Those who built the stave church belonged to a long-standing tradition of building in wood. The Viking era had come to an end, but Norwegians were still a seafaring people. The craftsmen combined tradition with new impulses from church architecture abroad.
Hopperstad stave church has withstood the ravages of time because its timber base frame rests on stone foundations. The wood does not rot, as it is not in contact with the earth.
The timber may have been seasoned on the root, drawing the tar to the surface. It would then have been felled and worked to form the building's constituent parts. A stave church could consist of 2,000 separate parts.
The main structural elements "the staves" were assembled as rigid frames on the ground and then raised into an upright position with the help of long poles.
1. Eight-metre-high staves (posts) form the framework for the elevated central space and have given this type of church its name. The tops of the pillars have rectangular surfaces (cushion capitals)..
2. The staves are held firmly together with pincer beams.
3. “St Andrew’s Cross”. The name refers to St. Andrew, who was crucified on a diagonal cross.
4. The round arches are made from “knees” taken from the strong, naturally curved parts of the tree: the point where the roots and the trunk meet.
5. The external wall planks are set vertically in a frame with a sill beam at the bottom, an upper beam on top and supporting uprights on either side.
6. Only a little light entered through the round “portholes”. In recent times, windows were added but they have since been removed.
7. Seen from below, the roof construction above the nave looks like an inverted boat with rafters for ribs. The ridge turret is the work of the architect, Peter Blix and inspired by Borgund stave church. During Mass, small bells were often used. The large church bells often hung in a separate belfry (støpulen). We do not know if there was a belfry at Hopperstad.
8. The gallery protects the outer wall and portals and contributes to the church`s characteristic appearance. The gallery, which was added when the church was restored in the 1880s, was modelled on Borgund stave church. .
9. The framework on which the church stands. Decorated sections found beneath the floor probably come from an earlier church.
It was common to bury the dead under the church floor, but the practice was banned at the beginning of the 19th century, partly on account of the unpleasant smell. Miscarried foetuses and babies that died before being baptised were denied the right to burial in the churchyard. Tiny coffins with aborted foetuses were slipped under the floor, also in recent times.
Many people are still buried under the floor in Hopperstad church, including two children.
In total there are 20 runic inscriptions carved into the walls, most of which express pious wishes, but there are also many human and animal figures, fish, ships, marks of ownership and symbols – a kind of medieval graffiti. Wall paintings and inscriptions from the post-Reformation period serve to show how rich and colourful the interior was.
The holy room
What you can see
1. The main west-facing portal is a fine example of medieval carving, featuring rampant dragons and intertwining vines. The door features beautiful wrought-iron work.
2. The north-facing portal is decorated more simply.
3. The south-facing portal with magnificent wrought-iron fittings.
4. Hopperstad stave church is the only church where the original narrow chancel opening is preserved. In the Middle Ages, openings with small arches were added on either side of the narrow chancel arch.
5. The baldachin from approx. 1300 originally formed a canopy over a side altar with a Madonna or saint figure. The paintings on the canopy depict the Nativity and Jesus early years.
6. Side altar probably also had a baldachin.
7. Altar with a Catechism board, probably dating from 1621.
8. Iron-bound chest from the Middle Ages.
9. Lectern from latter part of the16th century.
10. Memorial stone marking the grave of the colonel's wife, Johanna Elisabeth von Holstein, who died in 1738.20 Runic inscriptions carved into the walls, most of which express pious wishes, but there are also many human and animal figures, fish, ships, ownership marks and symbols.
What you cannot see
- The church art which has disappeared. There would have been a cross, and perhaps painted sculptures of Mary or other saints on a side altar.
- The wall hangings that may have adorned the walls.
- The pulpit from 1673 and pews that were removed in connection with the restoration work.
- The priest, conducting Mass in Latin and the vestments worn during the Mass.
- The congregation of the church, with the men on the right and the women on the left, seen looking towards the altar. The elderly and infirm could sit on benches along the walls.
What you cannot hear
- The Latin Mass with bible readings in the vernacular.
- The church bells calling people to Mass.
- Nor can you smell the scent of incense.
From past to present
We can assume that few changes were made to Hopperstad Stave Church during the Catholic era. The Reformation came in 1537, and in the same year, the last Catholic Archbishop, Olav Engelbrektsson, fled the country, and the teachings of Luther prevailed. The worship of saints was prohibited, and this led to the disappearance of much of the oldest church art. New elements were added to the church interior, such as the pulpit, altar table and pews. Increased literacy led to a demand for better lighting, and windows were also installed.
Not far from the stave church is Hove church, a stone church built around 1170. These two churches were places of worship for separate parishes. In 1877, following the merger of the two parishes, the parishioners began to use a new church. The two old churches were then in great disrepair and their future was uncertain. Here, we can only give a brief account of a process that took many years. The architect Peter Andreas Blix emerged as the saviour of the two old churches. He purchased Hove church and restored it at his own expense from 1882 to 1888. The Society for the Preservation of Norwegian Ancient Monuments purchased the stave church for NOK 600 in 1880, on condition that the municipality removed all annexes and extensions. But there was no money available for the demanding restoration. Blix offered funds and free expertise. Between 1885 and 1891, the church was surveyed, examined and restored. Except for the nave and the chancel, the church has been stripped of almost everything, but Blix was determined that the church be restored to its original glory. And he accomplished this on the basis of his studies and by using similar stave churches as models. Thus, the exterior of the present-day church is «new», but already more than a hundred years old.
Despite some water damage, the interior was intact, but in his eagerness to restore the church, Blix removed all features that had been added after the Reformation. The altar canopy is the only feature that was left untouched.
There is also a Hopperstad stave church in Moorhead, Minnesota, where residents of Norwegian descent have built a copy