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Directorate for Cultural Heritage

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The Stave Churches

Urnes stave church. Photo: Håkon Christie / Directorate for Cultural Heritage

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During the Middle Ages, church construction of stave design and related methods of construction was to be found over most of North-West Europe. Aside from Hedared Church in Sweden and Greensted Church in England, however, it is only in Norway that this type of medieval church has been preserved.

What is a stave church?

Stave churches are named after the supporting staves in the construction of the walls. These are placed in the corners and at other important connecting points in the churches.

The stave churches that have been preserved to date are by no means identical. They consist of different types: built at different times, by different types of craftsmen and at differing levels of ambition. Some of them have many columns in their interior, others far fewer. A number of them are extremely simple, with just one room and no columns. Others have been richly decorated, with carved portals and pillar ornamentation.

There aren’t many left

During the thirteenth century, the Kingdom of Norway was at the height of its powers and had its own archbishopric, with its seat in Trondheim. At that time there were still just under a thousand stave churches, spread over most of the country. In all, it is thought that the country had over two thousand churches.

Today, there are 28 left. Most of these are to be found in the inner part of Østlandet and in Sogn. Stave churches are reckoned to be the most outstanding wooden buildings that have been created in our cultural complex, in terms of construction, choice of materials, décor and furnishings.

Can the stave churches be used?

A number of the stave churches are in use as ordinary congregational churches. It is wonderful that many people can enjoy the stave churches all year round, and in this way become familiar with this aspect of the Norwegian building heritage. This is a challenge when it comes to taking care of the painted décor, which may become exposed to the risk of damage when the buildings are warmed up, or when it comes to the desire for structural change.

Experience and specialist expertise are required to restore and maintain them. Traditional handicraft and material knowledge needs to be obtained, for example. Many of the church owners do not have the means to restore the churches without considerable state contributions.

The stave churches are interesting cultural remains that arouse both pleasure and wonder, and they attract a large number of tourists. Urnes Stave Church, which is on the UNESCO World Heritage List, receives approximately ten thousand visitors per annum.

This is a happy state of affairs, but at the same time it presents a challenge. On the one hand, tourist visits on a large scale cause wear and tear to both the buildings and the décor. On the other hand, the visitors’ presence leads to considerable activity around the churches, which provides a source of income for the local community. The challenge, then, is to provide a form of tourism that offers a good experience for visitors and positive benefits from their presence for the local community, at the same time ensuring that the stave churches are not destroyed by too much wear and tear.

The Stave Church Preservation Programme