You can not come to Norway and not visit a Stave Church. It would be like visiting Paris and not seing Notre Dame, or maybe even worst, not drinking French wine 😉
Over 1,000 Stave Churches were built in Norway around the 12th century and only 28 remain today. The Borgund Stave Church is a great one to pick for a visit.
We were on our way to Flam, on the E16, about one hour from our destination, when I noticed the road sign indicating: “Stavkirke”. My goal was to visit the Urnes Stave Church as it is the one listed on the UNESCO World Heritage, but seen this sign made it impossible to not stop, so we made a turn to check it out.
The visitor center and small museum is located just a stone throw from the highway exit in a beautiful valley. From there you can already see the Stave Church, the Belfry and the ‘new’ Church which was built in 19th century. We purchased our ticket and headed straight to the church to start exploring on our own. After taking a few pictures and marveling at the church, we were joined by a group lead by a guide. I didn’t really wanted to follow a guide tour, but I couldn’t help overhearing what the guide was explaining and suddenly found myself as part of the group, fascinated by the wealth of explanation he was providing.
The Viking Era lasted from circa 800 A.D. to 1050 A.D., and was followed by an “Era of Stave Churches” as the Scandinavian people gradually converted to Christianity. Over 1,000 Stave Churches were built in Norway. Only 28 remain today. One can be found in Poland: the Vang Stave Church which was built in Norway but bought and transferred to Poland by a Prussian King.
This is truly fascinating as the 12th century is the time when cathedrals like Notre Dame were starting to being built in other parts of Europe. Gothic style was full rage and yet in Norway, as well as other Scandinavian countries, churches were built in wood, as a way to keep traditions and craftsmanship of boat building alive.
The construction of the Stave Church takes its name from the giant upright logs that form the framework of the central room of the church. The construction itself was very quick. 7 to 10 days were apparently sufficient to erect the church. But the preparation of the thousand pieces required, could take up to 10 years.
The staves for example were trees that were stripped from their branches and bark and left standing for many years. The sap would continue to flow through the tree and out to give it’s smooth appearance to the log once cut. The carving of the Saint Andrew crosses, and of the other pieces like the lintel and pilasters found on the entrance doors could also take years.
You really need to take time when visiting the church. First of all, it is very dark inside and it takes a while for your eyes to get used to this. Secondly, the appearance of the church first seems quite simple. But as you start looking around, you will start seeing the details of the wood carving, the various element of decoration like the 12 carved faces (including the one that look like an Egyptian cat and the one that well might be Thor!), or the various representation of post-christian viking fighting scenes at the entrance. You may also find yourself imagining what it was like to stand in the church during a Mass conducted in latin, smelling the incense used… Let your mind wander and marvel.
The entrance door. The only metal part used during construction
Carving of mystical animal – South door entrance
The main door with acanthus vine-scrolls on the pilasters. The side panels and door lintel are decorated with serpents and dragon-like creatures and foliages.
The museum and view of the tourist center
Sample of the wooden roof shingles.
The black color of the church comes from the tar mixture still used to protect the wood. It is insect repellant, waterproof but highly flammable due to the charcoal and oil contained in the mixture.
The dragons head on the roof act as gargoyles and are there to repel demons!
This picture shows the North entrance door. This door leads to the external gallery of the Church and faces a wall. It is a trap for demons who are not as smart as one would think: They would rush in and slam agains the wall!
I am so glad we got to visit the Borgund Stave Church as it turned out we did not manage to visit the Urnes one. A shame I know, but also a great reason to go back to Norway as soon as possible 😉
The Technical bits:
The official website: www.stavechurch.com
You need to buy a ticket in the visitor center if you want to be able to enter the church. It is obviously free if you just want to look around.
It cost NOK 80 per person, maybe a bit expensive but you need to consider that you are contributing to the preservation of the site and that alone always makes me feel like a hero to future generation!
Travelling off season is almost always so much better. There is however one downside: some places are not accessible.
It is the case for the Borgund and the Urnes Stave Churches which are open only from May to September.
The Borgund Stave Church is located right next to Vindhellavegen, a part of Kongevegen over Filefjell, recently being awarded The Beautiful Roads Award 2014. If you have time, it looks totally worth going on a hike after your visit of the church. Check out this website for more info.
There is also a replica of the Borgund stave church in Rapid City, South Dakota, United States. The official website is: www.chapel-in-the-hills.org/
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And tell me: which of the 28 Norwegian Stave Churches have you visited?