Norway's wooden cathedrals | Posted: 15 June 2015
Self guided journeys of discovery Norway
Self guided journeys of discovery Norway
Self guided journeys of discovery Norway

Almost one hundred years before work on the current Minster in York began in 1220, a series of wooden ‘Cathedrals’ were being constructed in the newly Christianised lands of Scandinavia...

Viking raiders had come across Christianity when they raided Ireland, Britain and other European countries, though initially they were only interested in plunder – in 793 AD, for example, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported that “the ravaging of wretched heathen people destroyed God's church at Lindisfarne”. Tensions over the scarcity of land in their mountainous home kingdoms saw them gradually settle in the lands they once raided, and among the many customs they began to adopt – and export – was the religion.

As the pagan Viking kingdoms of Norway slowly converted to Christianity from 1000AD, places of worship were gradually built across the land. Little more than crude huts at first, many soon developed into highly ornate and elaborate wooden structures, several of which have stood the test of time. These remarkable buildings are known as the ‘Stave Churches’.

Construction methods were simple – a series of load-bearing posts were hammered into the ground, and then split timbers (or stafr in Old Norse, i.e. stave, and hence the name ‘stave’ churches) were added to create walls, floors and a roof. But wood rots in wet ground and so it soon became imperative to build on foundations – and timber frames were then raised from the ground on stone plinths. With immense forests covering much of the land, timber was the obvious material to use, rather than stone which was the norm in places like Yorkshire.

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Building a new church was a massive undertaking and the whole community would have to get involved. Local people could fell the trees required but bands of travelling craftsmen, experienced in working with timber, would be needed to then shape the pieces into the required design, which varied from place to place. The beams would need hoisting up and the staves hammering into place. Once the basic structure was up, the more artistic and skilled woodworkers would arrive to fit out the interior with ornate carvings and statues from Norse legend, while dragons’ heads were set on the roof ridges, reminiscent of the prows of Viking longships. On completion, the bishop would consecrate the church in an elaborate ceremony, featuring the blessing of special consecration crosses incorporated into the structure.

It is thought that as many as 2000 stave churches were built in Norway alone (they are unique to northern Europe), though today only 28 survive – and five of the oldest are to be found in the Sognefjord region, all dating back to the 12th century:

• Urnes, built c.1130, still the parish church;
• Hopperstad, built c.1130, now a museum;
• Undredal, built c.1147, a museum;
• Borgund, built c.1180, a museum; and
• Kaupanger, built c.1190, and also still the parish church.

Today, of these five, Borgund, Hopperstad and Urnes come under the remit of the Society for the Preservation of Norwegian Ancient Monuments, though all five can be visited from the towns of Flåm and/or Balestrand, both of which sit upon the spectacular shores of the ‘Queen of Fjords’.

Interesting postscript:

Now here’s a curious Yorkshire coincidence. St Olav’s Church in Balestrand, which was completed in 1897, is based upon the style of the Stave churches. It was erected by Knut Kviknes (who, with his brothers, founded the Kviknes Hotel in the town) in memory of his English wife, Margaret Green (the daughter of a Yorkshire vicar) who came to Norway as a mountaineering pioneer (now, who does that remind me of?). It belongs to the Church of England and is under the spiritual administration of the Bishop of Gibraltar, and from June to August there is an Anglican communion held here by English ministers every Sunday.

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