baleanoptera: (Norge Stavechurch)
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the roof of Hopperstad Stave Church

The first two things you will notice about stave churches are that they are not very big, and secondly that they smell of tar. The tar smell is distinctive, almost all encompassing. And it changes with the seasons.

In winter the smell will be soft and blended with the clear scent of cold. In summer it will be heavy and heady. Sometime you visit a church that has been newly tarred, and then you can almost smell the building before you see it. The boards and the pillars will have a glistening, dark coat and they will be sticky to touch.

I guess the reason I mention tar is that, in a way, its smell is a constant reminder that these are buildings constructed from what was living matter. These buildings are made of wood.

Fantoft Stave Church, near the city of Bergen

The time frame of the stave churches are from the late 11th Century, to the end of the 13th century. After this the church builders seem to prefer stone. Now this makes the churches some of the oldest existing buildings in Norway, and parts of the timber have been dated as nearly 800 years old. I often ponder that when I visit the churches, that they are constructed by material that was alive long before there was a notion of something called Norway. Granted there are stone churches that are older, but stone is not wood and was never alive in the same way. Maybe it is silly that this distinction is important to me, but it is.

Two drawings showing the interior of Borgund stave church. Notice how it is all constructed around a square?

The name stave church is derived from the architectural construction. The buildings frame is based on four main posts that create a square. Around these posts the rest of the building is constructed. Posts are known as stav in Norwegian, (stafr in Old Norse), hence the name.

Detail of Borgund Exterior

The frame is stabilised by various support pillars, and beams in the shape of St. Andrew crosses. There are few if any windows, leaving you with a small church room seemingly filled with twilight. This makes visiting a stave church something of a strange experience. I’m used to churches being filled with light, or at least having light as a pivotal aesthetic, but not with the stave church. The moment you step inside its church room you are in a world of your own. The light from the world outside is not let through – it is just you and whatever holy you think is represented there. It is all a bit daunting. But then again the stave church is a place of otherness and mystery, so perhaps it is fitting. Let me explain what I mean.

Dragon roof beam at Lom Church

The exterior is usually dominated by sloping roofs, and wonderful carvings. Dragon heads on the roof beams, highly ornate portals and pillars. I’ve talked about one such portal before, but all the stave churches portals are organic and filled with slithering monsters. Those that are not depict scenes from the sagas, such as the story of Sigurd that kills the dragon Fafnr. Sometimes the monsters spills out on the pillars as well, and they take on such wondrous shapes that the art historians still argue about exactly what they are meant to be.

The portal of Hedal Church, please note that this is a different church than the one called Heddal mentioned below

Some of the churches, usually the largest ones, have a small corridor circling the church room proper. These are known in Norwegian as lønnganger, where ganger means corridor or space you can walk in, and lønn means secret and hidden. I think the lønn is particularly apt, as these walkways are neither inside nor outside the church. They are between places, between the outside and the holy room at the churches centre.
In the back of the church, where a wall is all that separates this corridor from the apse with the altar, this passageway will be at its darkest. There you can usually find symbols carved into the wall by who knows how many people over the years. Some are runes, some are crosses. Others are symbols of specific farms or families – while others again are mixes of all of these. Runes about travelling ended with a cross for example or a farm symbol with the harvest rune in conjuncture. These symbols can sometimes be found other places in the churches as well, but that dark between place betwixt the altar and the outside? There you will always find them.

Monster on a pillar from Borgund church. Is it a lion or a dragon? That is the debate.

The myth and magic doesn’t stop there. Most stave churches have a legend connected to their founding, usually about how the church was built by trolls or giants. Or how the trolls or the devil tried to stop the building of the church in the first place. In that respect the one connected to Heddal stave church is pretty symptomatic:

My favourite! Heddal Stave Church. Incidentally also the largest of all these churches. My grandparents lived on a farm ten minutes from this church, and you could see it from their kitchen window. Very cool.

Once upon a time five of the farmers in Heddal agreed upon building a church in the valley. One of them, named Raud Rygi, one day ran into a stranger who promised to build the church. But on one condition; when the church was finished, Raud had either to bring him the sun and the moon, the blood of his heart or guess the strangers name. Raud thought it would bee more than enough time to discover the man's name, and so he made the deal.

But alas, he didn't get very much time. During the first night all the timber was in place, the second night the tower was raised, and the third day the church would be finished. Fearing for his life, Raud strolled along his fields desperately wondering how to guess the strangers name. Then he heard the most beautiful song coming from inside the nearby mountain:
"Hush, hush, little baby do –
Tomorrow father, Finn, will bring to you,
Moon and sun and Christian heart
As toys for you, so nice and smart".

The riddle was solved! The builder was the "troll" Finn, who lived in the nearby mountain. That's how Raud saved his life and Heddal got its church. But the troll couldn't stand the sound of the church bells every Sunday, and therefore moved with all his family to the mountain, Himingen.

Heddal Church in snow

Now I would argue that most holy buildings are places of mystery and myth, but with the stave churches it is tangible and overtly present. The feeling of something supernatural is displayed in the portals, sometimes there are dark passages that leads to walls covered with runes and there are myths and legends surrounding each and every church. Since I love myths and mysteries I guess that is part of why I like these buildings so much. Also I think they are stunningly beautiful.

The title is from an old Norwegian psalm. I found it a bit appropriate.

ETA: Be warned as there might be a part two to this entry. ;)


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