Stave Churches

Between 1100 and 1300 some 1,000 wooden stave churches were built in Norway. Today fewer than 30 remain. While archaeologists have found proof that stave churches were built all over northern Europe, they have only been preserved in southern Norway. They gained a place in the public consciousness in the 1800s through the romantic paintings of Johannes Flintoe and J. C. Dahl. Architects then began registering and surveying churches that were under threat of being torn down. In 1844, enthusiasts founded the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Norwegian Monuments to care for significant old buildings. Today the society maintains eight stave churches. Four others are situated in open-air museums.

Traditional lafting, or log-style, construction consists of notching logs and fitting them together horizontally to create massive walls. The stave technique, on the other hand, involves a skeletal framework of vertical posts. The enclosure is completed with tall, vertical planks .

In early stave constructions, the posts were dug directly into the ground, with the result that they rotted from the ground up. In subsequent efforts, the church builders constructed a base, or sill, of horizontal beams laid on a stone foundation. All the vertical elements (including large posts, called masts) were mounted into grooves on the sill, with two to four posts per wall. The top of each post, 8 m to 9 m high, was fastened to an elevated sill using knee joints and St. Andrew’s crosses. Large portions of each wall frame were fabricated on the ground and raised as single units on top of the right-angled foundation sill, creating an interior space of cubic dimensions.

There are several types of stave churches. The simplest have only a nave and a small chancel. The roof rests on the walls. Some stave churches feature a high mast in the middle to support a roof spire and brace the walls. The largest and most complex have an elevated room in the centre, supported on free-standing posts and surrounded by a lower gallery. The wooden entranceways are often ornately decorated with intricate carvings.

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Borgund stave churchPhoto: (c)  Tormod Olesen / Arkitekturmuseet

Urnes stave churchPhoto: Arve Kjersheim

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