The only stave church to have remained unchanged since the Middle Ages is Borgund Stavlkirke at Laerdal in western Norway. Dedicated to the apostle St. Andrew, it dates from around 1150 and is built from almost 2,000 carefully crafted pieces of wood. The interior is very simple: there are no pews or decorations, and the lighting is limited to a few small openings high up on the walls. The exterior is richly decorated with carvings: dragonlike animals in life-and-death struggles, dragonheads, and runic inscriptions. There is a 16th-century pulpit and a free-standing belfry with a medieval bell.
The earliest stave churches, built in the 11th century, had wooden wall columns that were set directly into the ground. These churches lasted no more than 100 years, since moisture in the ground caused the column bases to rot away. As construction techniques developed, it became customary to set the wooden framework on sills that rested on a stone foundation. This raised the entire wooden skeleton above ground level, protecting it from humidity This method proved so effective that churches built in the 12th century are still standing today.
Borgund Stave Church is one of the largest and most ornately designed of the almost 30 remaining stave churches in Norway. Usually stave churches were simple, relatively small structures with a nave and a narrow chancel. Borgund’s chancel also has a distinctive semicircular apse. Stave posts mark a division between the two. The interior is dark, since light can only filter through from small round openings (windows) under the three-tiered roof, which is crowned by a turret. An external gallery often encircles stave churches.
The introduction of Christianity to Norway around the year 1000 saw the merging of pagan and Christian cultures and beliefs. Most stave churches were erected on the sites of old temples that were destroyed in the wake of Christianity. The impact of this can be seen in the richly decorated carvings in stave churches, which unite pre-Christian and Christian symbolism. Pagan gods were represented in disguise alongside medieval Christian saints. The door frame designs (West Door) are particularly elaborate and demonstrate the skill of the carpenters who embellished them from top to bottom with intricate carvings. Wood from pine trees was commonly used, since this was most readily available. Branches and bark were removed from the trees, which were then left to dry out before being chopped down. This method meant that the wood was more weather-resistant and durable.