Construction and exterior
Torpo stave church is a good example of the fully developed stave church construction. The rows of pillars in the nave of the church divide this into a central chamber surrounded by 4 side-rooms or aisles. Because the chancel and the outside covered passages are gone, the basic idea of the high central chamber with pitched roof and the lower side-aisles with sloping roofs comes clearly to view. The pillars – or staves – show clearly on the facade, and give an idea of the construction.
Under the floor lies a framework of four ground-beams bearing the rows of tall staves. The ground-beams are also long enough to bear the sills under the outer and lower staves. These staves are bound together at the top by a framework of horizontal beams. Together, the wall boards form the wall-cladding, which stands vertically between the staves and fits into grooves in the sill and the upper horizontal framework.
Together with the construction in the sloping roof, these side-aisles help to strengthen the main construction and at the same time prevent the latter from being exposed to dampness. The inner tall rows of staves are also braced with naturally rounded timber trimmed to fit exactly into the corners at each side, forming arches, and crossed boards, so-called St. Andrew’s crosses. The pitched roof, strengthened with a system of crossed joists, binds the building together to a good constructional unity.
The chancel, that was demolished in1880, had the same width as the nave itself, only somewhat shorter. On the East side it was rounded off by an apse, a semicircular extension of the chancel. This had a cone-shaped roof and slim cylindrical spires. There are also traces of an older and narrower chancel, but this went out of use as far back as the 13th century. The materials remaining from the demolition of the chancel in 1880 were used in the roof, tower and floor of the new church.
The stave church was originally surrounded by covered passages with gabled doorways. As far as is known, the passages were pulled down early in the 19th century. The porch shown was also used as a depository for weapons. It dates from 1855, and may have been built of materials from the covered passages.
The roof was originally covered with shingles and tarred, and it was not until the early 19th century that slate was employed for roofing. The spire at the top was rebuilt or altered in 1632.
The oldest form of window is a circular opening, of which there are four along the top of each long side. Two glass windows were installed in 1628, and more were added later. The present day’s large windows were put in after 1855, but traces of older and lower windows can still be seen.
The church’s small interior seems incomplete without the chancel, and we must therefore imagine that the east wall is open to the chancel. The great arch shows the original opening to the chancel after the latter had been enlarged to the same width as the nave. The arch is supported by a beautifully carved capital on each side.
In earlier times, when the chancel was narrow, it was separated from the nave by a boarded wall which was later removed. A narrow opening in this dividing wall led into the chancel. The top of the wall was completed with a miniature arcade. The altar was situated in the chancel. In addition, there were two side altars in the nave, one on each side of the chancel archway. Above each altar was an arched canopy surmounted by a pointed roof. The nave is nowadays dominated by a great decorated vault depicting Christ, the apostles and the legend of St. Margaret.
Below the vault there has been a lectern (lectoruim), a gallery above the eastern part of the nave. The lectern was accessible by way of a spiral staircase, of which there are traces in the south- eastern stave. The gallery floor was supported by two beams which are still to this day, firmly fixed across the staves on either side of the nave. Over these stand two small pillars supporting the vault. The lectern created an impression of greater depth in towards the sanctuary, and from its platform the gospels, the epistles and the holy-scriptures were read. We are familiar with lecterns from certain other Norwegian churches too, but none with such a well-preserved vault as in Torpo.
Both the chancel dividing wall and the side altars were removed when the lectern and the vault were built in the latter half of the 13th century. Later, the lectern was taken down, possibly because the installation of a pulpit was intended after the Reformation.
Otherwise, it is the constructional components which dominate the interior. The square capitals of the pillars, the arches between the pillars and the St. Andrew’s crosses reveal the influence of stone architecture. All the way round the outer walls is a continuous bench with an arcaded front, and this is part of the church’s original furnishing.
The floor is composed of unusually strong boards, which are attached by wooden plugs to the ground-beams. In front of the entrance to the chancel, carved into a floorboard, is the sketch of a swathed human figure. This marks a grave under the floor, and according to legend a bishop from Stavanger lies buried there.
The simple crucifix is probably made by a local artist after the Reformation. The two chests are believed to date from the Middle-Ages.
The stave church has two richly carved doorways on the West and South walls. The rich wood-carving consists of interlacing and animal ornamentation. On closer examination it is possible to see a number of large and small figures of dragons. Wood-carving of this kind has its roots far back in the pre-Christian era, and several stave churches and certain other Middle Age buildings have similar doorways.
The characteristic wrought-iron work in the Western door also dates back to the Middle-Ages. The half- columns on each side of the door were partly destroyed when conversion work was carried out on the door to make it open outwards, probably the result of a law that came out in 1824.
The vault is perhaps the greatest attraction in Torpo stave church. It was probably put up at the same time as the lectern and painted in the latter half of the 13th century. It is some of the oldest decorative paintwork in Norway.
On the back wall of the vault is a depiction of Marv and John mourning. Between them, there has been a large crucifix, which has since disappeared. At the sides stand two female figures, the one representing the Church Triumphant, holding the banner of the cross and the chalice aloft, the other representing the debased Synagogue, her head bowed, her lance broken and the chalice overturned. Above them hover two angels wafting bowls of incense.
The barrel vault is divided into seven panels. The middle one forms a continuation of the back wall, and depicts Christ holding the Book of Laws, his left hand raised in blessing. He is surrounded by the four symbols of the Evangelium. Then follow two sections with the twelve apostles. Peter with the key and Paul with the sword can be seen nearest the north side of the nave. Christ and the apostles witness the martyrdom of St. Margaret, which is depicted in the two lowest panels on either side.
The legend of St. Margaret
The vault’s two bottom panels on either side depict the martyrdom of St. Margaret. The sequence of events begins on the North side (fig. 13), where she is seen sitting spinning, while watching over her sheep. Olybrius, the governor of Antioch, comes riding up to offer her marriage and a princely crown.
She professes herself to be a Christian and refuses to marry a heathen. Thereupon Olybrius has her lifted up by the hair and whipped by his henchmen. She is then beaten and placed headfirst into a large cauldron of boiling water. A violent earthquake causes the pot to crack and she is saved. On the extreme right she is seen kneeling in prayer, while the hand of God and the dove of the Holy Spirit remain over her.
On the south side, the account continues. Margaret is first swallowed up by a dragon, but God’s hand reaches down to her from Heaven, and she is again saved. In the middle, she chastises the Devil. Then Olybrius again catches her, and has her whipped and boiling water or oil poured over her. The dove of the Holy Spirit hovers above her.
In the panel below, Margaret, while kneeling in prayer, is beheaded, and her soul leaves her body in the form of a dove. The Devil, in the form of a small dragon, incites Olybrius to kill the Christians, but Olybrius himself dies, and the Devil takes possession of his soul.
The side-building represented a warm refuge for the church-goers. The draughty stave church had no heating and could be very cold indeed in the winter. If the journey was long, there could be a need to warm oneself up both before and after the church service, and any food brought along could be eaten there.
The side-building is built with logs in the traditional manner, and was probably erected towards the end of the 18th century. Originally it comprised only the one room, with small-paned windows, of which one still remains on the West wall. The building has stood without panelling both outside and inside.
At the same time as the stave church was sold to the Society for the Preservation of Historic Monuments in 1880, the side-building was sold to Ola Amundsen Dekko, farmer and fiddle-player. He transported it to a place known as Dekko and erected it there. It was modernized and fitted out in the traditional fashion, with a main living room and two small side rooms, such as is commonly found in the dwellings of Hallingdal. As many as 13 people lived there at one time.
After many years of neglect, it was finally given to the Society for the Preservation of Historic Monuments as a gift in 1970. After extensive restoration work it was ready to be re-opened close by the stave church in 1982. Originally it was situated further down, at the corner of the graveyard wall. Nubgarden Farm was formerly Torpo vicarage, where also the old main road used to go.