Norwegian wood lasts and lasts in very old churches


A few years ago my wife and I visited Norway and came upon a national treasure known as the Borgund Stavekirke (literally, “stave church”). It’s a wooden church that was constructed in 1180 in what remains today a mountainous rural area near the head of the Sognefjord, Norway’s deepest and longest fjord.

Stave churches were not new in 1180: The present Borgund Stave Church replaced one that was previously built without a foundation (it rotted out). This “new” version was built on a stone foundation and today is considered by some to be the most authentic of the remaining wooden stave churches in Norway.

At more than 800 years old, it has been remodeled from time to time with additions to the original structure, but there are many original wooden parts to the building. Runic inscriptions are found carved on the walls and door, a reminder of a much earlier time.

Although it was built as a Christian church, much of Norway just prior to that era had clung stubbornly to its pagan roots. The carved dragon heads swooping from the ridge crests remind those seeing the church of the dragon heads found on the prows of old Norse longboats favored by Vikings.

Obviously, wood can be a long-lived building material. That’s a given when you look at a structure built from wood that is that old. But in addition to long life, another wonderful property of wood is that it is flexible. It is easily cut, bent, carved and fastened to make a sturdy structure. Portions of the old Borgund Church have been removed and replaced, and today it looks different than when it was first built. The parishioners who for centuries worshiped there found it easy to adapt the building to their ongoing needs.

Built roughly at the same time as Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral, the Borgund Church was already about 450 years old when the present version of the stone-and-masonry St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome was consecrated. That’s a testament to wood as a building material.

As lyricists Lennon and McCartney wrote, “Isn’t it good, Norwegian wood?”

Dave Kvamme
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