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Stave Churches in Norway

During my research for our recent Norway trip, I came across the Borgund Stave Church as a must-see sight.

What is a Stave Church (stavkirke) in comparison to the great Cathedrals, like Nidaros Domkirke in Trondheim?

The name derives from the building’s structure of post and lintel construction, a type of timber framing where the load-bearing ore-pine posts are called stafr in old Norse (stav in modern Norwegian).

Stave churches belong to a particular period in Norwegian history. Built between 1130 and 1350 when the Black Death finally brought an end to any new buildings. Approximately 1,000 of the timber Stave churches were erected but only 28 of the Norwegian ones remain. This is due to the establishment of the Society for the Preservation of Norwegian Ancient Monuments founded in 1844 to preserve the nation’s cultural heritage.

The best-preserved Stave Church is in Borgund. Although we did not visit it, we had a tour and introduction of the Hopperstad Stave Church stated to be one of the oldest and dating to around 1140.

A stave church could take up to five years to complete, as the timber has to be seasoned on the root of the tree, drawing the tar to the surface. It would then be felled and worked to form the building’s parts which could be up to 2,000 separate pieces.

The base elements consist of staves (posts) which are assembled as rigid frames then raised into the upright position. The foundation is stone which eliminates rot, as the timber has no contact with the earth. All of the components are pre-made, and the travelling craftsmen move from site to site preparing the separate parts then within a few months the church is pieced together like a meccano set. The whole church is then painted with tar to preserve the timber. The tar was not made of crude oil,but coaxed out of charcoal after a lengthy process of burning wood in artificial mounds until a black molasses would ooze out.

As the community grew a larger modern church was built and as Hopperstad was no longer used for regular worship it was sold to the society in 1880 for NOK 600 (about AUD 95).

The Hopperstad restoration was based on the Borgund Stave church adding the external gallery, that protects the outer walls and portals.

Stave church interiors were highly decorated, and we saw an excellent example at the Rodven Stave Church built about 1300.

Generally, it was standing room only in the nave, men on the right and women on the left, with the occasional inbuilt bench seating along two side walls for the elderly and infirm.

Rodven Stave church included an extra wall at the rear of the nave where convicts and lepers could view the service through holes in the wall at various heights.

At the Norsk Cultural Folk Museum in Oslo we saw the Gol Stave Church, originally built in Hallingdal around 1200. Gol Church was relocated in 1881 by King Oscar II through the encouragement of the Society for the Preservation of Norwegian Ancient Monuments.

This church has ornate wooden carvings on door surrounds and an internal altar painting.

Due to the establishment of the Society for Preservation many of Norway’s historical culture and heritage buildings are preserved and continue to be cared for throughout the country.

With thanks to information accessed from brochures, Lonely Planet and Heritage Times.eu

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