The so-called “Viking Age” lasted from roughly A.D. 790 until the Norman conquest of England in A.D. 1066. Among the factors that brought it to an end was the arrival of Christianity in Norway around A.D. 1000. 

The new religion spread quite rapidly. Within a century, perhaps as many as 750 wooden churches had been built throughout the country.

Excepting relatively large cities, most medieval Norwegian churches were wooden. The Vikings had developed great skill in timber construction — as is illustrated by their astounding ocean-going long ships — and wood remains the preferred building material for Norwegian homes even today.

Indeed, wooden churches existed throughout northwestern Europe at one time, but only Norway’s distinctive wooden “stave churches” remain. (A single example, dating from around 1500, exists in Sweden.) 

Carved dragons are on the gables of the Borgund Stave Church in Norway. It was built and dedicated to St. Andrew the Apostle around A.D. 1150.
Carved dragons are on the gables of the Borgund Stave Church in Norway. It was built and dedicated to St. Andrew the Apostle around A.D. 1150. | Shutterstock

“Stave churches” or “stavkirker” take their name from the pine core “staves” or columns (from Norwegian “stav”) that, in their post-and-lintel construction technique, form the buildings’ load-bearing element. The staves don’t rest directly on the ground, but rather on a foundation of stone. In this respect, stave churches, which use no nails, are unlike earlier “post churches,” where the supporting posts went into the soil and were thus subject to rot. For that very reason, no post churches remain. They disappeared many centuries ago.

Perhaps more than a thousand stave churches once existed in Norway, and some estimates put the number as high as 2,000.

The majority probably disappeared because of the precipitous drop in Norway’s population during the time of the bubonic plague, which was unwittingly introduced into Norway in 1349 by a ship that landed near Bergen. The “Black Death,” as it is also known, may have killed as many as two-thirds of all Norwegians, and the population didn’t return to its pre-plague level until the 1600s. During the 1400s and 1500s, no new Norwegian churches were built, and it’s easy to imagine the toll that two centuries of damp and extreme Scandinavian weather would take on wooden churches that lacked anyone to care for them.

Urnes Stave Church is the oldest of the stave churches still existing in Norway. | Shutterstock

By 1650, fewer than 300 stave churches survived and, architectural fashions having changed, no new ones were built. By 1800, there were just 70. Forty of these were pulled down during the 19th century. Only 29 are left today in Norway, including one that was actually transported to a part of Germany that now belongs to Poland. 

Although stave churches were probably built throughout Norway, none are preserved in its northernmost counties. Many of the remaining examples are located in areas of lower population, in high valleys and forests, in small fishermen’s villages on islands, or along fjords, as in Sognefjord, where there are five; six in Valdres; and four in Numedal. In the more populated lowlands of eastern Norway, stone churches were more common. 

About half of the surviving stave churches are still in use for parish worship. The other half are essentially museums, although even they are sometimes used for weddings and christenings.

They are remarkable artifacts. Some authorities believe that their architecture reflects earlier Norse building styles and that, through them and their decorative art, we can derive some idea of how the only slightly earlier pagan temples to the Norse gods (e.g., Odin, Freyja and Thor) must once have appeared. And many of them were built around a central point or column, reminiscent of the Old Norse “world tree.”

Wooden carvings on wall planks and door jambs of Urnes Stave Church in Norway. The church building dates back to the 1100s. | Shutterstock
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Most of those that remain were built in the 12th and 13th centuries. Heddal, the largest stave church in Norway, dates from the 1250s. But Urnes is the oldest, having been constructed in the early 1100s and containing materials (in its north portal and elsewhere) that probably came from a previous church on the site. Its beautiful woodcarving has given its name to the “Urnes style” of animal art, which is at most a generation or so removed from its pagan Norwegian forebears.

The most famous, best preserved and most authentic of the remaining stave churches, though, is that of Borgund, which is not far from Urnes and, having been built and dedicated to St. Andrew the Apostle around A.D. 1150, is only slightly younger. With its carved portals and especially with the dragons that are carved on its gables, it is difficult to escape the impression that, notwithstanding its Christian dedication, one is looking at a building that is very closely related to the Viking age.

Carved dragons are on the gables of the Borgund Stave Church in Norway. It was built and dedicated to St. Andrew the Apostle around A.D. 1150. | Shutterstock

Not surprisingly, fire is the greatest threat to these medieval treasures. In 1992, the Fantoft Stave Church was destroyed by anti-Christian arsonists.

Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs interpreterfoundation.org, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.

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