Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
A trip to Norway is not complete without visiting Norway’s unique contribution to the world architecture. Thanks to some excellent open-air museums or reconstructions, it is possible to see them in Oslo, Bergen or Trondheim. However, travelling through rural Norway to visit some of the finest remaining stave churches is an unforgettable experience! To decode stave churches and learn some fun facts, check this article out!
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1. Heddal stave church: the largest
The large stave church seems to be reaching for the sky with its many roof surfaces and carved dragons heads. We get closer. We come in through a narrow entrance surrounded by three dozens of wood-carved dragons and snakes, warding off evil spirits from entering Norway’s largest stave church. Inside, Halvur welcomes us, dressed in Viking clothes, to proudly show us this cultural heritage in which sagas, Vikings and Christianity meet.
A bit earlier on, he was taking part in an animate fight against the Norse mythological Sigurd in front of Heddal Stave Church. The story felt familiar: Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings have contributed to diffuse it beyond Northern Europe. As he is pointing it out to us on the wooden bishop chair dating back to the 1250s, the hugely popular saga of Sigurd, the dragon slayer was integrated in the Catholic church. Despite masses being told in Latin, the new belief was trying to fit in the local folklore to anchor itself in a similar fight between good and evil, making Catholicism more accessible.
Halvur shows us the oldest part of the church in the choir, dating back to 1150. Today, 30% of Heddal Stave Church is still original, including one of its staves. Of the initial medieval paintings depicting Catholic saints, a painted shoe remains sticking out of the sixteenth-century reformation floral motifs covering up every wall.
By the river, Heddal was a settlement with a timber industry, good agricultural land, and a growing community where this masterpiece of timber engineering was erected. Today, barely a few farms remain around Heddal Stave Church, that it is still used as a parish church in the summer by the local Lutheran community.
- Make sure to book your ticket for the show in which Sigurd slays the dragon and enjoy a homemade lunch afterwards with local products.
2. Eidsborg Stave Church: the most original
Walking through the open-air museum by the West Telemark Museum, we walk towards the most charming building: the small Eidsborg Stave Church. It looks rather simple from the outside, all covered in no less than 17,000 shingles! Built around 1260 by local people as a typical village church, it is indeed one of the smallest remaining stave churches measuring only 30 square metre inside. If its decoration is rather humble, everything here is original, including its 1150 wooden crucifix! Only a floor and some lights were added, as well as the copy of its patron Saint, Nicolas (its original is in the folk museum in Oslo).
As an important whetstone production centre exporting all over the known world, Eidsborg’s Church was logically dedicated to the stonemason’s patron saint. The wooden sculpture became a cult icon and this strong tradition, Catholic and pagan at the same time, survived the reformation until 1750. Today, for the summer solstice, this tradition is played and Saint Nicolas is taken around the church three times, then to the nearby lake to wash him, before touching him as the sweat from the wooden sculpture is supposed to make wishes come true, have healing power and cleanse sins.
- Plan for enough time to visit the excellent West Telemark Museum that is also onsite!
3. Urnes Stave Church: the UNESCO World Heritage site
Instead of taking the ferry to get to Urnes Stave Church, we are driving the narrow road that hugs the fjord. The natural setting is beautiful, with raspberry fields and orchards planted where the slope of the bank is a bit softer. A few farms are scattered here and there. Then, the road goes up steeply to Urnes Stave Church, overlooking the water, in which we spot a playful seal and a pilot whale.
Built in the 1130s, Urnes Stave Church is amongst the oldest of the preserved stave churches, if not the oldest, and probably the most decorated of them. Its ornamentation is amazing, and is even older than the church we are looking at: recycled from an earlier church, it dates back to around 1050, and the delicately carved portal from 1070s.
In front of the church, a team of carpenters is discussing passionately under a tent: they are working on a very ambitious project. They were picked amongst Norway’s best woodcarvers to make a copy of the precious portal using the same types of tools, materials and techniques as during medieval times. The UNESCO World Heritage Site status of Urnes has prompted the Norwegian National Trust to build a new visitor’s centre and the copy of the portal will be one of its main features. Looking at the actual portal, the task at hand is quite challenging: very fine intertwined motifs and stylized animals guard the church in a delicate three-dimensional wooden artwork. Even before starting to carve, finding the proper centennial tree is a mission in itself…
- Take your time and drive around the fjord: the road is beautiful with a few farms selling their products on the way. The area is worth slowing down to be taken in.
4. Hopperstad stave church: the miraculously standing church
The exterior of the Hopperstad Stave Church looks rather majestic, and this is no short of a miracle! Built around 1130, it was completely abandoned in the nineteenth century and its exterior stripped. It is only thanks to the famous architect and engineer from Bergen, Peter Andreas Blix (1831-1901) who offered his services free of charge to save the Hopperstad Stave Church that it can still be admired today. Blix used the Borgund Stave Church as a template to reconstruct Hopperstad.
The interior of Hopperstad is intimate. The altar baldachin with its vaulted ceiling painted with scenes from Jesus’ childhood and its four sculpted heads is precious. On the walls, many runic inscriptions were carved by churchgoers. Runes are letters that had been used in Scandinavia for over a thousand years before Christianity imported the Latin alphabet. Very linear, they are easy to carve with a knife on a wooden surface. Some drawings were also carved such as men, fish or boats.
5. Lom stave church: at the crossroad
We arrive in Lom via the beautiful route 55 crossing the Jotunheimen National Park. The village, located at the crossroad between Eastern and Western Norway has always been a hub for travellers.
During excavations, a special letter of courtship dating back to the fourteenth century was found: a stick with rune inscriptions. Håvard, as he signed the stick, wrote: “Håvard sends Gudny God’s greeting and his friendship. And now it is my full wish to ask for your hand. Think about your marriage plans and let me know your will.” Then, Håvard slipped the stick to Gudny as they were entering the church. She read the message and buried it under a crack in the floor, at the end reserved for the upper class, probably breaking Håvard’s heart.
Shortly after, the 1349 Black Death put a stop to pretty much everything in Norway, and the Lom Stave Church had remained unchanged for almost 300 years due to a lack of human and financial resources. When the population picked up again, the church was expanded in the seventeenth century to look as it does today.
6. Røldal Stave Church: still visited by pilgrims
Just the mountain road leading to Røldal Stave Church is worth the trip! The beautiful peaks with their lakes and snow patches are still crossed on foot today by many pilgrims visiting the parish church dating back to the first half of the thirteenth century.
Despite the reformation that prevented worshiping icons, pilgrims still flocked to Røldal: every midsummer night, Jesus on the cross is said to weep healing tears.
Here goes the legend: one day, a blind man was fishing at sea. He felt something heavy, and tried to lift it onto his boat: a picture of Christ appeared in the sea. As he was struggling to lift the object, tears of sweat started stinging his eyes. He let go to wipe his eyes, and miraculously recovered his sight! Promising to donate the found crucifix to a church, he redoubled efforts and to the name of Røldal Church, the crucifix lightened and was carried onto the boat.
To these days, ceremonies are still held every year on the 6th and 7th of July. If you do not make it for these specific celebrations, still visit the church and pay a specific attention to the fourteenth century soapstone baptism fond; the 1640 decorations, altar piece and pulpit; and the 1630’s original paintings in the choir. The votives given by pilgrims and often depicting the body part that needs healing are also interesting to observe.
- Even if the construction methods are similar, bear in mind that every stave church is unique. If you feel that seeing one is enough, reconsider!
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area (short tutorial)!