The stave church of Borgund is a paradox. Tarred all-black, dark as a smokehouse, roof tiles overlapping like scales on a mythological dragon, its aura foreboding. At the same time, it appears whimsical, like a fairy-tale castle, a bewitching place, but for a good sorceress. A paradox I’m attributing to when it was built, 1180, an in-between time when a backlash against the newly introduced Christianity created a small revival of Viking paganism. Did we like it, or not? Would you?
Black as sin is the exterior colour of Borgund Stavkjrkje. Like all stave churches, it’s made from the heartwood of malmfuru, mountain pines stripped of their branches and left to bleed their resin. Malmfuru trees, now extinct, stood tall and straight, a bit like our Douglas firs. The malmfuru may have been felled and smoldered in pit-kilns covered with turf. Or “seasoned on the root” to draw the pine tar to surface. Trimmed to shape, the timber was coated with a layer of pine tar combined with a bit of coal. Although extremely flammable, this treatment made the wood quite resistant to rot and decay. Obviously. Borgund Stavkjrkje has stood for 840 years!
Stave churches got their name from another technique popularized in Norway that also increased their longevity. Instead of driving staves (load-bearing wooden corner posts) into the ground, the wooden frame of the church was erected on a foundation of flat stones, the beams elevated from the ground and moisture. The walls were made from vertical planks topped with four more beams to support the series of offset roofs that become smaller the higher up they were. For support, an intricate system of beams and additional staves was added to the main body of the church, as well as a covered gallery around the outside. The gallery also protected the foundation from the region’s harsh weather—and it was where patrons stored their weapons before entering the church! Instead of nails, wooden dowels were used, allowing the building to expand and contract with changes in temperature and humidity. The only metal is on the door furnishings and locks.
Architecture—in this respect it’s paradoxical too. The style of stave churches was influenced by Roman basilicas. But also by pre-Christian structures in northern Europe, simple and unadorned by gold and riches. Stave churches were small as they were not built as pilgrimage sites but to accommodate only the residents from surrounding farms, usually around 300 people.
On the shore of the Lærdalselvi River, Borgund Stavkyrkje stands in the shade of the highest peak in the Filefjell mountains, a scenic spot. The church is on the Filefjell Kongevegen (King’s Road), named after King Sverre who reigned soon after Borgund was built. About 2,000 stave churches were built in Europe (1,000 of them in Norway). Only 29 have survived, 28 are in Norway—and Borgund is the best preserved and the one with the least alterations. Disney fans will recognize it as the castle in the Frozen movies and there are Borgund replicas in Germany, South Dakota and Connecticut. Some say stave churches are Norway’s most important contribution to world architecture. But after seeing Snøhetta’s imaginative creations, we’d say that’s debatable.
Borgund’s tiered, overhanging roofs are topped with a tower. Four dragon heads swoop from the roof’s gables—like prows on Viking ships. A symbol of power, courage and invincibility, dragon heads were frequently used as a decorative element, but they also served a practical function in stave churches as a system of drainage, like gargoyles. The Vikings believed dragon heads frightened away evil spirits, while Christian converts, not totally giving up their belief in pagan spirits, alleged that dragon heads protected the church and its worshippers. After the battle of Svolder between 999 and 1000 in which the converted King Olav Trygvasson of Norway was defeated, there was a backlash against Christianity and a revival of Viking paganism. Then in 1152 the pope declared Norway a separate archbishopric.
Magellan and I didn’t look for proof but it was common to bury the dead under the church floor. The practice was banned in the 19th century because of the nasty smells. But apparently it continued for babies who died before being baptized and were therefore prohibited from burial in the church’s cemetery, and you can still lift a few rocks and find tiny coffins.
Inside the church, the cave-black darkness thickens. It wasn’t until the Reformation in 1537 that windows were installed. There are no pews. Women and girls stood on the left, men and boys on the right, the sick and jubilados sat on benches along the walls. The spectacular ceiling is held up with scissor beams, two steeply angled supports crossing each other to form an X, the lower ends joined by a truss to prevent the roof from collapsing. Yet because of its modest size, rays of light trickling in and the feeling that you’re in an inverted ribbed boat, there’s also a sense of intimacy.
The iconography is paradoxical too. “Ave Maria” on the west portal salutes the Virgin Mary. Another wall says, ” Thor wrote in these runes in the evening of a mass celebrated by St. Olaf in Borgund,” the saint being Olaf II Haraldsson, king of Norway from 1015 to 1028, the divinity Thor was the son of Odin, the king of the Norse gods and supreme Viking deity. A powerful sorcerer who was said to have mastered all forms of magic in the nine worlds, the one-eyed Odin protected aristocratic warriors, especially the royal house in Norway. In the dark upper reaches of the sanctuary away from the knowing eyes of medieval Christian authorities, Odin looks down from the top of a column. Odin’s trademark was his spear Gungnir, its magical powers hitting every target. His horse was the eight-legged Sleipnir, and he was accompanied by two ravens, Huginn (Thought) and Munin (Memory), that flew around the world and reported back on everything they saw. The many symbols of Christianity, like the pulpit and religious figures, were installed centuries after Borgund was built, and it wasn’t until 1877 after it was purchased by the Society for Ancient Monumentsthat the church was dedicated to the apostle St. Andrew.
For the first time in recorded history, the proportion of Norwegians who say they don’t believe in God (39%) is higher than those who say they do, even though 70% of the population belongs to the Church of Norway. Around the world religion is on the decline and Norway is no exception. And yet, probably like many of you, when we’re travelling, churches still intrigue us, beacons that segue us into the mythologies and architecture of previous cultures.
Even guidebooks to Norway are inconsistent in recommending the place. Marco Polo double-stars Borgund Stave Church and Eyewitness grants it a full page. Insight gives it two lines and “If time isn’t tight…” reads the brief entry in the Moon guidebook. Ambivalent as Magellan and me.
But were we to have lived in the 19th century and seen the drawing of Borgund Stavkjrkje by the French painter Auguste Étienne François Mayer, I would have said “Magellan, we have to see this church on our trip to Norway.” Maybe we just prefer a world shaded with grey rather than the harsh divide of black or white.
Arch Eyes has a good article on the Borgund Stave Church and excellent photos.