Stave Churches of Norway
I’m not sure where November went, but it did leave without any posts on my blog. That lack of posts needs to change, so here is one more about Norway. Both Tanya and I enjoy visiting historic sites when traveling, and churches are often on our list of historic places to visit. In Norway, that means visiting stave churches. In the 12th and 13th centuries, while most of Europe was building stone churches, northern Europe, Norway in particular, was building stave churches. These wooden churches are named after the building style that uses thick wooden corner posts, or staves. Their architectural style combines early Christianity with Viking and Nordic designs, and they were traditionally built without nails. Norway once had upwards of 2,000 stave churches. Today only 28 remain. Outside of Norway, there are less than a handful.
Many of Norway’s stave churches look like something out of Lord of the Rings. They are tall and dark (many being almost black), with multiple roofs, decorated with crosses and stylistic dragons. Inside there are no lights and few windows. Traditionally, only small windows were placed high up in the eaves.
While unusual and stunning visually, because they are so dark, both inside and out, they are a challenge to photograph. They are protected from the elements by tar. If the last tar application was recent, the church will be black fading to a dark brown with time. These dark exteriors can lead to bad contrast problems photographing the churches, particularly when including the sky in a composition. I found that for compositions without any sky, I could get away with a single exposure, but if I included the sky in my frame, I usually needed to use HDR to include details in both the church and the sky.
Of the four stave churches we visited, none allowed tripods or flash indoors (and I imagine that is true for all historic stave churches in Norway). The only recourse is to use high ISO settings. I found myself typically using settings of 6,400 or 12,800 while shooting at shutter speeds of 15th to 30th of a second using wide-open apertures.
Brief descriptions of the four stave churches we visited are below. The links lead to my Photohound entries for the churches, which give more details on how and what to shoot as well as directions and GPS coordinates.
Borgund Stave Church
The first stave church we visited was the Borgund Stave Church. It is one of the best preserved stave churches in the country, though the inside is less decorated than many of the others. It was built around 1180 and has wonderful carved portals with crosses and dragon heads decorating the many roof lines. Near the church is a sizable museum dedicated to stave churches. The graveyard around the church is still used for burials today.
Urnes Stave Church
We visited our second stave church later on the same day as the Borgund church. The Urnes Stave Church (the featured image at the beginning of this post) is the oldest stave church in Norway, dating back to before 1130. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Perched on a hillside overlooking a fjord and mountains, the setting for the Urnes church is stunning. Also, the inside is much more decorated than the Borgund Stave Church. We were the only visitors at the time of our visit, and the docent from the (very) small museum gave us a 20-minute talk about the church, its construction, and history while inside the church. The church is more isolated than the Borgund church, reachable only by a small ferry (perhaps a 10-car ferry) or via a long drive down a country road along the fjord which dead-ends a few kilometers past Urnes. The road was closed when we visited due to mudslides from the torrential rains we experienced that day (coming from the last vestiges of Hurricane Dorian).
Lom Stave Church
Two days later we visited a third stave church, this one Fossbergom. The Lom Stave Church is one the largest stave churches still standing in Norway. The oldest part of the church dates back to 1160, but the church was remodeled and enlarged in the 1600’s, when the walls were extended to create a cross shape. Most of the decorations on the inside of the church date from the 1600 and 1700s. There are several carved panels, as well as the carved canopy above the pulpit, within the church. These decorations from the 17th and 18th centuries give the interior a baroque feel.
Hopperstad Stave Church
On our final day in Norway, we made a quick stop at the Hopperstad Stave Church in Vik. The church was originally built around 1130, but much of it has been replaced over time. Eventually the the church fell into disrepair, and in the 1880s, the architect Peter Blix restored it. For the restoration, Blix used in styles from other stave churches, mostly the Borgund church, as patterns. Like most stave churches, the interior of the Hopperstad Stave Church is extremely dark. However, it is richly decorated; particularly the baldachin, which forms a ceremonially canopy over a side altar.