Norwegian Stave Churches by Roar Hauglid

 

Reviewed by Jordsvin

 

 

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     Well, here’s something I never thought I’d be doing: reviewing a book on churches for a Heathen magazine!  However, this book is well worth a Heathen’s valuable time.  This review will be more detailed than most I have written.

      The stave churches of Norway preserve much of the best techniques of the “vernacular” (= pertaining to the common people) building traditions of pre-Christian Scandinavia.  These churches were built relatively soon, in many cases very soon, after the forced Christianization of Norway by the Kings Ólafr of ill memory.  Stave-building techniques are archeologically attested for pre-Christian Scandinavia and lasted longest in Norway.

     “What the Hel is a ‘stave church’ anyway?” you might ask.  The word “stave” has to do with a piece of wood like the staves of a barrel.  These are much longer than they are wide and are in a vertical rather than a horizontal position.   Wood has always been the building material of choice in that part of the world.  Populations were relatively sparse compared to countries further south, and much of the land has always been forested.  The building of large stone edifices (with the exception of the much older megalithic monuments) only came in with Christianity and foreign stonemasons were often brought in for such undertakings.

     It is amazing that so many stave churches have survived in whole or in part (we only have a few pieces of some, mostly doorways, saved at demolition for their particularly beautiful woodcarvings).  Climate has much to do with their preservation.  While it is wet in Norway, it is cold too.  I suspect that few if any termites live there, with the possible exception of recent accidental introductions, and this would help wooden buildings to last.  In addition, the staves were put on sills or foundations of stone in many cases, which helped prevent rot from ground moisture seeping into the wood.  Staves whose ends are buried in the ground rot much more quickly.  Finally, the construction-quality wood in that part of the world is largely from coniferous trees, and the resins they contain can inhibit decay.

     Economics played a role as well.  Until less than a century ago, the Scandinavian countries were very poor and not heavily populated in terms of the amount of territory they contain.  That former endemic poverty is why there are so many people of Scandinavian descent living in places like the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand!  The populations of the areas where the stave churches have survived never became big enough to need a new church or rich enough to be able to afford one!  Many, in fact, are still in use as parish churches even today!

     Despite many virtually miraculous survivals, all in all time has not been kind to the stave churches, and they are by no means out of danger.  Many were pulled down as late as the 19th Century.  Unfortunately, a self-proclaimed Heathen burned one down ten years ago.  This is particularly ironic in light of the fact that these churches are probably as close as we are ever going to get to being able to take a close-up look at an old-time Heathen Hof.  They were often built on Heathen sacred sites, and used the materials, techniques and decorations current in the place and time.  They don’t look much of anything like the churches in the rest of Europe.  Where imported art styles and architectural features have been incorporated into them, they are obvious to anyone with a working knowledge of Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles.  In any case, it is fascinating to see replicated in wood bits and pieces of those styles otherwise seen only in stone buildings much further south.  They seldom clash enough with the native building style to render the overall effect inharmonious.  The effect is often quite the opposite.  St. Andrew’s crosses look for all the world like Gebo Runes to me, and some of them even have sun-wheels in the middle of them!

     Art and architecture are not all that is preserved in stave churches.  They contain much Runic graffiti as well.  Graffiti in Norwegian Stave Churches (Medieval Art in Norway) by Martin Blindheim is an entire book on the subject that I may review someday.  Some of the carvings decorating these churches are overtly Heathen, although usually of Heroes rather than Gods.  An exception is a well-known woodcarving, unfortunately not in this book, of a one-eyed man with his tongue lolling out as if hanged.  Now I wonder who THAT could be?

     Interest in the stave churches of Norway seems to have become renewed in the 19th Century, possibly as a result of the Romantic revival.  Even where they were pulled down, someone thought to save the best of the woodcarvings.  Detailed plans and drawings were made of some churches no longer in existence.  These could be used to build replicas, and at least in one case, that of the church burnt in 1994, this indeed has been done.  In some churches, faithful replicas were made of decaying sculptures when the churches were repaired or restored.  Interest in these historical monuments has not been limited to Norway only.  Replicas have been built in the USA, and many disused churches were taken apart and reassembled on the grounds of museums in Norway.  One was even sold to the King of Prussia, and is still the parish church of a small village which is now just on the other side of the Polish border!

     Norwegian Stave Churches is truly a beautiful book.  The black and white photography shows the details of the woodwork very nicely.  The occasional English grammatical errors in the text by R. I. Christophersen do not detract in the least from the book’s readability.  Many of the churches are set in exceptionally beautiful landscapes.  Many have been enlarged (and/or made smaller) over the centuries, but are still beautiful.

     Some of them incorporate pieces of even older stave churches.  This somewhat surprised me.  I knew that building-wood was frequently reused in wood-poor Iceland, but not in well-forested Norway.  I suspect that the man-hours required to produce intricate, detailed wood-carving with hand tools has more to do with this happening in Norway!

     I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the architectural and artistic heritage of the Germanic peoples.  I especially recommend it to anyone thinking about or even dreaming of building a Hof.  A Hof built according to these techniques would be a beautiful and enduring contribution to Heathenry, although I would add that wood of course being flammable, it should be constructed in a tolerant area.  Imagine a Hof erected to our Gods and Goddesses in authentic Heathen-Era building styles, with statues and carvings depicting their stories, commemorative inscriptions in Runes, and much, much more!

     Unfortunately, this book was published in 1970 (by Dreyers Forlag in Oslo, Norway).  It is thus both an import item and long out of print.  I came across my copy purely by chance at a local quality used bookstore I check out from time to time and paid only thirty-five dollars for it.  The only copy I was able to find on amazon.com was listed at well over two hundred dollars.  Yet again, interlibrary loan at your local public library might be able to come to the rescue!  In the meantime, a search of “stave churches” on google.com will uncover plenty of material, including color photographs.  I invite all you budding Heathen architects to get busy!

 

Jordsvin

Created by Chandonn and Jordsvin

all works used by permission of the authors

last modified 06/23/2004