Stave Church



A week or so back I was in Norway. This was altogether fabulous, and I saw many amazing and wonderful things on the trip, which doubtless I’ll talk about at some point. Right now, though, I want to talk about a church. The Fantoft stave church in Bergen.

This is the kind of building that takes your breath away. A wonderful combination of architecture and dragon, of wood and soul, of mystery and beauty and artistry. My wife said that she had always wanted to see that church. She was not disappointed. I first saw a stave church when I was sixteen, hitchhiking through Norway with my brother. I wondered if the Fantoft church could be as striking as the one we had seen. It was. It was better. And this time I got to go inside.

The church is a wonderful combination of Nordic pagan and Christian symbolism. The guide said that the dragons carved on the roof were to keep off evil spirits. We all know better. This building is the granddaughter of a Viking long ship. It absolutely reeks warrior.

And inside the White Christ hangs on his tree.

The church was built around 1150, and even though Norway was Christian by that time, it carries with it an undercurrent of Ragnarok and Odin and the whole Northern Thing what was in part the inspiration of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The feeling of the past and the many congregations who had used the church since it was built was one I had felt in many old churches in Germany and France.

Which is kind of odd, really.

Because the church wasn’t built where it now stands. It was built in Fortun and moved to Bergen in 1883, by the man who was the American Council there. More than that, the original building was destroyed by fire in 1992.

It’s rather like the old joke about the axe used to chop off Anne Boleyn’s head; the handle has been replaced three times and the head twice but it is the original axe.

It’s something I’ve noticed in other churches, though, the building itself seems to have a spirit of place, a genius loci that is connected to the building, but not dependent on it. Even when it has been turned into a museum, it still has that awesome feeling. And it’s not just churches, of course. Castles, palaces, market halls, they all have a feeling of time and place and importance. When we went to Gdansk in Poland, almost every building we saw had been destroyed in the WWII and then rebuilt using as much of the original materials as possible. Were we looking at the original building at all? It felt like we were. Those buildings were old! And the people of Poland who reconstructed Gdansk and Warsaw rebuilt their past because they wanted that feeling to remain.

Of course, it is down to the building, not what it is used for. In other words, the architecture, the decorations, and the artwork create the sanctified mood. After all that’s why the architect built it that way; why the artists painted the frescoes and carved the statuary. That’s why replacing and restoring the artwork gives you the same feeling as the original. That’s what art is for.

I think we are like those old buildings, though, like the stave church. No matter how much we change, there is a part of us that remains us. Call it soul; call it spirit; call it self-awareness; call it what you like.

Inside, I feel the same as I always have. No matter how much my body has aged, whether or not I have had teeth replaced, and wear hearing aids; regardless of how grey my hair is, and the fact that I have a mustache, I feel like the boy I was at seventeen. Five years old, even, sometimes. Physically I am hardly the same at all. Inside I feel the same. But I know I have changed a lot. I’m afraid when I was seventeen I was a bit of an intellectual snob and could be an absolute dick at times. I also had opinions that I have thrown out. Actually, I try and get rid of opinions as much as I can. And, yes, I know, this is a kind of opinion piece, so I suppose it isn’t working.

The spirit of the building resides in its form. Not in its use or name.  

Our spirit? Kind of hard to say. Maybe each one of us is a kind of work of art. Maybe that’s what remains unchanged.

I’ll tell you one thing, though, the idiot who burned down the Fantoft Stave Church was a complete dick. Because he was trying to destroy the spirit of the building by burning it down.

Kind of like what dicks do to people. Try to tear them down. So, please, respect everyone’s inner stave church. Don’t be a dick.


Stave Alter


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