From the most ancient to the most alluring, we’re bringing you an A-Z guide to Norwegian churches.
Churches in Norway are can’t-miss sites – no matter the reason you visit, be it spirituality, an interest in history, a passion for amazing architecture – or, simply, curiosity.
Norway’s religion: An overview
To put the churches in Norway into context, let’s take a peek into how religion, along with sacred sites and symbols, transformed over time in Norway.
The Viking Age
During the Viking Age in Norway, Viking religion was prevalent. What we know about the religion of Vikings comes from a mix of written sources and archeological finds.
The Vikings were polytheistic, and though much of their pantheon has been reconstructed quite vividly, we don’t know many details about their religious sites and rites. However, we believe much of their worship and religious rituals were done in the home and in nature.
Services like mass and buildings like churches, to our knowledge, didn’t exist – though there is some evidence of possible cultic activity sites.
From the 9th to the mid-11th centuries, Vikings had only sporadic contact with Christians such as traveling missionaries and traders. Some Vikings converted to Christianity abroad, while others were influenced at home by missionaries, or bishops accompanying Christian kings on diplomatic missions. During this time, the large majority of Norway’s inhabitants weren’t Christian.
The introduction of Christianity
Then came Olaf II Haraldsson (c. 995 – c. 1030), who is a big part of the reason why there even are churches in Norway today.
Brought up in the Viking religion, Olaf was a Viking warrior as a young man. Later in life, he converted to Christianity, which he encountered during his travels through Europe. He was baptized in 1013 in Rouen, France.
Olaf returned to Norway in 1015, conquered territories across the land, and became king of all Norway in 1016. Upon his ascension to the throne, he attempted to establish the Catholic Church in Norway.
He used violent methods, including burning sacred sites and killing those defiant, to press Christianity on his citizens. However, Olaf eventually gained some support, especially among wealthier citizens. He enacted a religious code with his adviser, English-born Bishop Grimketel (unknown – c. 1047) in 1024.
Olaf lost power when then-king Canute I of England and Denmark (990-1035) resolved to conquer Norway. This forced Olaf to flee to Russia in 1028.
In 1030, he returned to Norway in an attempt to re-establish his rule. But during the same year, he is said to have died, though various sources state different causes.
Some modern sources hold that Olaf was killed unceremoniously in an ambush upon his arrival. Heimskringla, written 200 years after Olaf’s death by Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241), tells a different tale.
In the Icelandic saga, Olaf, backed by King Anund Jakob of Sweden (1008-1050), dies a heroic death fighting a peasant army at the Battle of Stiklestad (located about 100 kilometers northeast of modern-day Trondheim). This account is supported by the modern-day Church of Norway.
Olaf’s death is said to have been accompanied by miracles and in 1031 he was canonized locally.
In the years following Olaf’s death, Christianity increasingly spread throughout the Nordic countries.
In 1103, the first Scandinavian archbishopric was established in Lund, Sweden. Then, in 1153, the archbishopric of Nidaros (modern-day Trondheim) was established and included Norway, areas of Sweden, Iceland, Greenland, the Faroe Islands, the Shetland Islands, and more.
In 1164, the pope confirmed Olaf’s local canonization – and so, Olaf II Haraldsson officially became St. Olaf.
The religion of the Vikings didn’t lose followers immediately. First, many Vikings stayed polytheistic and simply added the Christian god to their pantheon of Norse gods.
Viking and Christian rituals and beliefs were practiced side by side for decades.
Some continued to practice only the Viking religion in secret. Still, many Nordic citizens had become fully converted to Christianity and were, in turn, baptized and buried as Christians.
By the end of the 12th century, Christianity had become the most prevalent religion in the Nordic countries.
Following the Reformation, in 1537, King Christian III (1503-1559) established Evangelical Lutheranism as the official religion in Denmark and Norway.
The Catholic church in Norway was banned. Initially, there were dissidents, some of whom were imprisoned and others assaulted.
But, by 1600, Lutheranism had formally become the Church of Norway, with a large majority of citizens taking the faith on as their own.
The secularization of Norwegian society
The Lutheran movement of Pietism emerged in Germany around 1670 and largely impacted Christianity in Norway during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Pietism prompted individual, rather than church-led, faith and was tied to the general secularization of Europe, which followed the Enlightenment and the push for democratization.
During this time, opposition against the ruling class, which included the clergy, increased in European society.
The Constitution of Norway, created in 1814, reconfirmed Evangelical Lutheranism as the county’s official state religion, but it also initiated reform.
With new democratic measures, the Constitution prompted calls for – and the consequent establishment of – religious freedom and further structural changes within the Church of Norway.
On May 21, 2012, a constitutional amendment was passed by the Norwegian Parliament in which there ceased to be an official state church and religion.
Modern-day religion in Norway
Today, Norway is a very secular country and a strong proponent of religious freedom.
Lutheranism is the most represented religion in Norway, with around 70% of Norway’s population (of 5.4 million) being baptized, but not necessarily practicing, members.
The next-largest religions in Norway are Protestantism, Catholicism, and Islam.
Norway is currently among the world’s least religious countries.
A 2016 survey in Norway found that in response to the question “Do you believe in God?” 39% of participants responded “No,” 37% “Yes,” and 23% “I don’t know.” This marked the first time more people didn’t believe than did.
In 2014, the number was equal. In 1985, just 20% said “No,” and 50% said “Yes.”
For 2020, Norway was ranked the 3rd least-religious country in the world.
Fascinating churches in Norway that you can see today
The push-and-pull between the Christian and Viking religions throughout the centuries has resulted in some fascinating churches in Norway.
The churches in Norway without Viking influence have their own striking stories to tell, too.
Now that we’ve put them into context, let’s survey some of Norway’s most interesting churches.
The Oslo Cathedral dates back to the late 17th century.
The Norwegian Government and the Royal Family of Norway are known to use the Oslo Cathedral for public and private events. For example, the Oslo Cathedral was used for the wedding of Crown Prince Haakon and Mette-Marit Tjessem Høiby in 2001.
Prior to the construction of the Oslo Cathedral, two medieval Norway church burnings happened in the country’s capital.
Heddal Stave Church
Stave churches, also known as stavkirker, are historic buildings constructed in a specific architectural style that uses vertical planks, also known as staves.
Most stave churches were built during the 12th century when the Viking religion and Christianity met – and intertwined.
Stavkirker are a reflection of these religious crossroads and feature distinct decor blending both Viking and Christian elements.
Norway is thought to have once had over 1000 stave churches, but today, only 28 remain.
One of them is the Heddal Stave Church.
The Heddal Stave Church is the largest remaining stavkirke in Norway. It’s located in the Notodden Municipality 20 kilometers southwest of Oslo.
Completed in the 14th century, Nidaros Cathedral is located in Trondheim. It’s the northernmost medieval cathedral in Norway.
St. Olaf is believed to be buried underneath the Nidaros Cathedral, which makes it a destination of religious pilgrimages.
On St. Olaf’s Day (July 29), the Nidaros Cathedral is a large part of his festival – which includes concerts, food stands, and a medieval market – in Trondheim.
The Royal Family’s coronations are also held in Nidaros Cathedral.
Borgund Stave Church
The Borgund stavkirke was built between 1180 and 1250 CE. Today, the church is a museum with exhibits about Viking Age and medieval-era life in Norway.
Breathtaking Borgund Stave Church, and its elaborately carved dragon heads, are of international fame. You’ll even find one replica of this stavkirke in Germany and two in the United States.
The one-of-a-kind Arctic Cathedral (though it’s not actually a cathedral, but a church) is located in Tromsø. It was built in the 1960s.
The Arctic Cathedral holds regular services along with being a concert venue (if you’re in town over the summer, don’t miss out on the midnight sun concert) and a major Tromsø tourist site.
Designed by architect Jan Inge Hovig, the church features a triangular front with a large white cross, 11 concrete panels, and a characteristic shape.
Urnes Stave Church
The oldest stave church in Norway is the Urnes stavkirke. It is also, since 1979, one of the eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Norway.
Urnes Stave Church stopped being used for regular services at the end of the 19th century. You’ll find it 300 kilometers northeast of Bergen.
Røros Church is located within another of Norway’s eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites – Røros Mining Town. The copper mining town was founded in the 17th century and has been protected by UNESCO since 1980.
Røros sits 160 kilometers southeast of Trondheim.
The Røros Church can seat 1,500 people – which is almost the entire small town’s current population.
The outside of this charming church is distinctively white, while the inside is blue.
Kaupanger Stave Church
Kaupanger Stave Church is located 230 kilometers northeast of Bergen.
This stavkirke has been continuously used for services since it was built – in the 12th century!
Kaupanger stavkirke is unique for having more staves – 22 to be exact – than any other in Norway.
Lofoten Cathedral, also known as Vågan Church, was constructed in 1898.
The church was largely built for the thousands of fishers who would travel to the famous Lofoten Fishery annually.
The cathedral is northern Norway’s biggest wooden building. It sits in the village of Kabelvåg on Austvågøya Island.
These are just a handful of the hundreds of churches in Norway. Whether you’re religious or non-religious, an architecture expert, or just a beautiful building aficionado – Norway’s magnificent churches should have a spot on your travel to-do list.
If you’ve already visited a church in Norway, let us know your thoughts!
Source: Norway Today, #NorwayTodayTravel
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