Between the 7 th and 11 th centuries, the Viking people of Norway were an active force in Western Europe. They raided, pillaged, and generally struck fear into the hearts of the Christianized Germanic tribes of the West; they were in almost constant contact with the Christian religion. In an effort to create a united Norway, the two kings ruling between 995 and 1030 (both named Olaf) turned to Christianity to provide the glue that would hold their volatile, violent society together. It was these specific circumstances that brought about the design and construction of what would eventually become not only the staple of medieval Norway but one of the most unique styles of church architecture that the world would ever see: stave churches.
However, whereas many pagan temples were merely converted into church buildings in England, the Vikings, true to their nature, wanted to destroy the old temples and start anew. By the time churches were being erected in Norway, the popularity of Romanesque stone basilicas had grown immensely in the south. However, most of the contact Norwegians had with Christianity up to this point in time had been on the fringes of Western civilization; in modern day Ireland, England, and the coasts of France, churches made of wood, yet laid out in traditional basilica style, would have still been prevalent. Though general European influence characterized the Norwegian church buildings, indigenous elements left an obvious mark.
10/31/2008 The conversion from paganism to Christianity in Norway was in many ways similar to the conversion of other Germanic tribes populating the West. Like in the Anglo-Saxon world, Christian leaders found it easier to construct churches over original locations of pagan temples.
Using their highly advanced carpenter skills and cultural ingenuity, they began to create what are known today as stavkirker , or “stave churches”. Thanks to leaders who strongly supported the spread of Christianity and the building of churches, such as Olaf, Eystein, and Sigurd I, the government actually mandated the creation and maintenance of these churches. These churches, located primarily in the East, were created by peasants and were considered public property. At the same time, zealous local reigning families, direct descendents of Viking lords also commissioned the construction of their own private churches, which were located largely in western Norway. Some of the most elaborate ornamentation found in the surviving stave churches is found along the rural coast of the west. Historians believe that there may have been nearly 322 stave churches in Norway, of which a remarkable 24 still stand. These churches continued to be built and remained the most prominent style of church built in Norway from 1000 to around 1300, when the Black Death greatly slowed the expansion process and the Norwegians realized that they had a large enough number of churches.
The architecture of the stavkirker is what separates them from nearly every other type of church built at the time. The word stav does not translate directly into English, but it is generally agreed upon that the word is in reference to the thick, tall mast-like pillars that gave these churches support. These masts rest upon a series of horizontal sleeper supports that lie underneath the floorboards in the church; the pillars that are rooted at the intersection of the sleepers provide most of the support for the entire structure.
10/31/2008 The sleepers that the masts connect to are placed upon stone foundations, which are raised just slightly above the ground. This protects the major parts of the foundation of the church from moisture, the greatest obstacle for the longevity of wooden structures. These stone foundations were generally the only part of the entire church that would be made of stone. The entire rest of the structure would be composed of wood, usually pine, although oak was sometimes used as well.
The height of the columns that supported the church allowed for a number of unusual stylistic elements in the church. The main columns in the church at Borgund were 35 ½ feet tall and supported the entire building. In both the wooden churches being built in the East and the stone churches in the West, the lofty and impressive ceilings were supported by the thick, sturdy walls on the perimeter of the building and by domes mounted on pendentives. The walls in stave churches, however, did not bear any of the weight of the building; in fact, the walls were essentially hung from overhead sleepers connected to the masts and contributed to the weight pulling down on the foundation. The stave churches also lacked any sort of dome and pendentive system; at the top of the masts, small slat walls connected the lower roof to the second lofted roof. Near the lofty ceiling, a complex system of beams and arches help spread the pressure from the top of the structure out among the masts. The flexibility gained from the tension-based support system built around sturdy masts allowed the buildings to withstand the high winds and inclement weather typical of coastal Norway.
The layout of the interior of the church was very similar to the traditional layout of Christian basilicas. Most stave churches were rectangular and contained the same basic divisions found in stone basilicas. The church at Borgund, one of the most well preserved stave churches and something of an icon in Norway, is a plain but good example. In the center of the structure is the traditional nave surrounded on both sides by two very narrow aisles. Wooden benches would be lined up in the usual fashion facing the altar, which would sit beneath the apse at the end of the nave. The primary reason why this interior layout is so common, even near the physical boundaries of Christianity is that Western Christian liturgy by this time had become almost entirely standard among all followers. Though deviations from this traditional layout were occasionally found, it was simply much more conducive to the practices of the Christian church.
Stave Church Decoration 10/31/2008 Along with the traditional layout, the Norwegians also borrowed various forms of decoration from western churches, most of which they would have experienced during their pre-Christian raids. Paintings were one of the main forms of decoration used in stave churches. Above the altar, on the curved wall of apse, like in many other Christian churches, large pictures or murals highlight religious figures and motifs. Some of the most elaborate and well-preserved paintings from Medieval Norwegians actually come from the front of the altar itself. The subject of the altar-front paintings often is the Virgin mother and Jesus as a child, a popular movement at the time of the creation of stave churches. The paintings themselves were created using an oil-base glaze with a chalk base on pinewood. Afterwards, the altar would be decorated with gold or silver or carved further.
Although much of their painting and capital work was borrowed, the influence of the indigenous Norwegian culture is obvious in many churches. In one particular portal in Hylestad, a stave church in Saetesdal, a carving can be found relating the story of Sigurd Dragon Slayer, a Norse mythological hero, along with an inscription saying, “His name shall be known as long as the world exists.”
10/31/2008 At Borgund, dragonheads decorate the corners of the roofs in an attempt to ward evil spirits away from the building. Although the country had been Christianized, it is clear through the decoration at these churches that many ideals of the culture remained the same.
Stave Church Doors 10/31/2008 While the carvings found at the tops of columns and the paintings found in and around the apse give us interesting looks into the artistic influences that other cultures had upon the Norwegian Christians, the finest example of elaborate ornamentation in stave churches exists around the doorways. The Norwegian people clearly picked up a penchant for zoomorphic figures while warring against the Celtic people in present-day Ireland. Combining these Celtic zoomorphic patterns with their traditional ribbon-like interlace, the creators of the stave churches created some of the most elaborate and beautiful decorative carvings of the Medieval ages. One of the most ornate doorway sculptures is at the church at Gol; large, zoomorphic figures writhe and contract among one another while smaller interlacing ribbons connect the figures, creating an even stronger sense of flow.
One of the primary influences on the building of stave churches comes directly from one of the Viking peoples’ greatest strengths: shipbuilding. The Vikings had been using brilliantly designed longboats to harass the people of Western Europe for centuries; by the time they were building stave churches in the 11 th and 12 th century, they had been world-class shipbuilders for centuries. The most obvious architectural link between stave churches and traditional Viking ships is the design of the supports. In Viking longboats, a large mast would be placed into the center of the ship, which would eventually be attached to the keel, the boat-length horizontal spine of the ship. The entire strength of the longboat relied upon these two immense supports.
More Similarities to Viking Longboats 10/31/2008 The looseness of the rest of the church structure also mimicked the architecture of Viking longboats. When their ships were out to sea, battling against strong winds during violent storms, an inflexible boat could be in danger of breaking and sinking; however, this flexibility allows the boat to groan and twist at the whim of the sea, unharmed by the weather. One specific architectural tool that was not only unique to stave church architecture, but also very important to the flexibility of the structure of the church itself, was the inverted arch. Aside from the mast and the keel, the Vikings’ ships were composed primarily of inverted arches, which ran from the keel up to the end of the wall next to the deck. The same inverted arches can be found among the gabled ceilings of the stave church. As the structure leans and creaks, the inverted arches push upon each other, increasing the elasticity of the entire thing.