Stave churches (Wooden churches Norway) are an important part of Norway’s architectural heritage. Urnes Stave Church in the Sognefjord is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Norway is the only country in Northern Europe with wooden churches from the Middle Ages still intact.
During the Middle Ages, when immense cathedrals were being built in stone in other places in Europe, a similar technique was developed in Norway for building in wood. Boat construction and home building in the Viking times had developed the technique and tradition of combining art with wood working. This culminated in the stave churches.
The stave churches are a particularly valuable part of the Norwegian architectural heritage, and are considered to be of national and global importance.
UNESCO World Heritage
Norway’s oldest wooden church is Urnes Stave Church in Luster by the Sognefjord. It is also the only stave church to feature on the prestigious UNESCO World Heritage List.
Built in 1150, it was once a private church for a powerful family. Its builders were aware of international trends in architecture, and transferred these trends from stone to wood. The interior of the church is exceptionally richly decorated with motifs from real life such as elk and doves, but also imaginary centaurs and dragons. This decoration has become known as the Urnes style.
The largest stave church in Norway is Heddal. It is not only a medieval architectural masterpiece, but also a living church for today’s congregation in Notodden in Telemark. On the wall in the exterior passage, you can see runes inscribed, telling that the church was dedicated to the holy Virgin Mary.
Inside the church you can see a beautifully carved wooden chair from around 1200. The wall-painting that you see today is dated 1668. Underneath, on the west wall, there are remains of the original painting from about 1300.
However, the most visited and most photographed stave church in Norway is Borgund in Lærdal beside the Sognefjord. It is also one of the best preserved stave churches. Several runic inscriptions have been found on the church walls.
There are several types of stave churches but the common element to all of them is that they have corner-posts (“staves”) and a skeleton or framework of timber with wall planks standing on sills. These walls are known as stave walls, hence the name stave church.
The decoration of stave churches features an intriguing combination of Christian designs intermixed with what is often assumed to be pre-Christian Viking motifs, such as the interwoven dragon motifs. The wooden doors and finials are beautifully carved.