Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Borgund Stave Church (Borgund stavkyrkje) is a stave church located in Borgund, Lærdal, Norway. Built between 1180 and 1250 AD, it is one of only 28 surviving stave churches in Norway. It was originally a Roman Catholic church, but after Norway converted to Lutheranism in 1537 it became part of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Norway.

It is considered the most beautiful stave church in the world.

Wood is scarce in Norway, and Norway remained an agricultural, peasant society into the early decades of the 20th century. Except for Oslo, there were few cities and most localities were at best villages (not towns) and most homes built of stone and sod with little wood. Because iron was also in short supply, wood buildings were built with tongue-and-groove booard, dowels, pegs, and other wooden connectors.

The foundation is formed by massive corner posts set deep into the ground. These posts project only about three feet into the air, and are connected by 8x8 sills resting on flat stone (which form the foundation). A deep notch was made in the sills, and wooden boards ("staves") inserted into the notches. Each stave has a groove on one long edge and a tongue on the other, and each stave fits tongue-in-groove with the one next to it. The staves lock together, forming a wall. X-shaped trusses on the interior provide additional support.

The ceiling is supported by "scissor beams" -- two steeply angled supports forming an X, with a narrow span at the top. The lower ends of the X shape are joined by a truss midway down and at the bottom. The walls and roof were supported on the outside by buttresses.

The nave (the main church floor) is just 24 feet long and 20 feet wide. There are four pillars at the front and four at the back, with two on each side. An aisle about three feet wide aroound the exterior of the nave is formed by these pillars. The nave is 36 feet from floor to roof ridge. The church has windows in the west side, but only portholes in the south and east sides.

The wooden altar is in the form of a narrow table with legs and dates from the church's creation. Hung on the wall to one side is a wooden reliquary (now unused) bound with copper strips which hold it together and tie it to the wall. The font is made of soapstone and mortar, and holds a copper bowl.

About 1300 AD, a square chancel (space around the altar) was added at the back of the church, along with a semi-circular apse (space behind and above the altar). The chancel is square, about 11 feet on a side. The apse is six feet from front to back and 9 feet, nine inches from side to side.

Another addition in the 1300s is an ambulatory -- a place where people can look down on church services as well as walk slowly while praying. The ambulatory is actually exterior to the church: The existing roof was removed and the church roof raised to its current height. The walls around the upper part of the church were removed, too, and replaced with exquisitely carved post railings. X-shaped bracings between the posts are adorned with carved medallions. The ambulatory was added outside of the original walls, and the new roof extended to cover it. The new roof had a three-step, set-back bell tower added to the top.

The roof of the church was originally tongue-and-groove staves as well, laid horizontally. Over time, wooden shingles, attached with dowels, were covered the roof. Crosses adorned the pinnacles of the hipped roof on the first and second roof levels. When the church roof was raised, crosses were added to the pinnacle of the chancel, but dragon heads were added to the pinnacles of the new roof and bell tower. (The dragon heads were replaced with new ones in 1738 AD.)

The Borgund Stave Church is entered from the main door in the west. A small entryway also exists in the south side.

In the mid 1500s, after the Reformation, windows were built in the north and south sides as well. The south side entryway was transformed into a tiny vestry (where the pastor would enter, put on his garments, and prepare for services). People originally stood for services (which tended to be short, usually 30 to 45 minutes), but benches were added in the 1500s too. A pulpit was added in 1550 AD, and it is the oldest post-Reformation pulpit in Norway. (There are older, Roman Catholic pulpits in Nortway.) To cover the exterior buttresses, an exterior porch was built. It was partially enclosed by the existing overhanging eaves and by adding a thin, waist-high stave wall and bent-wood arched open windows.

The altarpiece (the artwork which stands behind the altar) was created about 1600 to 1620 AD. A painting depicting the crucifixion, with Mary and St. John, was added to it in 1654 AD. Above it in a separate wooden window is a painting of a dove (the Holy Spirit) on a blue background.

Borgund Stave Church is richly carved inside and out with repetitive vine and vegetation designs. The west wall also features animal carvings, which include fighting snakes and flying dragons.

Every four years, the walls are tarred in a traditional manner to help preserve the wood. More than 37,000 people visit the Borgund Stave Church each year, which is used for services only at special times (Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, etc.). Most services are held in the modern Borgund Evangelical Lutheran Church in town. Modern protective flooring has been laid down over the original wood floor to protect it, but that is the only concession made to the church's popularity as a tourist attraction

An example of the exterior carving.

Looking east from the main entrance through the nave. The open door to the right leads to the teensy-tiny vestry. The pulpit is rear-right. The altar can be seen in the chancel in the rear-center, through the posts.

Notice the ambulatory overhead, with its X-shaped railing and medallions. The X-shaped "beams" are really thin slices of tree, held together with doweling and wooded rods.

A dragon's head ornament on the pinnacle of one of the hipped roofs.

Carving on the western door, whose lintels featured lions.

Looking up at the ceiling of the Borgund Stave Church. You can see the ambulatory railing, the high windows, and the X-shaped "scissor beams" with narrow gap at the top.

The chancel of Borgund Stave Church. To the left, hanging on the wall, is the reliquary. The rough soapstone baptismal font is center-low. The richly carved and painted altarpiece stands on the narrow, rough altar itself (hardly visible here).

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