The majority of Norway’s 28 surviving stave churches are inland in the south and centre of the country, but taken together they represent the nation’s most distinctive architectural legacy. The key feature of their design is that their timbers are placed vertically into the ground – in contrast to the log-bonding technique used by the Norwegians for everything else. Thus, a stave wall consists of vertical planks slotted into sills above and below, with the sills connected to upright posts – or staves, hence the name – at each corner. The general design seems to have been worked out in the twelfth century and common features include external wooden galleries, shingles and finials. There are, however, variations: in some churches, nave and chancel form a single rectangle, in others the chancel is narrower than, and tacked onto, the nave. The most fetching stave churches are those where the central section of the nave has been raised above the aisles to create – from the outside – a distinctive, almost pagoda-like effect. In virtually all the stave churches, the door frames (where they survive) are decorated from top to bottom with surging, intricate carvings that clearly hark back to Viking design, most memorably fantastical long-limbed dragons entwined in vine tendrils.
The origins of stave churches have attracted an inordinate amount of academic debate. Some scholars argue that they were originally pagan temples, converted to Christian use by the addition of a chancel, while others are convinced that they were inspired by Russian churches. Pagan or not, each part of the stave church acquired a symbolic Christian significance with, for example, the corner posts representing the four Gospels, the ground beams God’s apostles upon whom (literally in this case) the church was built.
In the nineteenth century, they also acquired symbolic importance as reminders of the time when Norway was independent. Many had fallen into a dreadful state of repair and were clumsily renovated – or even remodelled – by enthusiastic medievalists with a nationalist agenda. Undoing this repair work has been a major operation, and one that continues today. For most visitors, seeing one or two will suffice – and three of the finest are those at Heddal, Borgund and Urnes.