The only stave church to have remained unchanged since the Middle Ages is Borgund Stavkirke at Laerdal in western Norway. Dedicated to the apostle St. Andrew, it dates from around 1150 and is built from almost 2,000 carefully crated pieces of wood. The interior is very simple: there are no pews or decorations, and the lighting is limited to a few small openings high up on the walls. The exterior is richly decorated with carvings: dragonlike animals in life-and-death struggles, dragonheads, and runic inscriptions. There is a 16th-century pulpit and a free-standing belfry with a medieval bell.
The earliest stave churches, built in the 11th century, had wooden wall columns that were set directly into the ground . These churches lasted no more than 100 years, since moisture in the ground caused the column bases to rot away. As construction techniques developed, it became customary to set the wooden framework on sills that rested on a stone foundation. This raised the entire wooden skeleton above ground level, protecting it from humidity. This method proved so effective that churches built in the 12th century are still standing today.
STAVE CHURCH DESIGN
Borgund Stave Church is one of the largest and most ornately designed of the almost 30 remaining stave churches in Norway. Usually stave churches were Simple, relatively small structures with a nave and a narrow chancel. Borgund ‘s chancel also has a distinctive semicircular apse. Stave posts mark a division between the two. Th e interior is dark, since light can only filter through from small round openings (windows) under the three-tiered roof, which is crowned by a turret. An external gallery often encircles stave churches.
The introduction of Christianity to Norway around the year 1000 saw the merging of pagan and Christian cultures and beliefs. Most stave churches were erected on the sites of old temples that were destroyed in the wake of Christianity. The impact of this can be seen in the richly decorated carvings in stave churches, which unite pre-Christian and Christian symbolism. Pagan gods were represented in disguise alongside medieval Christian saints. The door frame designs (West Door) are particularly elaborate and demonstrate the skill of the carpenters who embellished them from top to bottom with intricate carvings. Wood from pine trees was commonly used, since this was most readily available. Branches and bark were removed from the trees , which were then left to dry out before being chopped down. This method meant that the wood was more weather-resistant and durable.
Stave Church Location
Many of the surviving state churches are in remote locations. High, exposed sites that were noticeable and remarkable were generally chosen to create a dramatic visual effect.
Intricate framework of the main roof.
The exterior of the church is richly adorned. The decorations on the Romanesque West Door feature vinelike ornamentation and depictions of dragon battles.
This sits atop the three-tiered roof.
There are three tiers on the roof of this tower. The first tier is decorated with dragoheads on the gables, similar to those on the main roof. These were meant to cleanse the air, purging it of the evil spirits of unlawful pagan worship.
This, along with the other roofs, is clad in pine shingles.
Twelve posts (staves) around the central part of the nave support the roof. Disappearing into the semidarkness of the roof, they give an increased sense of height.
The gables above the doorways and apse tower are decorated with plain crosses.
Simple, circular openings in the outer walls let in a small amount of light.
The interior of Borgund Church contains no ornate embellishment, only a simple pulpit and altar. This altarpiece dates from 1654.
Crosses of St. Andrew
The central nave is bordered by crosses in the shape of the letter X.
KING OLAV THE HOLY
Olav Haraldsson became king of a united Norway in 1016 and went on to convert the country to Christianity. Pagan statues were torn down and stave churches were built. He died in battle in 1030. A year later, his body was exhumed and he was declared saint.
Rich ornamentation in stave churches is evidence of Norway’s Viking era, when skilled carving techniques were developed to combine art and woodworking in construction. The depiction of animals such as dragons and serpents in these carvings is thought to derive from Viking art.
c. 1150: Borgund Stave Church is built to replace the rotting existing church.
1300s: A chancel and an apse are added to the building.
1500-1620: This pulpit is constructed and the altarpiece added.
1870: The church goes out of regular service when a larger church is constructed nearby.