Norway’s Stave Churches

Thursday, 14th June 2012 by

Stave churches are a type of medieval wooden place of worship that were once common across Europe. Today however, Norway is the only country where more than a single example of a stave church has survived into the 21st century1. With a wide variety of styles, from large and ornate to small and plain, Google Street View allows us to take a tour of these ancient buildings. We begin with the oldest surviving example - Urnes Stave Church.

Dating to around 1130, this church sits on a hill above the scenic inner arm of the Sognefjord. The Street View car ventured along a narrow, unpaved farm track to show just how beautiful the location is.

The next church on our tour was last in regular use in the late 19th Century, at which point the parish in the village of Urnes was merged with another community. Well preserved since then, it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1979 for its outstanding Scandinavian wooden architecture and combination of Christian, Celtic and Viking traditions.

The largest stave church can be found in Heddal, to the south-west of the capital Oslo. Still used today, the church originally dates to the early 13th century, although it was extensively restored in the middle of the 19th century, and again a hundred years later.

The Street View trike toured the path around the church, giving us close-up views of its fascinating construction.

Of particular note are the ornate decorations around doorways and the immense wooden beams at the corners; "stave" comes from the Norwegian word stav, which describes the wooden posts used in their construction.

Experts generally consider the Borgund stave church to be the best preserved, and ongoing work is needed to keep it that way - when Google visited in the spring of 2011 scaffolding surrounded the exterior.

This twelfth-century church is noted for the four beautiful dragon heads which soar above the roof. There is a replica of the Borgund church in Rapid City, South Dakota, and another in Norway's second city, Bergen, which was rebuilt in 1997 after it was burned down by black metal supporters.

Replica of the Borgund church in Rapid City, South Dakota

Two of the smallest stave churches are found in Øye and Undredal, though they are very different in appearance. The plain wood Øye church dates to the 18th century, though during restoration work about 80 years ago, boards from the original 12th century church were discovered and used in the rebuilding.

In Undredal the tiny 12th century church[^2] has space for only 40 worshipers. It has been extensively modernised, with little remaining of the original construction.

At least a couple of stave churches have deteriorated to the point where they have to be propped up by planks - those in Rødven and Kvernes. Hopefully restoration work is planned for them.

One of the most visited stave churches is in a suburb of Oslo. Originally built in Gol (north-west of the capital), the church now stands in the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History in Bygdøy. We can catch a glimpse of it through the trees beyond the spectacular entryway.

To wrap up, here are the other stave churches that I was able to find on Street View, beginning with a few lovely snowy scenes:

Rollag (12th century, rebuilt in 17th and 18th)

Hedal (12 century, expanded in 17th or 18th)

Reinli (13th century)

Høyjord (11th century)

Høre (12th century, rebuilt in 19th)

Eidsborg (13th century, rebuilt in 19th)

Lom (12th century, rebuilt in 17th)

Ringebu(13th century, rebuilt in 17th)

Kaupanger (12th century)

You can learn more about Norway's stave churches at Wikipedia and the Visit Norway tourism site.

  1. There's one stave church in Sweden, another in Poland that was moved there from Norway, and finally a church of purportedly similar construction in England that bills itself as "the oldest wooden church in the world". ↩︎