The oldest preserved church

A stave church has been built three times on the same site here at Orneset. A hundred years would pass between the first and the third, the one we can visit today. The timber was felled in the years 1129-1130. On the long northern wall, original decorated sections from the demolished church have been used: the portal, wall planks and a corner post. The decorated gables from the same church are now covered to prevent wear and tear.

The stave churches are Norway’s unique contribution to the world’s cultural heritage. Most were built between approx. 1130 and 1350, when the Black Death brought all new building to an end. Similar churches existed elsewhere in Europe, but only the Norwegian ones have survived. Of the original approx. 1,000 churches, 28 remain. Urnes stave church is the eldest and most highly decorated of them. In 1979 it was included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. In this description, we delve back to the time when the church was built, approx. 20 years before catholic Norway became a separate province under the Pope in Rome.

Ownership of Urnes stave church was transferred to the Society for the Preservation of Norwegian Ancient Monuments in 1880. The society’s logo is taken from the carved capitals inside the church.


2. May – 30. September 2018 (closed 17. May)

Opening hours:

Reservations (groups only):
tlf. +47 57 68 39 56 (or +47 57 67 88 40)

Adults NOK 90
Groups (min. 15), pensioners NOK 80
Student/children over 5 yrs NOK 70
Family NOK 220

How the church was built

When the stave church was built, there was already a long tradition of building in wood. The Viking Era had come to an end, but Norwegians were still a seafaring people. Craftsmen combined impulses from church architecture abroad with local traditions.

The history of the building of Urnes stave church covers a long period, with building elements and decoration ranging from the second half of the 11th century to almost 1800. It has withstood the ravages of times because its timber ground frame rests on stone foundations. The wood does not rot, as it is not in contact with the earth.

The magnificent portal, the carved wall planks and corner upright on the church’s northern long wall were probably used as the main entrance and wall decoration in the previous church, which was demolished around 1130. Every second wall plank may have been decorated on the west-facing entrance wall. The church must have resembled a treasure chest.

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 structures – the staves – were assembled as rigid frames on the ground and then raised into an upright position with the help of long poles.

Hopperstad Stavkirkes oppbygning1. Staves (uprights) form the framework for the elevated central space and it is from them this type of church has taken its name. The capitals (cushion capitals) are modelled on contemporary stone churches. The rich decor continues above the capitals and creates a fine transition from the round uprights to the rafters, which have a flat surface.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. The framework on which the church stands. The floor in the nave is lower than the surrounding levels. There is an open space under the floor which was previously used for burials. This practice was banned at the beginning of the 19th century, partly on account of the unpleasant smell. Post holes left by uprights from the first church have been found in the foundations.
5. Shingle cladding probably added during the Middle Ages when an open external gallery was also built around the church. This was later removed after 1720, with the exception of the entrance gallery.
6. Originally, light entered through small, round -portholes-. Windows were installed after the Reformation. During the restoration work around 1900 the number of windows was reduced. The light shaft over the entrance door has probably always been there.
7. Diagonal cross braces, some of them added in the Middle Ages to make room for an altar baldachin, or ceremonial canopy – a ciborium altar. The altar was removed, and in connection with the installation of the Krokastolen pew in 1662, more adjustments and reinforcements were necessary.
8. The group of figures from the 12th century, the oldest in the country, depicting the scene at Golgotha: Jesus suffering on the cross and Mary and John as grieving witnesses.
9. The ceiling is from the end of the 17th century. The roof was originally an open construction. It resembled an upturned boat, where the rafters were similar to the ribs of a boat.

The ridge turret from 1702 replaced one from approx. 1680. Originally, the church bells hung in a free-standing belfry. The roof was tiled for a period. The shingle cladding is from the beginning of the 20th century.

The Society for the Preservation of Norwegian Ancient Monuments was founded in 1844 to preserve the nation's cultural heritage and to increase awareness and understanding of its value. The society is open to everyone.

Tel.: (+47) 23 31 70 70

Treat the church with care

Urnes stave church has stood here for almost 900 years and we hope it will continue to stand here for at least as long in future. We ask you to refrain from touching interior fittings and not to lean against the posts and walls.

The holy room

What you can see

Det heilage rommet med svalgang, skip og kor

1. The outer door with beautiful wrought iron fittings.
2. The portal (originally the main entrance), wall planks and corner post from the church which was built in the latter half of the 11th century, and demolished in the first half of the 12th century.
3. The «Funtehuset», where the baptismal font was situated before the baptismal rite was moved to the chancel in the 18th century. Also known as -the Wives- Pew. The gallery is from 1701.
4. The «Krokastolen», an enclosed pew, is from 1662. («The Munthe family pew»). In the Middle Ages, there was an altar baldachin, or ceremonial canopy, here. The present pews are from the same period.
5. Chancel screen from the 1660s.
6. The chancel extension is from around 1600. It was decorated in 1601.
7. Medieval bishop’s chair.
8. Altarpiece and pulpit from the 1690s. A medieval candelabra in the shape of a ship stands on the altar.
9. Baptismal bowl mounted on one of the staves.
10. Medieval chandelier hanging from the ceiling.
11. The lid of the missing baptismal font from 1250-1300.

On the walls

Figures and carved runic inscriptions. Paintings from the 17th century.

What you cannot see

- The church art which has disappeared. In Bergen Museum, there is a carved Madonna and a male head carved in wood. Two candleholders from Limoges in France have been removed from the church.
- The narrow opening in the chancel screen, probably identical to the one through which you entered.
- The priest, conducting Mass in Latin and the vestments worn during Mass.
- The congregation, 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 outer walls.

What you cannot hear

- The priest reciting Mass in Latin
- The church bells announcing Mass from the free-standing belfry on Støpulhaugen (Belfry Mound) and the small bells that were used during the service.
- Nor can you smell the scent of incense.