Stave Church Carving

Much has been written about the 28 medieval Christian churches in Norway known as Stave Churches. These Stave Churches are especially well known for the ornamental and architectural carvings that adorn them.

Stave Churches were built relatively close to the initial transition period from the Pagan era to the Christian era. For that reason the Stave Church builders incorporated many Pagan elements of design thought to foster protection and security into the symbology of the new religion. Many of these elements take the form of intertwining dragons, serpents, and tendrils. Some historians argue that the transition between these eras is still under way and can be recognized in the symbols the modern Christian church continues to employ. 

One of the earliest Stave Churches still in existence is the Urnes Stave Church. Ornamental or protective elements from this church bridge the late Viking–early Christian transition period. The Urnes Stave Church is a world heritage site, and the Urnes carving style is possibly the most powerful and lyrical of all the Stave Church carving styles.

Phil has composed several of his own carvings based on the carvings found at Urnes. The Urnes carving style is perhaps Phil’s favorite carving style because of its clean, harmonious lines and powerful imagery. 

Toward the end of the 1800’s and first decade and a half of the 20th century Norwegians were looking back in history to formulate a path forward during their national romantic period. The result was a revival of dragon style carving based in part on images from the Stave Churches. Many of these dragon style carvings from the revival period were painted in lively colors. Images from the revival period as well as the original images from the Stave Church period have also been a strong influence for Phil’s designs and carvings.

Else and Phil have adapted the Stave Church carving style for several large-scale projects. Together, they did carvings for the Stave Church and other buildings at the Norway Pavilion at Disney’s Epcot Center, in Orlando Florida. The couple did most of the carvings for the Gol Stave Church reproduction located at the Scandinavian Heritage Park in Minot, North Dakota. Phil also carved a full-scale reproduction of the Borgund Stave Church front portal for the Scandinavian American Cultural and Historical Foundation located at California Lutheran University, Thousand Oaks, California.