Borgund Stave Church & other wooden buildings in Norway Postage Stamp: Destination

Leonard Lea Frazer

Introduction: On my first tour in Norway in 1971 I visited the Norwegian Folk Museum just outside of the capital city of Oslo. In an open air park setting 155 wooden cottages and farm buildings had been set up for visitors to explore inside and out.

These ancient wooden structures were transported from and represented different districts in Norway and were displayed in the park. An all-wood stave church from “Gol” was included in the collection. This was the first Norwegian stave church that I was to visit. I was inspired by the craftsmanship that went into building it and intrigued by the overall design.

Between the 12th and 14th Centuries there may have been as many as 2000 stave churches spread across North-western Europe. Today there are 28 remaining, all in Norway. Stave churches are characterized by the “staves” or thick wooden posts that support the main roof of each building. Held together without the use of nails or glue, they rely on expertly crafted joints and joins, all in wood. These medieval churches are notable for mixing Christian and Pagan carved designs that can be seen in doorways, on the upright staves, and on rooftops.

Church Visits:  The Gol stave church is dated to 1212. When the town of Gol built a new church around 1880, a decision was made to demolish the old stave church. However, it was saved from destruction by the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Norwegian Monuments, which bought the materials in order to re-erect the church elsewhere. It was acquired by King Oscar II, who financed its relocation and restoration as the central building of his private open-air museum near Oslo. The restoration, overseen by architect Waldemar Hansteen, was completed in 1885. In 1907, the early open-air museum, the world's first, was merged with the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History, which now manages the stave church. The church, however, is still nominally the property of the reigning monarch (King Harald V).

In the 1980s, a modern replica of the old stave church was erected in Gol as a tourist attraction in a theme park in central Gol (Norway). This replica is located a short distance from the original site of the mediaeval church. There is also another replica in the Scandinavian Heritage Park in Minot, North Dakota (USA).

Back in 1971 I travelled south of Oslo to the largest Norwegian stave church at Heddal. Due to the distinct wooden plank shingles that cover the roof and outer walls it reminded me of a huge basket. Later, I rode the train up to see the Garmo stave church situated at Maihaugen, an open-air museum in Lillehammer. It originally came from Garmo in Lom, Norway and was built circa 1150 on the site of a previous church believed to have been built in 1021 by a Viking chieftain. The church consists of 17th and 18th Century inventory with a pulpit from Romsdalen. In 1730, it was expanded into a cruciform type church.

After the new parish church was built in 1879, the Garmo stave church was demolished and the materials sold at auction. In 1882, the pieces were sold to Anders Sandvig, who brought them to Lillehammer. The old church was re-erected at Maihaugen in 1920-1921 where today it is one of the most visited stave churches in Norway.

During my most recent visit to Norway in 1993, I photographed four of these wooden houses of worship using Drummen as my home base. They included the Uvdal, Nore, Rollag, and Flesberg stave churches. The following day I travelled with my Norwegian cousin Bjorn, and his son Frank, to once again visit the Heddal stave church.

The Old Farm:  I knew that the old farm of my great-grandfather, Torvil Andersen, was within a few miles of Heddal. I wanted to visit the site and photograph the original wooden buildings of my Norwegian ancestor.

However, all I had was a photo of great-grandfather’s house. By stopping to enquire along the way at local Norwegian farms and showing the photo, we were able to locate the old family homestead. The property had a long driveway off the country road that we had been following, with cultivated high-bush blueberries growing on either side, with a winding creek running close by the house. The farmhouse was a hand-hewn log building resting on a foundation of mortar and rock. It was similar to the other old buildings that I had previously viewed in the Oslo and Lillehammer open-air museums. No one was home at great-grandfather’s farm, so we just walked around and looked at the out-buildings.

On the drive back to Heddal, I drew a map using the car’s odometer as a measuring device and was able to supply a copy to my other Norwegian relatives who were unaware of the farm’s existence.

On to Borgund: A few days later I saw the “Borgund” stave church for the first time. To get there I took the early morning train from Oslo to Bergen up into a mountain pass as far as Myrdal, and then switched to the Myrdal-Fram Railway. This was very steep section of track and the train ascended all the way to sea level at Fram. I continued down the Sognefjord on a small ferryboat to Auland. The fjord is world famous for its deep depths and high cliffs and is 205 Kilometres in length. I stayed overnight at a guest house and took a morning bus the next day to Laerdal, a village noted for its 100 year-old wooden houses throughout.

After meeting with local tourism rep Heidi Kaasa, I took a bus from Laerdal to the sight of the Borgund stave church located in the Village of Borgund. The exterior of the church had recently been coated with a dark thick layer of pine tar. This application is necessary every ten years or so to keep the wood in a state of preservation. Built between 1180 and 1250 AD, with later additions, including a porch that runs around the entire cross-shaped base, the building is the most popular stave church in Norway for visitors.

Church Tour Guide, Oda Berge, showed me the interior including a high vaulted ceiling held up with “scissor beams.” The protective wooden floor inside is removed during the winter months revealing the original floor, which is allowed air circulation during the off-season. While walking around the outer porch of the church, Oda pointed out some ancient inscriptions marked on the outer wall. She explained, while shining her flashlight on the wall, that the marks were not graffiti, but in fact centuries old short runic sentences and family names. Individuals, back in Medieval times, would pay the church for the privilege of having their name on the outside wall and thus ensuring a favourable entry into the after-life.

The wooden crucifixes above each of the three entranceways of the building, and the dragonheads on the roof peaks, illustrate the transition my Viking ancestors made from Paganism to Christianity. One of the runic inscriptions near the west portal of the church reads: “Thor wrote these runes in the evening at the St. Olav’s Mass.”

There is a replica of the Borgund stave church in Rapid City, South Dakota (USA) and in 1973 I made a special trip to visit it. My fascination with Norwegian stave churches continues today.   

 Norwegian postage stamp of the Borgund Stave Church.
Norwegian postage stamp of the Borgund Stave Church.
The Garmo Stave Church situated at an open-air museum in Lillehammer.
The Garmo Stave Church situated at an open-air museum in Lillehammer.

Visitors enter the Heddal Stave Church.
Visitors enter the Heddal Stave Church.
Fresh pine tar covers the exterior of the Borgund Church.
Fresh pine tar covers the exterior of the Borgund Church.

Details of the plank shingles on the roof of the Borgund Stave Church.
Details of the plank shingles on the roof of the Borgund Stave Church.
The Borgund Stave Church in central Norway.
The Borgund Stave Church in central Norway.

Leonard’s great-grandfather’s house in Norway.
Bottom far right: The Borgund Stave Church in central Norway.
Leonard’s great-grandfather’s house in Norway. Bottom far right: The Borgund Stave Church in central Norway.