A Pedacito of Norway's Stave Churches
Updated: Jun 19
Norway is a popular travel destination for many reasons, one being its rich history. All across the country, you’ll find remnants of the past waiting to be unearthed. Some of the oldest buildings you’ll see in Norway are stave churches that were built as Christian places of worship built between 1150 and 1350. It’s believed that as many as 2000 stave churches were built in Norway, alone. Now, only 28 still stand.
Stave churches are made entirely from wood and constructed from poles called “staver” in Norwegian. They are the embodiment of medieval Scandinavian architecture and design. Craftsmen would carve elaborate designs that mix Viking and Christian symbols into the main door, roof accents, and throughout the interior of the structure.
But over time, they started tearing down stave churches in favor of newer styles for places of worship. Luckily, a few organizations stepped in and preserved the remaining churches. In fact, the oldest stave church in Norway, the Urnes stave church, is on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Torpo Stave Church – Torpo, Norway
I visited the Torpo Stave church in 2016 on my first visit to Norway. My cousin graciously offered to drive me across the country from Oslo to Bergen on the western coast. Of course, we made many stops along the way at waterfalls, bridges, a cabin in the mountains; but we also stopped at a preserved Stave church.
The church gets its name from Torpo, a town located in southern Norway and sits about halfway between the cities Oslo and Bergen. Built in 1192, it’s the oldest standing structure in the traditional district of Hallingdal. It is also only one of two remaining Stave churches that are signed by their craftsmen.
Once inside the church, we weren’t allowed to take any pictures to best preserve the interior wood and art. Due to the cold and dark environment within the building, the artwork was well preserved and the paint still fresh looking. Large pillars formed the framework of the church and were decorated with the faces of saints. The archway above the altar had a mural of Jesus painted carefully onto it.
We noticed that the inside of the church was a much lighter color compared to the rich dark brown tone of the outside. To achieve this color, they would glaze the outside with tar. This limited the oxygen and helped preserve the wood from weathering. There were also a few irregularly shaped cutouts on the walls. In medieval times, people with ailments or diseases like leprosy were often not allowed inside during church services. To remedy this, they cut portholes into the church's walls to include them in the service and provide sacramental bread.
Inside the church, there is a display with a representation of the church in its original construction. As stave churches fell out of fashion, the Torpo stave church was partially deconstructed and the materials were used to build the Torpo church right next door.
Fantoft Stave Church – Bergen, Norway
A few years later, I made another trip to Norway to visit my family in Bergen. We made a visit to the Fantoft Stave church, a reconstruction built in the city’s Fana borough. It was originally built in Fortun in Sogn in 1150 before being moved in 1883. The church was burned down in 1992 by arsonists in a string of church burnings. The reconstruction is an exact replica of the church before the unfortunate incident.
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