Search in historical eras

Each era shows characteristic features of the development of church building in Norway over more than a thousand years.

  • Middle ages

    Although Christianisation had been taking place in Norway for several decades, the Mosterting assembly of about 1024 is considered to be the formal introduction of Christianity. This was when King Olav Haraldsson (later St. Olav) and Bishop Grimkjell laid down the first Christian legal directives for the entire kingdom. Among other things, it was decided that the king would provide priests, while farmers would build churches. 

    The first churches, built in the 11th century, were simple post churches, with the corner posts dug into the ground. The made them susceptible to damp and rot. The stave church technique began to be used in the 12th century. Here the posts, or "staves", were set into a base construction of heavy beams resting on large stones. In this way, damp problems were avoided and many of these stave churches were able to stand for many centuries. There was a very widespread tradition in Norway of building timber churches. As many as 1,500 stave churches may have been built during the Middle Ages, but only 28 are preserved today. Haltdalen Stave Church is considered to be the prototype of the earliest type of stave church. The simple, long church design, with a nave and chancel, is the "original" design of our churches, whether in timber or stone.Elsewhere in Europe, churches were almost always built of stone. For this reason, important county churches or churches built in rich agricultural areas were also often built of stone here in Norway. Romanesque and Gothic influences can be seen in these churches. About 160 of the 270 stone churches built in Norway are still fully or partially preserved. 

  • 1600s

    The Reformation of 1537 marks the end of the Middle Ages in Norway and the establishment of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Norway. In 1349 and 1350, the Black Death reduced the population by about two thirds. There was therefore almost no need for new churches until the population began to grow again in the 17th century.

    Since the towns still had more churches than they needed, and many of these were solidly built of stone, it was primarily in rural areas that new churches were built. Out of about 300 churches built during the 150 years following the Reformation, only 64 remain today.

    During this period, most churches were built of wood. The cogging joint replaced the stave church design. The form of church services changed, and preaching became more important. This created a need for larger spaces, to allow the congregation to be closer to the chancel and pulpit. New floor plan designs were therefore experimented with, including cruciform, Y-shaped and octagonal. Many of the old stave churches were also extended into a cruciform design.

    The Reformed Church's greater emphasis on preaching and the word of God also required a new type of interior. The side altar of the Middle Ages disappeared. Pulpits became more prominent and the nave was filled with pews. Many churches were given galleries. Altarpieces, fonts and pulpits were decorated with biblical motifs and ornamentation in deep relief. The king's monogram often had a prominent position, since he was the head of the church.

  • 1700s

    This was the Baroque period in Norway, also known as the century of beauty. The 18th century was marked firstly by Pietism and later by the Age of Enlightenment. These movements influenced church buildings in various ways.

    Pietism emphasised the personal conversion that was brought about by preaching, while the Age of Enlightenment was marked by rationalist ideas about learning for all and educating the "common people". In both cases, it was important for the word to be heard, and the pulpit was given a prominent position.

    People started living longer in the 18th century and the population increased considerably. More than 300 new churches were built during the century, mostly as replacements for stave churches that were in poor condition or simply too small. Around 1725, the number of churches built before and after the Reformation was about the same. During the 1720s, the king sold off many churches to finance his wars, which meant that many churches that had originally been built by the local community fell into private hands.

    The mining industry financed many splendid Baroque churches, such as Røros Church (1740) and Kongsberg Church (1761). In some places, these provided a model for the smaller, local churches. Confirmation and compulsory church attendance were introduced, necessitating space for as many as possible for services. The interiors were often opulent and marked by the reformed ideals of the time, with the pulpit directly above the altar so that as many as possible could see the priest and hear his message. These churches reflected a hierarchical and rigid society in which everyone knew his place, as determined by social rank, distinction or financial power.

    Many of the larger urban churches were designed by foreign architects according to foreign ideals. The same applied to woodcarvers and painters. These impulses were soon picked up and further interpreted by local artists. This can certainly be seen in the popular acanthus, which was adopted in the form of folk art called rose painting.

    More than half of the 130 churches that remain from the 18th century are cruciform timber churches.

  • 1800s

    Church structures and administration and the technical requirements for building churches all changed during the 19th century. The century began with cautious church building on classical lines and ended with the highest level of church building since the Middle Ages, inspired in particular by the Gothic cathedrals.

    Better production and craft techniques meant that churches acquired a lighter form and became richer in detail. The cogging joint technique was still dominant, but the timber was worked more and churches often had both interior and exterior panels. Almost 40% of the surviving churches of this period have a simple, long church design, and about 30% are octagonal and 30% cruciform churches.

    Up until 1850, the parish structure changed little, so that most new churches were built as replacements for old ones. An already noticeable lag in church building was further heightened by the economic upturn and continued population growth of the mid 19th century. Even many of the 17th and 18th century churches were now too small. The new Church Act of 1851 required churches to have room for 3/10 of the population of the parish. This, and the establishment of new parishes, led to an explosion in building activity. During the second half of the 19th century, 623 new churches were built and 390 old ones were demolished.

    In order to achieve this formidable task, some of the country's foremost architects, such as Linstow, Nebelong, Grosch, Nordan and Schirmer, were engaged as national advisers. The Ministry of Church and Education issued sets of drawings that local church builders could use or adapt as needed. In this way, church building helped to spread international architectural ideas. The Gothic style was chosen as the undisputed sacred ideal, but detail elements were often borrowed from the popular timber-building style of the day, the Swiss Style. The white, timber-built Neo Gothic church thus became the very prototype of a Norwegian church.

  • 1900s

    During the course of the 20th century, churches changed from being Sunday churches to multi-use buildings and from expressing solemn national movements such as Art Nouveau and Neo Baroque to international modernism in concrete, often with untraditional forms and functions.

    At the beginning of the century, churches mainly kept their traditional form and function, although the architecture reflected changing styles.  After the First World War, this meant Neo Baroque and Neoclassicism. The simplified forms of functionalism arrived in the 1930s, and churches were increasingly inspired by international liturgical and architectural movements.

    After the destruction of the Second World War, the first churches experimented with the traditional long-church design, but built of reinforced concrete, as in Bodø (1956) and Molde (1957). The bonds of tradition were soon loosened however, creating completely new liturgical spaces and forms, as in Kristiansund (1964) and Tromsdalen (1965).

    New parish activities evolved during the 1950s, bringing a need for more different types of buildings. Partly inspired by the small church movement, working churches now came into their own, with offices, meeting rooms and activity venues in addition to the church interior itself. It became common to design churches with folding walls, to allow the nave to be attached to adjoining rooms.

    These developments led to the liturgical spaces representing a steadily decreasing proportion of the total building. The floor plan of the church interior was often rectangular or fan-shaped, to bring churchgoers closer together, but also closer to the altar and raised chancel, as the liturgical focal point of the space. Function became more important than style and the artistic expression became more abstract.

    Towards the end of the century, the church interior began to regain a more sacred character, without the building losing its functional diversity.

    More than 600 new churches were built during the 20th century. Masonry and especially reinforced concrete became increasingly dominant as building materials, and wooden churches were no longer built in the traditional ways, but with modern techniques such as timber frame and laminated wood. As many as two thirds of the post-war churches are of masonry.

  • 2000s

    The church fires of the 1990s contributed in part to the increase in church building around the turn of the millennium. The processes related to the burnt churches often revealed a polarisation between the core congregation, who wanted a modern and preferably centrally-located working church, and the rest of the local community, who wanted a traditional church on the original site - or at any rate a church that "looks like a church".

    On average, three new churches a year have been consecrated since 2000. The building styles vary; multivalent architecture is the norm. Many of the churches are built in traditional forms or with elements of local building practice. Some are multi-use buildings in modern styles, while many are freer compositions with a more or less sculptural feel.

    One exciting new tendency is a closer connection between architect and artist, so that building structure and art melt together into an integrated whole, such as in Mortensrud Church (2002) and Søm Church (2004).

    As regards the church space itself, the traditional long church form appears to be reinforcing its position. The church interior itself is now more clearly delimited, and there is more emphasis on creating a "holy space" for our times. The "folding door" model is also less in evidence.

    The material nature of society and the relativisation of perceptions of faith appear to have created a new basis for the universal and intangible, where the church becomes a place for spiritual experience at the interface between tradition and reorientation. Art is no longer a kind of biblical picture book, but has a more abstract and universal character. In this way, the church architecture of our time, just as in previous times, reflects the society and the religious context in which it has been formed.

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