Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Røldal Stave Church, Norway

Røldal Stave Church

There were several goals for the Norway segment of our European trip planned for last year but postponed until this year due to a broken leg.  At the top of the list was visiting with cousins and seeing places where my father’s mother and her family lived.  Also near the top was the desire to visit at least one of the remaining Stave Churches.  Long ago there were 900 or more of these churches all built between 1100 to 1300 but many have burned, been destroyed by time and rot, the lumber reused, or otherwise not sustained leaving only about 28 considered as national treasures.  On this trip we were fortunate to see two of these churches.  One was the Røldal church in Hordaland, Norway that is open to the public and is still used as a church, the other was the Gol Stave Church at the Folk Museum in Oslo.  We stopped at Røldal to visit the church on the trip down the west coast of Norway from Ørsta where a cousin lives to Hornnes in the Setesdal where there are many more cousins.  There will be separate posts about the Folk Museum and the cousins.

The Røldal church was built in 1275 AD toward the end of the time when stave churches were constructed.  Because of this and also because it does not look quite like other stave churches some speculate that it is perhaps a post church instead but today it is listed as one of the remaining stave churches.  Unlike many of the more ornate churches we saw this one is not full of gold gilt but it is covered inside with paintings, designs and pictures.  There have been numerous repairs, renovations and restorations to the Røldal church so it does not look exactly as it did originally. 

Crucifix, ca 1250

This is a Pilgrim church and is located on an old pilgrim route that was used during the Middle Ages.  At some point in time the pilgrimages were discontinued but in 2003 a group of people began to revitalize the pilgrim’s way and since then a pilgrim’s walk takes place each year on July 6 the old Midsummer.  In olden times this church was a place where afflicted persons would come for healing.  Those that were healed made generous donations to the church.  The crucifix shown in the photo above is from approximately 1250.  During the mass on Midsummer Eve the crucifix was said to “sweat” with curing effect. 

There are a few legends about the church and the crucifix that were passed down orally for generations.  Today it is hard to tell what kernel of truth there might be in any of the stories but the fact that they were deemed important enough to pass along seems to suggest something happened here to make this a holy place.  In the beginning there was a controversy about where the church should be built.  Once the site on the south side of the river had been agreed upon the lumber was stacked up ready to begin construction but during the night it moved to the north side.  The people of the community took this sign as a miracle and built the church at the new north site. 

One story about the crucifix says that an old blind man and a young boy were out fishing in the fjord when the line caught on something heavy.  When they pulled the line in they found the crucifix.  It was very heavy and they could not get it into the boat.  After much effort the old man wiped the sweat out of his eyes and had his sight restored.  He realized that it was the crucifix that had caused the healing to occur and he promised to give it to a church.  He named several churches but the crucifix was still too heavy to pull into the boat.  Finally he named Røldal and the crucifix became so light that it almost entered the boat by itself.  The old man and several others then took it to the church and put it up where it is now.   Another legend says that the crucifix was found in the mountains. 

Early pilgrims were convinced that if they could get a little of the sweat from the crucifix and apply it to a sick or crippled person it would cause a healing.  The crucifix was taken down off the wall during the Midsummer Eve service.  Crowds of pilgrims met at the church, many had to wait outside for their turn to take a small cloth and gather a bit of the sweat.  While they waited they would sometimes carve their bumerke or signature mark in the church wall.  Also there were small knotholes that could be opened to allow a view into the chapel so those waiting could see and participate in the service and healings even though there was no room inside for everyone.  The docent told us that since the service was held in the summer it probably got very hot inside the church and moisture collected on the statue to drip off and this was interpreted as the healing sweat. 

Bumerke or signature marks carved on the wall

One of the peepholes

Here are a few more pictures from the interior of the church.  Notice all the beautiful artwork that covers almost every available space.

Several people came into the church to look around while we were visiting.  The docent took extra time to explain things to us.  I am not sure if that was because we were American visitors or if it was because Hans is a retired architect and had shown interest in parts of the building.  For whatever reason we were very grateful and felt like we got special treatment.

The new organ.  The paintings show various saints.

The ceiling

On the wall—the front piece dating from 1340 showing the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ.

The altarpiece painted by Gotfrid Hendtzschell in 1629. 

The soapstone font dates from the 1200s.

Gotfrid Hendzschell also painted the pulpit that was added.  The pulpit was more important in the Lutheran church than when the church was Catholic.  The church was originally a Catholic church that changed to Lutheran following the Reformation.

Decorative pew dividers

Another view of the outside of the church, wall and graveyard

For more information, see:


We also purchased a small booklet, "The Røldal Church, Pilgrim Church" published by the Røldal parochial church council 6 July 2008, about the church while we were there that has many of the details shared here. 

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