I really shouldn’t write about stave churches. First off, it’s really way too much for a blog post. Second, I’m not an expert. I’m just an awestruck fan. Also, there are doctoral theses, documentaries, articles, research projects, books, lectures, artworks and chock-full web pages that you can scroll through that will tickle your fancy for medieval woodworking. You can also find stave churches in our folklore and even fairy tales if you prefer a more mythical perspective. Then again, who needs all that when you have the Lost Art Press blog and a mediocre Norwegian chairmaker to tell you all about them? It’s just woodworking, after all!
I’m joking of course. I’m a complete moron compared to the people that built the stave churches. These buildings are all unique woodworking wonders that put on display some of the most incredible craftsmanship that existed in Europe during the Middle Ages. Along with our Viking ships, the stave churches are by far Norway’s largest and most important contribution to the World Heritage Sites. So if you ever come to Norway, forget about brown cheese and the midnight sun. Go to church instead!
A Brief History of Something Very Old
Research estimates that during the Middle Ages (ca. years 500-1500), somewhere between 1,500 to 2,000 stave churches were built in Norway. They were probably also common throughout other parts of Northern Europe. However today there are only 30 left in the world. And 28 of them are in Norway. The other two are the Hedared Stave Church in Sweden and Vang Stave Church in Poland. The latter was built in the village of Vang, Norway, about 1150. In 1842 it was taken apart and transported to Poland, where it was rebuilt. And remember, this was before U-Haul.
The construction of stave churches abruptly ended in the 1400s. Most of them disappeared during the period from 1350-1650, possibly due to the Black Plague and the Protestant Reformation. The 28 churches left in Norway were all built somewhere between 1150 and 1350.
The name “stave church” derives from the wooden posts that were the load-bearing elements in these timber frame constructions. These posts were placed vertically on top of sleepers (horizontal beams) that were clamped between corners and larger posts that were placed into the ground. On top of the posts, new beams were placed. This created frames that were completed with raised boards. In the Old Norse language, a post in a timber frame construction was called a “stafr.” The name since evolved into the word “stav,” which is used today and means the same.
Picking Perfect Pine
Pine (Pinus sylvestris) has always been abundant in Norway. In dense forest they grow straight and tall, and usually with few branches along the stem. This made them perfect for Viking ships and stave churches. On top of these attributes, the Vikings were also extremely picky about the trees they used. They had a deep knowledge of how to exploit and even manipulate the trees into becoming perfect for their intended use.
They did this by first picking slow-growing mountain pines, often in the range of 200-300 years old. These trees had a much larger amount of heartwood, with very little space between the growth rings. They were then debranched and had their top cut off, before they were left standing for another 15-20 years. The resin then seeped into the heartwood and saturated it completely. The result was a highly resinous and dense heartwood. This is called ore-pine and is virtually rot-resistant. All the stave churches were built using this technique. The ore-pine was preferred for the main staves and beams, the wall boards and the roof tiles. Ore-pine is still widely used today in Norway in house construction and other areas.
Another ancient Scandinavian tradition is the use of pine tar for protecting wood against harsh weather conditions. The tar was made by stacking highly resinous pine heartwood under an airtight cover of clay and other materials, and then lighting the wood on fire. After burning for up to two days, the wood was decomposed into charcoal and pine tar. This was then smeared onto the stave churches to further prevent them against rot.
By Hand & Axe
No one really knows who built the stave churches and where they learned their craft. The distinct style is also up for debate. Some think they came to life during a period of cultural vacuum here in the north. Others believe that they are a result of imported traditions and culture from Europe. Some have argued that the stave churches are inspired by the Roman basilicas. Others again thought they sprung out of the old heathen hofs, which was the Old Norse term for pagan temples. While others insisted that they were built by trolls and other mythical creatures. I’m pretty sure someone will soon claim that Hillary Clinton and a bunch of aliens were the ones who really built them.
What we do know is that the churches were without nails and mostly without wooden pegs as well. Even the roof shingles were often laid without the use of pegs or nails. While some early stave churches had board roofs that were pegged, most churches built after year 1200 had tar-covered roof shingles. Using tar-covered shingles on outer walls was also a common practice.
The skilled people who built our stave churches used a wide range of tools. The most important were different types of axes, augers, plumb bobs and a set of tools that I really don’t know the English words for – the pjål, the skavl and the skjøve. While that may sound like the Norwegian title of a famous movie starring Clint Eastwood, I assure you it’s not. The pjål, also called veggskave (wall scraper) was a an edge tool fastened onto a long wooden shaft and was used two-handed in a scraping action along the wall boards to joint them and smooth axe marks. There were also special types of pjåls that were used for more ornamental shaping. The pjål probably came in many sizes and shapes.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Besides some technical and architectural variations, the stave churches are generally similar in both construction and ornamentation. Each church has portals decorated with carvings, some more than others. A common theme in these carvings is fighting dragons, lions and intricate vines. Researchers argue whether this iconography is pagan or not. The carvings do not have any direct biblical references. Despite this, some think that the iconography is a pagan interpretation of Christianity, which was a new thing during the time many of the churches were built. Norway was Christianized around year 1020. In any case, they are extremely impressive. In addition to the portals, there are intricate carvings and detailed decorations to be found all over the churches’ interiors, the staves themselves, walls and all around the churches.
Where Did They Go?
So, if the church builders were this meticulous about making the churches resistant against Norway´s rainy and cold coastal climate, why did so many of the stave churches disappear? According to the experts, most of them were taken down in order to build larger churches to house more people as the population grew. Fires, avalanches, storms and general decay were other reasons. In 1650, Norway had 270 stave churches left. Around 1800, the number was 95.
In 2001 most of the stave churches were in a bad state, so the Norwegian government started funding a project to renovate and preserve them better. The 28 left today are in good shape. They´re all open to visitors and some of them are still being used for religious services, weddings, funerals and other ceremonies.
So, unless you´re a satanic arsonist, suffer from ecclesiophobia or are afraid of trolls and Vikings, please come visit our stave churches. We need more woodworking tourists to counter all the ones that just want to take a fjord selfie.