In my opinion, there is nothing more iconic to Norway than the wooden stavkirke (stave church). They are wooden churches (usually very old and many from the Middle Ages) that were built in a certain manner. They are considered to be Norway's most important contribution to European architecture. It is thought that there were more 750 stave churches in Norway at some point. Now there are just 28 preserved churches, most in complete, restored condition and a lot still in regular use.
Many stave churches are decorated on the outside with elaborate dragons heads and scrolls and intricately carved woodwork, none of which looks particularly Christian, but does look very Nordic. Although the dragons are reminiscent somewhat of gargoyles that are so familiar on many European cathedrals. Lots of these carvings are thought to be influenced from other buildings in the times before Christianity came to Norway and have been incorporated into the the stave churches' ornamentation.
One thing you notice when draw close to a stavkirke is the smell. They have a very distinctive smell to them of warm wood, but also a smell of tar. The tar is the preserving substance that also gives them that dark brown or black appearance and makes them seem big and brooding against the green forests and fields, or the white of the snow in winter.
The art doesn’t stop at the door. Although the inside of the churches is quite often a lot less elaborate than many southern European churches, it is understated and very Scandinavian. Much of the carving inside the churches and inside the portal would have been painted and only some of that remains now as it would have been.
There is lots of rosemaling and hand-painted pews, and much of the art on the walls is quite naïve, but also calming and some of it as old as the churches themselves with pieces that look like they belong only in a museum. Some of the pews are decorated and inscribed with the names of the parishioners' families who might have lived for generations in the parish and no doubt attended the church every Sunday for hundreds of years.
I am lucky enough to live close to one of Norway's oldest stave churches, Høyjord in Vestfold county. It was built in the 11th century in typical stave church style looking very much like a Norse longhouse with the addition of a steeple. It's one of Norway's lesser known stave churches because of it's slightly obscure location, but to my mind, is just as beautiful and significant as the others with it's pleasingly clean lines and graduating heights.
Stave churches were constructed with a ship shape just like a Norse longhouse with 2 inner rows of columns. They are all wood and the roof is wooden tiles. This style of building dates back to prehistoric times and can still be seen throughout Norway and even as far south as Saxony in Germany.
So next time you look at a stave church or if you get the chance to visit one, you are looking at more than just a church. You are witnessing architecture that has survived thousands of years and is deeply entrenched in Nordic culture, influencing art, design and even modern architecture today.
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