An ancient design made from wood and dating back to the medieval era, the stave church is an architectural marvel. These Christian church buildings were once a common sight all across Western Europe, however there are now only a few examples still standing. The largest of these are in Norway, with Heddal Stave Church being the biggest and Urnes Stave Church is the oldest and one that is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
These churches derive their name from their structure and construction as they are made of a timber frame with load-bearing posts called stav in Norwegian or stafr in Old Norse. The churches are a variation on the palisade construction style and the architecture derives inspiration from the Viking Age, when logs were split into halves and then set into the ground before being given a roof. Most of the stave churches that are still standing were built around 1150 to 1350 A.D., although a few built before this have been discovered through archaeological excavation and through mention in ancient written sources. Norway is the best place to see authentic stave churches and there are around 28 of varying size, style, and structure remaining in the country.
Many were replaced or destroyed as the world moved towards masonry as the primary construction style, and so those that remain are a link to the world we left behind. There is something so simple and yet beautifully stunning in the woodwork and artistry that goes into the design of these buildings. All of the buildings attract a great deal of tourists and attention and you can even tour the country using the churches as a travel map if you are so inclined.
The largest example is the Heddal Stave Church, which is a triple nave stave church in Notodden. It was built at the beginning of the 13th century and restoration work began in 1849; however, as the workers lacked some of the necessary skills and knowledge, further restoration work had to be carried out in the 1950s. There is a legend that the church was built in three days by a mountain troll who asked the farmer Raud to either guess his name, give him his lifeblood, or fetch him the sun and moon as payment. The farmer chose to guess his name as it seemed the least dangerous option and luckily heard the troll’s wife singing of the plan as he strolled through the mountains desperately trying to figure it out. The church's historical and cultural importance is matched only by the impressive size and beauty of its construction.
All the churches differ slightly when it comes to the interior design, but for the most part they are just as intrinsically designed as they appear to be from outside. Whilst the more modern churches boast stunning stained-glass windows, the key feature of most of the stave churches are carvings and geometrical figures depicting religious stories and articles of the faith.