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Stave Churches Are All Wood, Dragons, and Beauty

These austere churches mix Nordic dragons with Christian saints.

God and dragons make for some lovely wooden churches. (Photo: Sandra Fauconnier/CC BY 2.0)

Some of the most stunning churches in the world are also some of the simplest. Stave churches are wooden houses of worship that combine the austere, peaked architecture of Christianity with the Nordic designs and motifs of a Viking great hall.

Stave churches are characterized by the “staves,” or thick wooden posts, that hold them up. Using the same woodworking prowess that made the Vikings such adept shipbuilders, traditional stave churches were often built using nothing more that expertly crafted joints and joins, with no nails or glue. The only stones used were in the base of the structures.

The heyday of the stave church was between the 12th and 14th centuries. At the height of the trend, it is thought that were as many as 2,000 of them spread across Europe. Today there are only 28 remaining stave churches from this era, all of which are in Norway. 

The Heddal Stave Church in Norway (Photo: L.C. Nøttaasen/CC BY 2.0)

There, stave churches like the Heddal Church (the largest of the original stave churches), or the Hopperstad Church (which may date back as far as 1034 CE), have been preserved over the centuries. These medieval churches were notable for mixing Christian iconography and pagan designs like dragons and animals, giving them a distinctive look found nowhere else in the world. 

Other stave churches, built much later or as replicas of the originals, can be found from Iceland to Wisconsin. Standing as striking reminders of the early days of Christianity in Scandinavia, they’re a sight to behold. Take a look at some of the most beautiful stave churches ever cobbled together.

Borgund Stave Church, Norway

(Photo: Stevan Nicholas/CC BY 2.0)

(Photo: Stevan Nicholas/CC BY 2.0)

(Photo: Micha L. Rieser/CC BY-SA 3.0)

(Photo: zoetnet/CC BY 2.0)

(Photo: xdmag/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Lom Stave Church, Norway

(Photo: Micha L. Rieser/CC BY-SA 3.0)

(Photo: Zairon/CC BY-SA 3.0)

(Photo: Nick/CC BY 2.0)

(Photo: Micha L. Rieser/CC BY-SA 3.0)

(Photo: Micha L. Rieser/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Urnes Stave Church, Norway

(Photo: Leo-setä/CC BY 2.0)

(Photo: karaian/CC BY 2.0)

(Photo: karaian/CC BY 2.0)

(Photo: Tnarik Innael/CC BY-SA 2.0)

(Photo: Bosc d’Anjou/CC BY 2.0)

Hopperstad Stave Church, Norway

(Photo: Stevan Nicholas/CC BY 2.0)

(Photo: William Allen/CC BY-SA 2.0)

(Photo: Stevan Nicholas/CC BY 2.0)

(Photo: Bosc d’Anjou/CC BY 2.0)

Fantoft Stave Church, Norway
(This church is actually a replica of the original 1100s church, which was famously burned down by black metal musician and arsonist, Varg Vikernes in 1992)

(Photo: Micha L. Rieser/CC BY-SA 3.0)

(Photo: Dan Lundberg/CC BY-SA 2.0)

(Photo: Pascal Volk/CC BY-SA 2.0)

(Photo: Eirik Stavelin/Public Domain)

The original church circa 1910.

The original Fantoft Church circa 1910. (Photo: Fylkesarkivet i Sogn og Fjordane/Public Domain)

Øye Stave Church, Norway

(Photo: Henning Klokkeråsen/CC BY 2.0)

(Photo: Henning Klokkeråsen/CC BY 2.0)

(Photo: Bernt Rostad/CC BY 2.0)

Heddal Stave Church, Norway

(Photo: John Erlandsen/CC BY-SA 2.0)

(Photo: Tobias Van Der Elst/CC BY-SA 2.0)

(Photo: John Erlandsen/CC BY-SA 2.0)

(Photo: Christian Barth/CC BY-SA 3.0 NO)

Kaupanger Stave Church, Norway

(Photo: bep/CC BY-SA 3.0)

(Photo: bep/CC BY-SA 3.0)

(Photo: Nick/CC BY 2.0)

(Photo: Nick/CC BY 2.0)

(Photo: Nick/CC BY 2.0)

Gol Stave Church, Norway

(Photo: Mark Healey/CC BY-SA 2.0)

(Photo: Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 2.5)

(Photo: Chad K/CC BY 2.0)

(Photo: Mark Healey/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Heimaey Stave Church, Iceland

(Photo: Martin Peeks/CC BY-SA 2.0)

(Photo: Sakaris Ingolfsson/CC BY 2.0)

(Photo: Alarichall/CC BY-SA 3.0)

(Photo: Diego Delso/CC BY-SA 4.0)

(Photo: Sakaris Ingolfsson/CC BY 2.0)

Washington Island Stave Church, Wisconsin

(Photo: Leif and Evonne/CC BY 2.0)

(Photo: Stacy/CC BY-SA 2.0)

(Photo: Micha L. Rieser/CC BY 2.0)