Stave Churches of Norway
Motes of dust move randomly
through the colored shafts of air,
and the grotesque skulls
and tongues of wooden gargoyles
carved from darker memories
line the lintel above the door.
I walk toward the altar
where Christ's sad face is crowned
by an ancient vine whose loose thorns
are blunt and rusted remains
of medieval nails. The dark body
of wood splits along the grain,
and a thin white blood flows.
It forms icicles that drip
in the dim light of morning sun.
There are many others kneeling with me,
but they have no weight.
Old Norse and Latin hymns are sung in silence,
and their lowered eyes burn with faith.
The lilies are gone,
and now the altar is covered by wildflowers.
The first tourists of the day arrive
on a small bus. I walk toward them,
but they cannot see the drawn crossbow
in my hands, or the paired wolves
walking by my side.
--Excerpt from "Prayer and Vision in the Stave Church at Røldal," by Ted Benttinen
Stave Churches, or stavkirker, are wooden churches built by Viking tribes when they were first converted to Christianity in the eleventh century. When Scandinavian tribes began to build large ships and to go ‘a-viking’ around the ninth century, their targets were often monasteries and churches, as they were usually wealthy and poorly defended. These raids gave the Vikings an early exposure to Christianity, and small Viking groups that settled in Ireland, England, and France intermarried with the local population and were some of the first Viking converts.
In 787, under Charlemagne’s initiative, the Anglo-Saxon St. Willibrord established a bishopric in Bremen (in modern northwest Germany), but these early missionary attempts into Scandinavia were largely unsuccessful. Conversion occurred by and large as a political strategy, and it was often a caveat of peace treaties with surrounding Christian kingdoms. Once a Viking chief accepted Christianity, his tribe did as well – at least in name. The Treaty of Wedmore in 878 required Danish leader Guthrum to leave southern England under the control of Alfred of Wessex and to accept Christianity. A Viking expedition to England in 991 led by Olaf I Tryggvason resulted in Olaf’s baptism and, upon his return to Norway, his claim to be king. Olaf began the first successful attempts to Christianize Norway, beginning with coastal regions where Christianity was already known. Olaf II Haraldsson continued his efforts, and around 1015 was recognized as king throughout Norway and completed the Christianization of the region.
This does not mean, however, that the Vikings did away with their Norse mythology and traditions. Rather, much like the conversion of Rome, existing stories and images were incorporated into Christian practice, and this is evident in the architecture and decoration of the churches they built. Stave churches blend Christian imagery and Romanesque influences with the ornate decoration and symbolism traditional to the Viking people.
The oldest surviving church is at Urnes in Sogn, Norway, and contains elements dating to 1060. The first attempts at wooden churches were posts stuck directly in the ground, which often rotted. The churches that survive today are the results of the second or third attempts. By the fourteenth century, between eight hundred and twelve hundred stave churches may have existed in northern Europe. Twenty-eight survive in Norway, many still in excellent condition. Unfortunately, a Satanist movement in the 1990’s led by heavy metal musicians wanting to reinstate Norse gods burned many of the churches, destroying twenty-two. Historical societies and private donors contributed to the construction of historically accurate replicas.
Stave refers to the upright beams used to construct the churches in a post-and-lintel style, in contrast to horizontal log construction popular in Eastern Europe. Trees were stripped of branches and left to grow for several years, resulting in a hard, sap-filled outer layer that was resistant to rot. Once the staves were cut, they were treated with tar and the foundation was laid on a bed of stones fitted without mortar, allowing drainage. Bracing and high sills joined the main staves at the four corners of the church to each other, and each vertical plank was held to the next one with tongue-and-groove joining.
The stave church style is a result of both Western European and Viking influences. The basic structure is reminiscent of the basilica, containing a nave, chancel, and apse, and inner columns with Romanesque capitals and round arches. The ceiling resembles the Gothic style, based on a system of struts and buttressing for weight distribution and bracing against wind pressure. But unlike the stone churches that were so customary in Europe and Rome, the Vikings built their churches of wood. Multi-tiered, steep roofs made of wooden shingles rise up toward the sky, many displaying both crosses and dragons heads (that so commonly adorned Viking longboats) on the tips of gables. Also unique to the stavkirker is the rich ornamentation of the carvings both inside and out, often showing zoomorphic interlacing of serpents and other animals in violent combat. Surrounding the heavily decorated entrance, or portal, to the church is a weapons porch where Viking men left their defenses.
Columns support the interior of the church, in between which are round arches that employ techniques found in ship making. Rather than forming the arch from a solid piece of wood, the carpenters fished together (joined at an angle) two “knees,” or naturally curved wood where the roots turn up to join the trunk of the tree. This technique gives the structure elasticity in heavy wind gusts.
Paintings in the stavkirker more closely resemble European Gothic art, as the Vikings had no painting tradition of their own from which to draw. Paintings mainly consist of vaulting over the nave, altar frontals, and ciboria, or fixed wooden canopies over altars. Unlike the Christian iconography depicted in every aspect of contemporary French and English Gothic churches, all narrative painting in a stave church occurs in the immediate vicinity of the altar; the rest of the church’s decoration is purely ornamental.
The paintings themselves contain similar subjects to – and the form of – later Byzantine iconography, while employing the brighter colors and fluidity of French Gothic painting. The vaulting of Torpo displays an enthroned Christ in the position of Pantocrator, surrounded by the evangelical symbols of the four gospels. The thick lines and bright colors call to mind a stained-glass window, as does the lack of dimensionality. The decorated barrel vaulting of the Ål church features a crucified Christ again in bright colors, and with a more fluid form than the Pantocrator. The artist seems to employ the Celtic horror vacui technique, filling in space with floral patterns and geometric shapes. Altar frontals often featured a series of miniatures depicting various scenes from Christ’s life. Nes church’s Madonna and Child employs Gothic framework to highlight the almost Japanese style in which the pair are portrayed – the flat noses and slanted eyes, and especially the grasping and smiling of the fat Christ child, are far from the delicate Parisian miniatures of the same time. Some of the miniatures take on aspects of Norse mythology. The altar frontal at Røldal portrays the entrance to Hell not as gates or a pit in the ground, but as the mouth of a giant, fire-spouting beast, likely a dragon.
Alongside the Christian imagery of the church, elements of Norse mythology and tradition are preserved, seemingly as a second language conveying to the Vikings the message of salvation in a manner familiar to them. Viking architects had a model for this synthesis in the form of the Heliand, an epic Saxon poem telling the story of Christ in a Viking setting. The chief holy place in Norse mythology is the evergreen ash Yggdrasil, where Woden sacrificed himself by hanging. Also known as the Tree of Universal Life, Yggdrasil is said to protect the last boy and girl, Lif and Lifthrasir, at the end of time. Heliand draws comparisons between this tree and Christ’s cross, calling the cross “a tree on a mountain.” G. Ronald Murphy, in his essay “Yggdrasil and the Stave Church,” suggests that the stave church is a type of Christian Yggdrasil, the pine staves and tiered roofs evoking a large, evergreen tree, and the appearance of both crosses and dragons on the gables pointing to the promise of salvation and the nearness of death (the great dragon Nidhogg gnaws at the roots of Yggdrasil and devours the corpses of those guilty of the worst crimes).
The heavily decorated portal, with its intertwining vines and combative animals, may be seen as the branches of Yggdrasil and the beasts that fight in the battle of doomsday, or Ragnarok. Entrance into the church, then, is the only way to escape the violence of the world, just as Yggdrasil is the salvation of Lif and Lifthrasir. Once inside the church, the crucifix and depictions of Christ’s life near the altar are reassuring, though these too carry hints of Norse mythology. In the Ål stavkirke, the image of Christ carrying his cross to Calvary depicts a green tree with the branches sawn off rather than the typical image of the cross. The altar frontal from Røldal depicts Christ’s harrowing of Hell as the releasing of souls from the mouth of a great serpent.
In accepting Christianity and in building churches, the Vikings did not give up their culture steeped in mythology. Rather, they made the message of Christ and salvation a part of their story. The stavkirker, in their structure and decoration unlike any other church style, are monuments to this translation.
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Murphy, G. Ronald. “Yggorasil and the stave church.” Mythlore 31, no. 1-2 (September 22, 2012): 5-26.
Olsen, Ted. “Rising from the Ashes: Congregations rebuild after Satanist arsons.” Christianity Today, 19 November, 1997, http://web.a.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail?sid=f6d2deb0-29b8-4cab-ab28-6a87894e536f%40sessionmgr4003&vid=1&hid=4104&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=aph&AN=232248 (accessed February 1, 2014).
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