The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


The dragon and the cross

Norway's stave churches are more than tourist attractions

A thousand years ago the Viking dragon was a symbol to be feared. Now it decorates medieval wooden churches in Norway. This country's unique contribution to world architecture, the stave church still is in active use by congregations.

The form is seen by devout observers as a sermon in wood — the rising tiers leading the watcher's eye upward to heaven. These churches have become one of Norway's major tourist attractions. But Sunday services, weddings and funerals are still held regularly in many of them.

In the 12th and 13th centuries more than 800 stave churches were built. In the 17th and 18th centuries most stave churches were found to be too small for growing congregations, and many were demolished. A preservation society founded in 1844 stemmed the destruction, but fewer than 40 exist.

Some replicas also exist in Norway and elsewhere. One of the finest examples is the Chapel in the Hills at Rapid City, S.D. An exact copy of Borgund stave church, it was built in 1969 by a family of bankers to honor a Norwegian cleric among their ancestors. Another replica is the Fantoft church in Bergen, Norway — rebuilt when the original was burned by an arsonist in 1991. Another — the Gol stave church in Hallingdal — was rebuilt and finished in 1994. Its ancestor was dismantled for a museum in Oslo.

The consecration of the new Gol church was the first to be performed in a stave church for six centuries, and it came at a time when the churches in Norway enjoy renewed popularity and an active role in Norwegian religious life.

The ancient pagan symbol — the dragon — soaring in the shadow of the cross forms a living link between the modern Church of Norway and the dawn of Christianity in Scandinavia in 995.


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February issue


Embracing diversity