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Decorated Portal of Urnes Stave Church

Decorated Portal of Urnes Stave Church

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Archaeological excavations have shown that stave churches, best represented today by the Borgund Stave Church, are descended from palisade constructions and from later churches with earth-bound posts.

Similar palisade constructions are known from buildings from the Viking Age. Logs were split in two-halves, set or rammed into the earth (generally called post in ground construction) and given a roof. This proved a simple but very strong form of construction. If set in gravel, the wall could last many decades, even centuries. An archaeological excavation in Lund uncovered the postholes of several such churches.

In post churches, the walls were supported by sills, leaving only the posts earth-bound. Such churches are easy to spot at archaeological sites as they leave very distinct holes where the posts were once placed. Occasionally some of the wood remains, making it possible to date the church more accurately using radiocarbon dating and/or with dendrochronology. Under the Urnes Stave Church, remains have been found of two such churches, with Christian graves discovered beneath the oldest church structure.

A single church of palisade construction has been discovered under the Hemse stave church.

The next design phase resulted from the observation that earthbound posts were susceptible to humidity, causing them to rot away over time. To prevent this, the posts were placed on top of large stones, significantly increasing their lifespans. The stave church in Røldal is believed to be of this type.

In still later churches, the posts were set on a raised sill frame resting on stone foundations. This is the stave church in its most mature form.

It is now common to group the churches into two categories: the first, without free-standing posts, often referred to as Type A and the second, with a raised roof and free-standing internal posts, usually called Type B.

Those with the raised roof, Type B, are often further divided into two subgroups. The first of these, the Kaupanger group, have a whole arcade row of posts and intermediate posts along the sides and details that mimic stone capitals. These churches give an impression of a basilica.

The other subgroup is the Borgund group. In these churches the posts are connected halfway up with one or two horizontal double ″pincer beams″ with semicircular indentations, clasping the row of posts from both sides. Cross-braces are inserted between the posts and the upper and lower pincer beams (or above the single pincer beam), forming a very rigid interconnection, and resembling the triforium of stone basilicas. This design made it possible to omit the freestanding lower part of intermediate posts. In some churches in Valdres, only the four corner posts remain (see the image of Lomen Stave Church).

Many stave churches had or still have outer galleries or ambulatories around their whole perimeters, loosely connected to the plank walls. These probably served to protect the church from a harsh climate, and for processions.

Single nave church, Type A Edit

Holtålen Stave Church, drawing by Håkon Christie.

Reinli Stave Church, drawing by Georg Andreas Bull, ca. 1855.

At the base of Type A churches, there are four heavy sill beams on a low foundation of stones. These are interconnected in the corner notch, forming a rigid sill frame. The corner posts or staves (stavene in Norwegian) are cross-cut at the lower end and fit over the corner notches and cover them, protecting them from moisture.

On top of the sill beam is a groove into which the lower ends of the wall planks (veggtilene) fit. The last wall plank is wedge-shaped and rammed into place. When the wall is filled in with planks, the frame is completed by a wall plate (stavlægje) with a groove on the bottom, holding the top ends of the wall planks. The whole structure consists of frames – a sill frame resting on the stone foundation, and the four wall frames made up of sills, corner posts and wall plate.

The wall plates support the roof trusses, consisting of a pair of principal rafters and an additional pair of intersecting "scissor rafters". For lateral bracing, additional wooden brackets (bueknær) are inserted between the rafters.

Every piece is locked into position by other pieces, making for a very rigid construction yet all points otherwise susceptible to the harsh weather are covered.

  • The single nave church has a square nave and a narrower square choir. This type of stave church was common at the beginning of the 12th century.
  • The long church (Langkyrkje), has a rectangular plan with nave and choir of the same width. The nave will usually take up two-thirds of the whole length. This type was common at the end of the 13th century.
  • The center post church (Midtmastkyrkje), has a single central post reaching all the way up to and connected to the roof construction. But the roof is a simple hipped one, without the raised central part of the Type B churches. This variation on the common type of church, found in Numedal and Hallingdal, dates to around 1200.

The only remaining similar church in Sweden, in Hedared, is of this type and shows similarities with the one from Haltdalen.

Church with a raised roof, Type B Edit

Håkon Christie drawing of Borgund Stave Church.

G. A. Bull drawing of Borgund Stave Church.

Gol Stave Church. The drawing is slightly erroneous, as the sill under the church floor is missing.

On the stone foundation, four huge ground beams (grunnstokker) are placed like a ⌗ sign, their ends protruding 1–2 meters from the lap joint where they intersect. The ends of these beams support the sills of the outer walls, forming a separate horizontal frame. The tall internal posts are placed on the internal frame of ground beams, and carry the main roof above the central nave (skip). On the outer frame of sills rest the main wall planks (veggtiler), carrying the roof over the pentice or aisles (omgang) surrounding the central space. The roof thus slopes down in two steps, as in a basilica.

The tall internal posts (staver) are interconnected with brackets (bueknær), and also connected to the outer walls with aisle rafters, creating a laterally rigid construction. Closer to the top of the posts (staver), shorter sills inserted between them support the upper wall (tilevegg). On top of the posts wall plates (stavlægjer) support the roof trusses, similar to those of the single nave churches.

The Kaupanger group consists of: Kaupanger, Urnes, Hopperstad, and Lom.

The Borgund group consists of: Borgund, Gol, Hegge, Høre, Lomen, Ringebu, and Øye.

This form of a church can also be recognized from the holes which remain from earlier earth-bound post churches built on the same sites. Little is known about what these older churches actually looked like or how they were constructed, as they were all destroyed or replaced many centuries ago.

Construction techniques Edit

Palisade work Edit

The oldest technique is often called palisade work and was a self-supporting wall construction with densely placed earthen pillars or planks, which enclosed a room and at the same time carried the roof. Later, split logs were used, which gave the walls a flat inside, and the edges could be leveled or fitted with tongue and groove. Palisade churches have not been found in Norway.

To prevent early decay, the posts or planks were tarred, and the lower ends were charred by burning. The palisade rows were often placed in ditches filled with stone. It was long thought that this technique disappeared before the turn of the last millennium, but new research shows that it was in use right up to the 12th century.

The only structure in this technique that has survived into our time is a wall in the middle section of Greensted Church which stands in Greensted in England. This led to this church being for a long time considered the oldest wooden structure in Europe. A common dating of the church was about the year 845, but modern dendrochronological dating estimates the church's year of construction to the period just after the year 1053 (+10 / −55 years). [1]

The post technique Edit

By lifting the pole planks up from the ground and placing them on sleepers clamped between more powerful corner or intermediate posts, the risk of rot damage was reduced. You could then use thinner materials in the complementary parts of the construction. Earthen piles of coarse round timber could stand for a relatively long time before rotting. They may have been scorched at the lower end to avoid premature decay.

Holes after pillars, often with remnants of the former pillars, have been found under or near several stave churches and in places where legends say that there must have been churches. Remains of approximately 25 pillar buildings have been identified in Norway, and indirect traces of 7-8 more. Remains of pillar churches are also found under stone churches such as Mære and Kinsarvik. [2]

Many of the earliest churches in Norway were built with this technique, but no such buildings have survived into our time. However, it is an open question whether limited life was the reason why they were replaced by real stave churches with sleepers, or if there were other reasons. Some of the older materials found in several of the stave churches have been thought to originate from such early pillar churches. This applies in particular to the current Urnes stave church in Luster, where many building parts with wooden sheds in the urn style must originally have belonged to an older church on the site. It has now been proven that the reused building parts originally belonged to the current church's forerunner, dendrochronologically dated to the period 1070-1080. However, this was not a post church, but a real stave church where corner poles and wall planks stood on sleepers. [3]

Håkon Christie assumed that the post construction fell out of use because the posts rotted from below. [4] Jørgen H. Jensenius believes that archaeological material does not provide unequivocal support for Christie's rotten hypothesis, a change in size or transition to a stone church may also be an explanation for the fact that excavated pillars fell out of use. Røldal Stave Church may have had some pillars set in the ground until 1913. In Lom Stave Church, the stone foundation have been laid approximately directly over the refilled post holes. Apart from different foundation methods, Jensenius believes that the pillar churches were mainly like a stave church. [5]

Stave work Edit

Of buildings from the Middle Ages with standing timber in load-bearing structures, only the churches in the last developed method of construction, the stave, have been left standing in our time. [6] By lifting the entire structure up on stone foundations and placing the poles on sleepers, the life of the structure was significantly extended. The technique was developed as early as the 11th century, but it has only been proven in the forerunner of the current stave church. This was also a real stave church, since both the corner stakes and the tiles have stood on sleepers that were reused as foundations for the existing church. [7]

Stone as a base for poles was used as early as Roman times and additional walls in sleepers may have been used from the 400s and 600s. [8]

Size Edit

Lorentz Dietrichson believed that the stave churches were originally small and were only later built in larger dimensions. He believed that the background for this was the construction technique. He points out that the youngest churches in the Mør type are the largest. He calculated the ground plan and area for 79 churches, and the nine largest were all in Sunnmøre with Hjørundfjord, Volda and Norddal of over 280 m². This is three times larger than, for example, Urnes and Hopperstad. According to Dietrichson, the large areas for the stave churches in Sunnmøre were partly a result of later expansions. He estimated the cross arms of Volda Stave Church at 7.3 × 6 meters. Hjørundfjord Stave Church was a "half-cross church" with only one cross arm measuring 7.9 × 9.1 meters. The first stave church had cross arms of 7.9 × 6.7 meters after expansion. Dietrichson was unsure whether the cross arms in the Møre churches were generally added in the lath construction or whether it was a medieval stave construction. He concluded that several were originally listed as cruciform churches in stakes, including Hareid, Volda, Vatne and Ørsta. For some other churches (Bremsnes and Kornstad on Nordmøre), the contemporary sources say that the cross arms were later added to the lumber. [9] According to Håkon Christie, these churches of the Mør type had a simpler construction and were both larger and longer than the other types. [4] Roar Hauglid estimated that most (80-90%) of the medieval Norwegian stave churches were simple single-nave buildings (type A) and most were relatively small. Hauglid called these "the ordinary Norwegian stave church". [10]

Stave churches were once common in northern Europe. In Norway alone, it was thought about 1000 were built recent research has upped this number and it is now believed there may have been closer to 2000. [11]

Norway Edit

Most of the surviving stave churches in Norway were built 1150–1350. [12] Stave churches older than the 1100s are known only from written sources or from archaeological excavations, but written sources are sparse and difficult to interpret. [13] Only 271 masonry churches were constructed in Norway during the same period, 160 of these still exist, while in Sweden and Denmark there were 900 and 1800 masonry churches respectively. [14] Frostathing Law and Gulating law rules about "corner posts" shows that stave church was the standard church building in Norway, even if the catholic church preferred stone. [13] All wooden churches in Norway before the reformation were constructed with staves. Log building is younger than stave building in Norway and was introduced in residential buildings around year 1000. Stave building is not influenced by the log technique. [15] [9]

The word "stave church" is unknown in Old Norse, presumably because there were no other types of wooden churches. When Norway's churches after the Reformation were constructed in log, there was a need for a separate word for the older churches. In written sources from the Middle Ages, there is a clear distinction between "stafr" (posts) and "þili" or "vægþili" (wall boards). However, in documents from the 1600–1700s, "stave" was also used for wall boards or panels. Emil Eckhoff in his Svenska stavkyrkor (1914–1916) also included wood frame church buildings without posts. [16]

According to Norway's oldest written laws and Old Norwegian Homily Book, the consecration of the church was valid as long as the four corner posts were standing. [13] One of the sermons in the old homily book is known as the "stave church sermon". The sermon dates from around 1100 and was presumably performed at consecrations, or on the anniversary of such. The sermon text is a theological interpretation of the building elements in the church. It names most of the building elements in the stave church, and can be a source of terminology and technique. [17] [18] For instance, the sermon says: "The four corner posts of the church are a symbol for the four gospels, because their teachings are the strongest supports within the whole of Christianity." [19]

Church building was mentioned in the Gulatingsloven (Gulating Law), which was written down in the 1000s. In the chapter on Christianity, the 12th article states: [20]

If one man builds a church, either lendmann does it or a farmer, or whoever builds a church, shall keep the church and the plot in good condition. But if the church breaks down and corner posts fall, then he shall bring timber to the plot before twelve months if not, he will pay three marks in punishment to the bishop and bring timber and rebuild the church anyway.
(Um einskildmenn byggjer kyrkje, anten lendmann gjer det eller bonde, eller kven det er som byggjer kyrkje, skal han halda henne i stand og inkje øyda tufti. Men um kyrkja brotnar og hyrnestavane fell, då skal han føra timber på tufti innan tolv månadar um det ikkje kjem, skal han bøta tre merker for det til biskopen og koma med timber og byggja opp kyrkja likevel."

In Norway, stave churches were gradually replaced many survived until the 19th century when a substantial number were destroyed. Today, 28 historical stave churches remain standing in Norway. Stave churches were particularly common in less populated areas in high valleys and forest land, and fishermen's villages on islands and in minor villages along fjords. Around 1800 in Norway 322 stave churches were still known and most of these were in sparsely populated areas of Norway. If the main church was masonry the annex church could be a stave church. [13] Masonry churches were mostly built in towns, along the coast, and in rich agricultural areas in Trøndelag and East Norway, as well as in the larger parishes in fjord districts in Western Norway. [14] During 1400s and 1500s no new churches were built in Norway. [21] Norway's stave churches largely disappeared until 1700 and were replaced by log buildings. Several stave churches were redesigned or enlarged in a different technique during 1600–1700, for instance Flesberg Stave Church was converted into a cruciform church partly in log construction. [22] According to Dietrichson, most stave churches were dismantled to make room for a new church, partly because the old church had become too small for the congregation, partly because the stave church was in poor condition. Fire, storm, avalanche and decay were other reasons. [9] In 1650 there were about 270 stave churches left in Norway, and in the next hundred years 136 of these disappeared. Around 1800 there were still 95 stave churches, while over 200 former stave churches were still known by name or in written sources. From 1850 to 1885 32 stave churches fell, since then only the Fantoft Stave Church has been lost. [13]

Heddal stave church was the first stave church described in a scholarly publication when Johannes Flintoe wrote an essay in Samlinger til det Norske Folks Sprog og Historie (Christiania, 1834). The book also printed Flintoes drawings of the facade, the ground floor and the floor plan – the first known architectural drawing of a stave church. [23]

Other countries Edit

It is unknown how many stave churches were constructed in Iceland and in other countries in Europe. [ citation needed ] Some believe [ who? ] they were the first type of church to be constructed in Scandinavia however, the post churches are an older type, although the difference between the two is slight. A stave church has a lower construction set on a frame, whereas a post church has earth-bound posts.

In Sweden, the stave churches were considered obsolete in the Middle Ages and were replaced. In Denmark, traces of post churches have been found at several locations, and there are also parts still in existence from some of them. A plank of one such church was found in Jutland. The plank is now on display at the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen and an attempt at reconstructing the church is a featured display at the Moesgård Museum near Aarhus. Marks created by several old post churches have also been found at the old stone church in Jelling.

In Sweden, the medieval Hedared stave church was constructed c. 1500 at the same location as a previous stave church. Other notable places are Maria Minor church in Lund, with its traces of a post church with palisades, and some old parts of Hemse stave church on Gotland. In Skåne alone there were around 300 such churches when Adam of Bremen visited Denmark in the first half of the 11th century, but how many of those were stave churches or post churches is unknown.

In England, there is one similar church of Saxon origin, with much debate as to whether it is a stave church or predates them. This is the Greensted Church in Essex. General consensus categorizes it as Saxon [Type A]. There is also another church which bears similarities to stave churches, the medieval stone church of St. Mary in Kilpeck in Herefordshire. It features a number of dragon heads.

In Germany, there is one stone church with a motif depicting a dragon similar to those often seen on Norwegian stave churches and on surviving artifacts from Denmark and Gotland. Whether this decoration can be attributed to cultural similarities or whether it indicates similar construction methods in Germany has sparked controversy.

During 1950–1970 post holes from older buildings were discovered under Lom stave church as well as under masonry churches such as Kinsarvik Church, [13] and this discovery was an important contribution to understanding the origin of stave churches. Holes for posts were first identified during excavations in Urnes stave church. [24]

Influences Edit

Lorentz Dietrichson in his book De norske Stavkirker ("The Norwegian Stave Churches") (1892) claimed that the stave church is "a brilliant translation of the Romanesque basilica from stone to wood" ("En genial oversettelse fra sten til tre av den romanske basilika"). Dietrichson claimed that type B displays an influence from early Christian and Roman basilicas. The style was assumed to be transferred via Anglo-Saxon and Irish architecture, where only the particular roof construction was local. Dietrichson emphasized the clerestory, arcades and capitals. [9] The "basilica theory" was introduced by N. Nicolaysen in Mindesmærker af Middelalderens Kunst i Norge (1854). Nicolaysen wrote: "Our stave churches are now the only remaining of its kind, and according to the sparse records and known circumstances, it appears that nothing similar existed except perhaps in Britain and Ireland." ("Vore stavkirker er nu de eneste i sit slags, og saavidt sparsomme beretninger og andre omstændigheder lader formode, synes de heller ikke tidligere at have havt noget sidestykke med undtagelse af maaske i Storbritannien og Irland.") [25] Nicolaysen further claimed that the layout and design may have been inspired by Byzantine architecture. Nicolaysen wrote: "All facts suggest that the stave churches like the masonry churches and all medieval architecture in Western Europe originated from the Roman basilica." ("Alt synes at henpege paa, at forbilledet til vore stavkirker ligesom til stenkirkerne og overhovedet til hele den vesteuropæiske arkitektur i middelalderen er udgaaet fra den romerske basilika.") [26] This theory was further developed by Anders Bugge and Roar Hauglid. Peter Anker believed that the influence from foreign masonry architecture was primarily in decorative details. [27]

Per Jonas Nordhagen does not reject the basilica theory, but suggests development along two paths and that the basilical was a development towards larger and technically more sophisticated churches. The main, progressive path according to Nordhagen lead to Torpo and Borgund. [28]

Folklore and circumstantial evidence seem to suggest that stave churches were built upon old indigenous Norse worship sites, the hof. Dietrichson believed that the stave churches were closely connected to the hof and the "hof theory" attracted interest in the 1930–1940s. The theory assumed that the hofs were buildings with a square and a raised roof supported by four columns. [27] During Christianization of Norway local chiefs were forced to either dismantle the hofs or to convert hofs into churches. Bugge and Norberg-Schultz accordingly claimed that "there is no reason to believe that the last hofs and the first churches had any major differences" ("og da er det liten grunn til å tro at de siste hov har skilt seg synderlig fra de første kirker"). [29] This assumption has been rejected by archeological evidence several times, in the case of Iceland by Åge Roussel. [30] Olaf Olsen described the hof merely as function related to ordinary buildings on major farms. If the hof was a particular building they remain to be identified, according to Olsen. [31] Olsen rejected the hof theory. Nicolay Nicolaysen also concluded that there is not a single case known of a hof that was converted to a church. [32]

Lack of historical evidence for hofs as buildings undermines the hof theory. [33] Nicolaysen also introduced the community centre hypothesis which argued that hofs were destroyed and churches constructed on the same convenient location for the local community. Location near a previous hof would then be a coincidence, according to Nicolaysen. Pope Gregory I encouraged (year 601) Augustine of Canterbury to reuse pre-Christian temples, but this had little relevance for Norway according to Nicolaysen. Jan Brendalsmo in his dissertation concluded that churches were often established on major farms or farms of local chiefs and close to feasting halls or graveyards. [34]

Stave churches appear to sometimes to have built upon or used materials from old pagan worship sites and are considered to be the best evidence for the existence of Norse Pagan temples and the best guide as to what they looked like. [35] The layout of the churches is believed to have mimicked old Pagan temples in design and was possibly designed in order to adhere to old Norse cosmological beliefs, especially as some churches were built around a central point like a world tree. Stave churches were also often located near or in the sight of large natural formations which also had a significant role in Norse Paganism, thus also suggesting a form of continuity through placement and symbolism. [36] Furthermore, dragons' heads and other clear mythological symbolism suggests the cultural blending of Norse mythological beliefs and Christianity in a non-contradictory synthesis. [ clarification needed ] Owing to this evidence newer research has suggested that Christianity was introduced into Norway much earlier than was previously assumed. [ citation needed ]

Even though the wooden churches had structural differences, they give a recognizable general impression. Formal differences may hide common features of their planning, while apparently similar buildings may turn out to have their structural elements organized completely differently. Despite this, certain basic principles must have been common to all types of building.

Basic geometrical figures, numbers that were easy to work with, one or just a few length units and simple ratios, and perhaps proportions as well were among the theoretical aids all builders inherited. The specialist was the man who knew a particular type of building so well that he could systematise its elements in a slightly different way from previous building designs, thus carrying developments a stage further.

"Exposing the timber frame on the interior and/or exterior of the structures is seen to release its matrix of timber members and its capacity to contribute architectural expression to buildings. The matrix, forming ‘lines’ in space, has an expressive potential that includes the capacity to delineate proportion, direct eye-movement, suggest spatial enclosure, create patterning, permit transparency and establish continuity with landscape." [37]

Urnes Stave Church

Urnes Stave Church is a 12th-century stave church at Ornes, along the Lustrafjorden in the municipality of Luster in Vestland county, Norway. It sits on the eastern side of the fjord, directly across the fjord from the village of Solvorn and about 5 kilometres east of the village of Hafslo. It is among the oldest stave churches in Norway, with parts of the lumber construction dating from the latter half of the 11th century. The church was built on basilica plan inspired by medieval Christian churches, with cylindrical columns and semi-circular arches inside.The decoration on capitals of the columns and outside of the church embodies the visual evidence of the Viking culture’s transformation, assimilation, and adoption of Christianity. The north portal of the church is defined as the Urnes style, which contains decorations derived from Norwegian mythology dated back to the 12th century.

Opening hours

May 2 - Sep 30, 2016:
10:30 am - 5:45 pm
(Closed on May 17)


Adults: 90 NOK
Students, Seniors, Children (over 5): 70 NOK
Family: 220 NOK


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Urnes Stave Church

The stave churches constitute one of the most elaborate types of wood construction which are typical of northern Europe from the Neolithic period to the Middle Ages. Christianity was introduced into Norway during the reign of St Olav (1016-30). The churches were built on the classic basilical plan, but entirely of wood. The roof frames were lined with boards and the roof itself covered with shingles in accordance with construction techniques which were widespread in Scandinavian countries.

Among the roughly 1,300 medieval stave churches indexed, about 30 remain in Norway. Some of them are very large, such as Borgund, Hopperstad or Heddal churches, whereas others, such as Torpo or Underdal, are tiny. Urnes Church was selected to represent this outstanding series of wood buildings for a number of reasons, which make it an exceptional monument:Its antiquity: This church, which was rebuilt towards the mid-12th century, includes some elements originating from a stave church built about one century earlier whose location was revealed by the 1956-57 excavations.

The exemplary nature of its structure: This is characterized by the use of cylindrical columns with cubic capitals and semicircular arches, all of which use wood, the indigenous building material, to express the language of stone Romanesque architecture.

The outstanding quality of its sculpted monumental decor: On the outside, this includes strapwork panels and elements of Viking tradition taken from the preceding building (11th century). In the interior is an amazing series of 12th-century figurative capitals that constitute the origin of the Urnes Style production.

The wealth of liturgical objects of the medieval period: This includes Christ, the Virgin and St John as elements of a rood beam, a pulpit of sculpted wood, enamelled bronze candlesticks, the corona of light, etc.

Excellent conservation of a perfectly homogeneous ensemble: The embellishment of the 17th century (1601 and c. 1700) and the restorations of 1906-10 preserved its authenticity completely.

Urnes Stave Church is Norway’s oldest and most highly-decorated stave church. Located in Vestland county along the Lustrafjorden – Norway’s longest and deepest Fjord – the church was built on the site of two previous churches in around 1132 and stands in its original position.

The church is an outstanding example of traditional Scandinavian wooden architecture, bringing together traces of Celtic art, Viking traditions, and Romanesque spatial structures. Indeed, the church is one of the most elaborate and technologically advanced types of wooden construction that existed in North-Western Europe during the Middle Ages.

The word ‘stave’ (or ‘stav’ in Norwegian) means sturdy wood columns that are the corner posts and columns which uphold the overall architectural structure of a building. The building was based upon classic basilica styles from European cathedrals, combined with features such as the roof lined with shingles which was a prominent Scandinavian architectural style.

Medieval furnishings include a Cavalry group over the choir opening, two altar candlesticks of Limonges enamelled bronze, and a chair constructed entirely of turned spindles.

The church has not been in ordinary use since 1881, when the parish of Urnes was abolished. It is now only used for special occasions such as baptisms and weddings.

Interventions and restorations on the church for both religious and preservation reasons have meant that the church has evolved in style since it was first built however, it is to this day one of Norway’s most striking contributions to world heritage and architecture, being designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.

Decorated Portal of Urnes Stave Church - History


A. decorative pin-->status symbols, buried with the owner-->indicating wealth

B. decorated with lavish gold and semi precious jewels and glass cloisonne-->abstract depictions

II. Sutton Hoo Ship Burial

A. was not sent out sea but epitomizes the early medieval tradition of burying great lords in ships

B. found in the burial was a purse cover decorated with cloisonne plaques

1. combination of abstract interlace ornament with animal figures à all geometric

A. Vikings à wood carving masters à posts of ships combines a head of a beast with surface ornamentation interwoven into the animal à indicating great skill

B. Discovered underneath an earthen mound

Christian Art: Scandinavia, British Isles, Spain

A. Much of Scandinavia became Christian by the 11 th century but Viking artistic traditions persisted

1. Wooden portal of the stave church at Urnes à gracefully elongated animals intertwined with flexible plant stalks in spiraling rhythm

A. Christianization of Celts began in the fifth century à monks selected inaccessible and inhospitable places to carry on their duties far from worldly temptations and distractions à set up monastic establishments in Britain and Scotland à monasteries became great centers of learning à illuminating manuscripts

A. Illuminated manuscript à one of the earliest à may have been written and decorated in the scriptorium at Iona

B. Full pages devoted neither to text nor to illustration, just pure embellishment

C. Carpet pages à made up of decorative panels of abstract and zoomorphic forms

A. Converted fully rounded forms into linear flat-color + much more intricate patterning

B. Used Latin + Greek lettering à lend prestige

A. Boasts huge numbers of full-page illuminations à carpet pages, evangelist symbols, portrayals of the Virgin Mary and of Christ, New Testament narrative scenes, canon tables, and several monumentalized and embellished words from the Bible

B. Transformed biblical text into abstract pattern à making God’s words beautiful (XPI, chi-rho-iota)

VI. High Cross of Muiredach

A. Geometric cross grave marker à one of the largest and finest early medieval crosses

B. Celtic à circle with the cross

A. Muslims brought Islam to Spain from North Africa in 711

B. Germanic invaders took over in early fifth century

1. Churches basilican in form but with multiple square apses + horse show arches before Islam

Sculpture and Painting

I. Charlemagne à equestrian statue à maybe Charles the bald

A. Models the equestrian portrait of Marcus Aurelius in Rome

B. Proclaimed the renovation of the Roman Empire’s power and trappings

A. Legacy of classical art shown

A. Frantic depiction with bright colors à merging classical illusionism with the northern linear tradition

A. Charlemagne’s palace chapel à first vaulted structure of the Middle Ages north of the Alps

1. Plan based on that of San Vitale but simpler

A. Important new feature à two towers on the western façade

A. Incorporated two support systems, column and piers

B. Upper level à gallery, not sure what for

A. Built by Bishop Bernward à two apses, two transcepts, and multiple towers

B. Entrances are on the side

C. Has alternating piers and columns à transforming the tunnel-like horizontality of Early Christian basilicas

Sculpture and Painting

A. Tell the story of Original Sin and ultimate redemption à draw parallels between the Old and New Testaments

1. Expulsion from Paradise and the infancy and suffering of Christ

A. Modeled on the column of Trajan à seven spiral bands relate the life of Jesus from his baptism to his entry into Jerusalem à omitting episodes on Bernward’s doors

UNESCO Heritage Urnes Stave Church

The Urnes Stave Church (Stavkirke) is a hidden pearl in Norway. Our combined licensed guide and driver can show you this perfectly preserved 12 th century stave church, designated a UNESCO world heritage site due to its unique snake carvings and cultural value as the oldest stave church in Europe.

Urnes Stave Church – Historical Facts

Christianity arrived in Norway in the late 900s A.D. and was made the official religion in 1020 A.D. Before this, the Vikings would worship the Norse gods at so-called “Gude hov”, tall, rectangular buildings with wooden beams. Although there is some debate about the origins of stave churches, some have argued that they derive their shape and construction.

Although there were a few stave churches in other northern European countries such as Sweden and Denmark, most medieval churches were built in stone. In Norway, stone churches were often constructed in the big cities, whereas wooden stave churches were built in villages and less populated areas. It is estimated that in the middle ages, there were approximately 1000 stave churches in Norway and only 271 stone churches.

Norwegian stave churches were built using walls made of wooden planks and large fir logs as posts (staves) supporting the roof, which meant they were extremely durable. Wikipedia has an interesting article on the stave churches and their construction.

Why visit Urnes Stave Church?

Unfortunately, the wooden churches were very vulnerable to fires. There are currently only 28 stave churches left in Norway, of which Urnes is one of the most well-preserved. Built in 1170 A.D., it is also believed to be the oldest. Archaeologists have uncovered remains of three earlier churches on the same site, the earliest dating back to 950 A.D.

Urnes Stave Church as some interesting features including a richly decorated northern portal, where the wings feature snake and other animal carvings. A twelfth-century candelabra in the shape of a Viking Ship is displayed on the altar.

It is also beautifully situated in the village of Ornes on the eastern side of Lustrafjorden, surrounded by mountains. Visitors can see clearly how stave churches derived their inspiration from, and were built in harmony with, the Norwegian countryside. In the small villages, the church would be the most important building and a source of local pride. Timber to build the churches would be transported on boats up the fjords. These were the main transport routes before tunnels were built. Wikipedia also has an interesting article on Urnes Stave church.

Opening hours

The Urnes Stave Church is only open in summer. In the summer opening times are: May –September, usually from 10.30 a.m. to 5.45 p.m. daily. Entry fees are around 100 kroner (adults).

How to get to Urnes or see other stave churches?

Urnes Stave Church is located in the village of Ornes in Sogn og Fjordane county in Western Norway. It is on the eastern side of Lustrafjorden, 5 km from Hafslo, accessible by a short ferry ride. Hafslo is 331 km from Oslo, about a five-hour drive. A bus also runs daily from Oslo and takes approximately 8 hours.

Should you wish to visit Urnes Stave Church we are happy to arrange a suitable itinerary in collaboration with our partners.

If you are a travel agent or incoming operator for Norway tours, we are happy to cooperate to create the best possible travel experience for your guests.

Our driverguides can make interesting stops and will give historical commentary along the way. There are also opportunities to take a scenic boat tour on the fjord. If you are particularly interested in history and architecture, we can show you other famous Norwegian stave churches, for example, the one in Lom in Gudbrandsdalen, Borgund in Lardal.

And there is also an original stave church at the open-air Norwegian Folk Museum in Oslo. This was moved in its entirety from the town of Gol. It is en route on our Oslo Sightseeing tour.

Stave Churches of Norway

Stave Churches, or stavkirker, are wooden churches built by Viking tribes when they were first converted to Christianity in the eleventh century. When Scandinavian tribes began to build large ships and to go ‘a-viking’ around the ninth century, their targets were often monasteries and churches, as they were usually wealthy and poorly defended. These raids gave the Vikings an early exposure to Christianity, and small Viking groups that settled in Ireland, England, and France intermarried with the local population and were some of the first Viking converts.

In 787, under Charlemagne’s initiative, the Anglo-Saxon St. Willibrord established a bishopric in Bremen (in modern northwest Germany), but these early missionary attempts into Scandinavia were largely unsuccessful. Conversion occurred by and large as a political strategy, and it was often a caveat of peace treaties with surrounding Christian kingdoms. Once a Viking chief accepted Christianity, his tribe did as well – at least in name. The Treaty of Wedmore in 878 required Danish leader Guthrum to leave southern England under the control of Alfred of Wessex and to accept Christianity. A Viking expedition to England in 991 led by Olaf I Tryggvason resulted in Olaf’s baptism and, upon his return to Norway, his claim to be king. Olaf began the first successful attempts to Christianize Norway, beginning with coastal regions where Christianity was already known. Olaf II Haraldsson continued his efforts, and around 1015 was recognized as king throughout Norway and completed the Christianization of the region.

This does not mean, however, that the Vikings did away with their Norse mythology and traditions. Rather, much like the conversion of Rome, existing stories and images were incorporated into Christian practice, and this is evident in the architecture and decoration of the churches they built. Stave churches blend Christian imagery and Romanesque influences with the ornate decoration and symbolism traditional to the Viking people.

The oldest surviving church is at Urnes in Sogn, Norway, and contains elements dating to 1060. The first attempts at wooden churches were posts stuck directly in the ground, which often rotted. The churches that survive today are the results of the second or third attempts. By the fourteenth century, between eight hundred and twelve hundred stave churches may have existed in northern Europe. Twenty-eight survive in Norway, many still in excellent condition. Unfortunately, a Satanist movement in the 1990’s led by heavy metal musicians wanting to reinstate Norse gods burned many of the churches, destroying twenty-two. Historical societies and private donors contributed to the construction of historically accurate replicas.

Stave refers to the upright beams used to construct the churches in a post-and-lintel style, in contrast to horizontal log construction popular in Eastern Europe. Trees were stripped of branches and left to grow for several years, resulting in a hard, sap-filled outer layer that was resistant to rot. Once the staves were cut, they were treated with tar and the foundation was laid on a bed of stones fitted without mortar, allowing drainage. Bracing and high sills joined the main staves at the four corners of the church to each other, and each vertical plank was held to the next one with tongue-and-groove joining.

The stave church style is a result of both Western European and Viking influences. The basic structure is reminiscent of the basilica, containing a nave, chancel, and apse, and inner columns with Romanesque capitals and round arches. The ceiling resembles the Gothic style, based on a system of struts and buttressing for weight distribution and bracing against wind pressure. But unlike the stone churches that were so customary in Europe and Rome, the Vikings built their churches of wood. Multi-tiered, steep roofs made of wooden shingles rise up toward the sky, many displaying both crosses and dragons heads (that so commonly adorned Viking longboats) on the tips of gables. Also unique to the stavkirker is the rich ornamentation of the carvings both inside and out, often showing zoomorphic interlacing of serpents and other animals in violent combat. Surrounding the heavily decorated entrance, or portal, to the church is a weapons porch where Viking men left their defenses.

Columns support the interior of the church, in between which are round arches that employ techniques found in ship making. Rather than forming the arch from a solid piece of wood, the carpenters fished together (joined at an angle) two “knees,” or naturally curved wood where the roots turn up to join the trunk of the tree. This technique gives the structure elasticity in heavy wind gusts.

Paintings in the stavkirker more closely resemble European Gothic art, as the Vikings had no painting tradition of their own from which to draw. Paintings mainly consist of vaulting over the nave, altar frontals, and ciboria, or fixed wooden canopies over altars. Unlike the Christian iconography depicted in every aspect of contemporary French and English Gothic churches, all narrative painting in a stave church occurs in the immediate vicinity of the altar the rest of the church’s decoration is purely ornamental.

The paintings themselves contain similar subjects to – and the form of – later Byzantine iconography, while employing the brighter colors and fluidity of French Gothic painting. The vaulting of Torpo displays an enthroned Christ in the position of Pantocrator, surrounded by the evangelical symbols of the four gospels. The thick lines and bright colors call to mind a stained-glass window, as does the lack of dimensionality. The decorated barrel vaulting of the Ål church features a crucified Christ again in bright colors, and with a more fluid form than the Pantocrator. The artist seems to employ the Celtic horror vacui technique, filling in space with floral patterns and geometric shapes. Altar frontals often featured a series of miniatures depicting various scenes from Christ’s life. Nes church’s Madonna and Child employs Gothic framework to highlight the almost Japanese style in which the pair are portrayed – the flat noses and slanted eyes, and especially the grasping and smiling of the fat Christ child, are far from the delicate Parisian miniatures of the same time. Some of the miniatures take on aspects of Norse mythology. The altar frontal at Røldal portrays the entrance to Hell not as gates or a pit in the ground, but as the mouth of a giant, fire-spouting beast, likely a dragon.

Alongside the Christian imagery of the church, elements of Norse mythology and tradition are preserved, seemingly as a second language conveying to the Vikings the message of salvation in a manner familiar to them. Viking architects had a model for this synthesis in the form of the Heliand, an epic Saxon poem telling the story of Christ in a Viking setting. The chief holy place in Norse mythology is the evergreen ash Yggdrasil, where Woden sacrificed himself by hanging. Also known as the Tree of Universal Life, Yggdrasil is said to protect the last boy and girl, Lif and Lifthrasir, at the end of time. Heliand draws comparisons between this tree and Christ’s cross, calling the cross “a tree on a mountain.” G. Ronald Murphy, in his essay “Yggdrasil and the Stave Church,” suggests that the stave church is a type of Christian Yggdrasil, the pine staves and tiered roofs evoking a large, evergreen tree, and the appearance of both crosses and dragons on the gables pointing to the promise of salvation and the nearness of death (the great dragon Nidhogg gnaws at the roots of Yggdrasil and devours the corpses of those guilty of the worst crimes).

The heavily decorated portal, with its intertwining vines and combative animals, may be seen as the branches of Yggdrasil and the beasts that fight in the battle of doomsday, or Ragnarok. Entrance into the church, then, is the only way to escape the violence of the world, just as Yggdrasil is the salvation of Lif and Lifthrasir. Once inside the church, the crucifix and depictions of Christ’s life near the altar are reassuring, though these too carry hints of Norse mythology. In the Ål stavkirke, the image of Christ carrying his cross to Calvary depicts a green tree with the branches sawn off rather than the typical image of the cross. The altar frontal from Røldal depicts Christ’s harrowing of Hell as the releasing of souls from the mouth of a great serpent.

In accepting Christianity and in building churches, the Vikings did not give up their culture steeped in mythology. Rather, they made the message of Christ and salvation a part of their story. The stavkirker, in their structure and decoration unlike any other church style, are monuments to this translation.

Benttinen, Ted. “Prayer and Vision in the Stave Church at Røldal.” Kenyon Review 11, no. 2 (March 1, 1989): 122-123, (accessed February 1, 2014).*

Buxton, David Roden. The wooden churches of Eastern Europe: an introductory survey. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Hauglid, Roar and Louis Grodecki. Norway: paintings from the stave churches. Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1955.

Jenkins, Buck. “Norway’s Stave Churches.” The Saturday Evening Post, 1 January, 1980, (accessed February 1, 2014).

Murphy, G. Ronald. “Yggorasil and the stave church.” Mythlore 31, no. 1-2 (September 22, 2012): 5-26.

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