Dating mostly from the 12th and 13th centuries, stave churches are a unique Norwegian contribution to medieval architecture. They are constructed in the country's traditional building material, wood, and incorporate structural principles that antedate the coming of Christianity to Norway. In plan they owe much to the Romanesque basilicas of western Europe, being divided into nave, choir, and apse; the manner in which the main roof is raised above the aisles and the handling of the inner columns, with carved capitals and round arches in between, are additional evidence for this view. There is, however, nothing comparable to their complicated wooden framing system in the contemporary architecture of western Europe; it is this system, together with the exceedingly rich decoration, that gives stave churches their distinctive character and historical importance. The heavy wooden posts (or staves) are fitted together within a vertical and horizontal framework. The horizontal foundation beam, resting on a stone sill, supports the vertical corner posts, which are fastened together by, and bear the weight of, an upper crossbeam. The walls consist of thick planks, the ends of which are sunk in the lower and upper crossbeams and are fitted together by a tongue-and-groove method. This scheme is repeated upward in diminishing scale so that the church has a pronounced verticality within its generally pyramidal shape. A great deal of cross bracing of various types also is employed. While on the interior, space soars upward through the different levels, the exterior is covered with shell-shaped wooden shingles. These, combined with the numerous dragons' heads, give the whole structure a fantastic appearance.
The essential elements are the four great corner posts, or staves. These were traditionally made from a special type of pine tree having much red marrow and little sap, with the convenient virtue of rarely splitting or cracking. The inner columns also were called staves, but these might be of a different type of wood. The entire system is in a certain sense analogous to Gothic architecture in that it utilized a static skeleton that could undertake the dual task of framing the walls and supporting the roof. The sources, however, are to be sought not in the sophisticated masonry techniques of the continent but in the native building traditions of Norway. These were developed by the Vikings in the early Middle Ages, and can be seen well in such relics as the Oseberg and Gokstad ships. Many analogies can be drawn between stave churches and Viking sea vessels. Strzygowski is the chief exponent of this connection; he went so far as to call these buildings "mast churches." Recent scholarship, while accepting his general contention, has not been quite so insistent on a maritime derivation of the structure. Nonetheless, it is true that the central space of the stave church was usually called "skipet" or ship. Furthermore, the structure, like the boats that sailed to North America, was designed to withstand the fierce storms that are a feature of the Norwegian climate.
While the stave churches are generally alike in their basic structural scheme, they vary widely in plan, form, and decoration. Urnes on the Sognefjord is the oldest; parts of it may date from about 1030, shortly after the introduction of Christianity. This church is notable also for the fine carvings around the north portal. The theme of these carvings clearly owes much to Viking precedent; it closely resembles that of the Oseberg ship. The portal decorations show the strange animals of Norse myth and fable, interlocked in bold coils and carved in high relief. The carvings exhibit a blend of elegant rhythm and powerful movement characteristic of the best Norwegian art in every period. Similar work, though not of the same quality, is found in other stave churches.
The most elaborate series of paintings is probably to be found in the Torpo stave church dating mostly from the mid-13th century. Here the choir vault is covered by an elaborate painting with a fairly conventional iconographic scheme: Christ in majesty surrounded by symbols of the four evangelists and the twelve apostles. Below is depicted the martyrdom of Saint Margaret of Antioch. In technique and subject matter the work is much closer to the art of western Europe than are the Urnes carvings. Painted altar frontals may be found at Heddal in East Norway and at Ulvik.
The golden age of the stave church occurred in the 12th century when the sons of King Magnus ruled in Norway. At this time a sound economic background had been laid by the introduction of tithes under King Sigurd Jorsalafar, and the church grew to a real power in the land with the institution of a native Norwegian archbishopric. This happy interlude of stable government was broken by the arrival of the priest Sverre, who split the country into warring factions. Heathen times were still so close that the oldest members of the community could describe them to their sons and grandsons. Much of the pagan spirit still survived, and the building of stave churches up and down the land may therefore be viewed as one aspect of a crusade. They were intended to provide a home for the new Christian faith from seacoast towns to remote interior valleys. Like the early Christian basilicas of ancient Rome, they were often built on sites consecrated to pagan worship. A few even incorporate parts of older structures. Apparently between 500 and 600 churches were built, of which about 25 remain. These are an eloquent testimonial of the building art in medieval Norway.
Bibliography: j. strzygowski, Early Church Art in Northern Europe (New York 1929). Norwegian Architecture throughout the Ages, ed. e. alnaes et al. (Oslo 1950), chiefly illustrative with a historic survey by g. eliassen. a. r. bugge, Norwegian Stave Churches, tr. r. christophersen (Oslo 1953). Norway: Paintings from the Stave Churches (UNESCO; New York 1955), pref. r. hauglid, introd. l. grodecki. g. kavli, Norwegian Architecture, Past and Present (London 1958).
[l. k. eaton]