Norway became a Christian nation during the tenth and eleventh centuries, following the age of the Vikings. No sooner had the new religion taken hold than a period of church building began which lasted for several centuries
The Borgund Stavkirke is believed to have been built about 1150 AD outside of what is now Lærdal, Norway at the end of the longest fjord (Sogn fjord) in the country. It is one of the oldest and best preserved Stavkirkes in Norway.
Built by the same people that built Viking longboats many of the construction techniques are similar. Norway has a long history of wood construction, probably due to large forests and rough terain. It was one of a few countries that refused to build their early churches out of stone and instead chose wood to build places of worship.
The stave churches were built of a special type of fir called "malmfuru"; (no longer available) which was very hard, with great size and straight trunks. The closest approximation to this favored fir in North America is the Douglas fir of the Pacific Northwest. It is of Douglas fir the Chapel in the Hills is constructed.
Although simple in appearance the techniques used to build the church are intricate and a marvel of engineering. The name Stavkirke comes from the use of staves (the large pillers) used to support the church structure. The church was built on a foundation of flat stones used to elevate the foundation beams from the ground and moisture. The walls were made from vertical planks topped with four more beams to support the roof.
The first churches would have had simple peaked roofs.The typical stave church became taller and taller, with a series of roofs, each one offset and becoming smaller as the church reached toward the sky. To support all this, an intricate system of beams and additional staves became necessary. In addition to the main body of the church, very often there was built a covered passageway, or "ambulatory", entirely around the outside of the structure. This provided additional protection to the foundation from the harsh weather found in the region.
The only metal used was on the ornate door furnishings and locks. Instead of nails, they used wooden dowel pins. This may very well be one of the reasons why some stave churches have stood for over eight hundred years. The wooden dowels allow the building to expand and contract with the changes in temperature and humidity, instead of being rigidly held in place with iron hardware.
Another characteristic of the stave church is the woodcarving which abounds in much of the architecture of Norway. Woodcarving was a prominent part of building traditions before churches were built. The Vikings brought their woodcarving skills along with their construction techniques to the building of the Stav Churches. As more and more stave churches were built and dedicated to the worship of God, a rich symbolism grew up, with elaborate explanations of the spiritual meaning of the various carvings and parts of the building.
To view and study this wonderful and unique church architecture you may travel to Norway to visit the Borgund church or visit Chapel in the Hills in Rapid City, South Dakota