municipality - Largest stave church in Norway, featuring an impressive size and intricate carvings.

  • Kaupanger Stave Church: Sogndal municipality - Modest in design but historically significant, dating back to the 12th century.

  • Hopperstad Stave Church: Vik municipality - Richly decorated portal and intricate carvings, dating back to the 12th century.

  • Gol Stave Church: Gol municipality - Reconstruction showcasing a blend of stave church and Gothic architectural styles.

  • Torpo Stave Church: Aal municipality - Reflects medieval origins and preservation efforts, with influences of both stave church and Gothic styles.

  • Lom Stave Church: Lom municipality - Unique combination of Romanesque and Gothic elements, one of the largest stave churches in Norway. When going to Lom, have a look at the article I wrote previously.

If you find yourself in Oslo, you also have the opportunity to see a stave church. In the late 1800s, the stave church from Gol was deconstructed and resurrected in what is now the Norwegian Folk Museum on Bygdøy, Oslo.


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