The carvings on the northern portal
The northern portal is the most exquisite ornamental feature of the Urnes stave church, and this type of ornamentation has given its name to the so-called Urnes style. This portal was probably the main entrance of an even earlier church. This work of art may be 950 years old, that is, from the mid-11th century. The Urnes style is also known from Britain, in most cases from book illustrations, and from several places elsewhere in Scandinavia. The best-known examples are the motifs from some Swedish runic stones in the region of Uppland which date from about 1060.
However, the stave church at Urnes is the only preserved example of the use of this style in an extensive, three-dimensional way. Opinions differ as to what these carvings show and how they can be interpreted. At first sight, it may seem as if there are snakes, intertwined in a fight of life and death, with their fangs latching on to necks and bellies. This may be a bold expression of the Christian understanding of the fight between the Evil and Christ. The four-footed animal can best be interpreted as a stylized lion. The Christian faith proclaims that Christ, the lion, will conquer the Evil, the snake/dragon, but this struggle is still going on, but will eventually be crowned with victory.
A number of the wall boards on the north wall as well as a part of the south wall have marks which indicate that they have been used in an earlier church structure.
Built in the 1130s
Up until 1999, the Urnes church was dated to about 1150, but then a so-called dendrochronological dating of the woodwork was published. This dating technique based on studying the yearly growth rings in the timber gives exact information as to when the posts in the stave church were felled. Experts concluded that one of the left sills of the nave was cut during the winter of 1129/1130, whereas a post from the nave was felled the following winter. This implies that this magnificent building must date from the early 1130s.
Most likely it was a prominent man who built the church. The Sverre saga refers to a certain person called Gaut from Ornesi (Urnes) who lived in the mid-12th century. He and his two sons Jon and Munan Gautson were said to be the most trusted men among King Magnus Erlingsson's (1161-1184) followers. Even if they did not take any direct part in the building itself, they would certainly have the necessary contacts and knowledge which enabled them to get hold of skilled craftsmen and wood carvers. There is a total of 26 runic inscriptions on the church walls with direct links to this family, and the names of Jon and Munan Gautson are among these. There was formerly a cluster of farm buildings at Urnes, and it is believed that this was developed in connection with the chieftain's farm. According to archaeologists who have studied the site, the farm was probably located in such a way that people had a direct view of the western façade of the church from their farm yard.
Urnes church is a fully developed three-aisled stave structure with a total of 14 staves supporting the central aisle. The majority of the staves are placed on ground beams. They are all decorated with cushion capitals as well as carvings with biblical motifs and mythical beasts. The space outside the staves forms an aisle around the whole building. Both the nave and the chancel have a raised central section, but in the narrower chancel only two staves are used to support the central construction. Not only the northern portal, but also other parts of the building date from an even earlier church on the site. A case in point is the carved decoration on the eastern and western gables.
Originally there was no external gallery. This was added at a later stage. In 1722, the building was described with external galleries. It was even reported that the gallery roof on the north side and parts of the roof on the south side had to be repaired with 12 ells of plank. At what time the gallery was removed remains uncertain, but most likely it took place later in the 18th century. At present there is an external gallery only on the west wall by the main entrance.
We can find many traces in the church of people with power and authority. On the south side furthest down in the nave were the reserved seats for the women in the Bugge family. On the same side at the front sat the Bugge men who were powerful proprietors. At the very front of the nave is the so-called "Kroka chair" which was built in 1684. At first this chair was used by Jan Jansen Teiste, the owner of the farm Kroken. Later on, the chair was taken over by the Munthe family when they bought the Kroken farm.
The vicar's wife had her reserved seat in the vicar's chair on the northern side of the chancel. In 1661, a new vault was built on this chair. Just in front of the vicar's chair is the sexton's chair. There we also find the small tray used for offerings.
Elsewhere in the chancel there are benches on either side of the altar, and there are also traces of benches behind the altar. Formerly there have probably been side altars both on the southern and northern side in the nave towards the chancel. The main altar was previously placed somewhat closer to the nave.
Before people got seats in the church, there were benches only along the walls as was the case in other churches. These were meant for old and sick people. Today there are traces of these benches along the walls in the nave in the form of small holes. Other benches in the naves were only installed after the Reformation, and new benches/pews were installed in connection with a major restoration work carried out in the years between 1699 and 1701. Then the church got a new back section of the nave, font, staircase to the pulpit, as well as a new cancel doorway (partition). At the front of the nave is the so-called font house or font chair, an in-built room that was formerly used as a baptismal room. Light filters in through the leads dating from the late 17th century. The windows on the west wall above the entrance are even older, maybe the original ones from the 1130s. Planks formerly used on this wall are held to be original. The window by the pulpit was probably inserted at the same time as the present pulpit was installed.
Steeple and chancel addition
A gallery was built in 1704, when Urnes church also got a new steeple. The former steeple cannot have been particularly solid, because according to an inspection report from 1686, we can read that it was completed as late as in 1685. Before the steeple was built, the church bell hung in a belfry on the hill above the stave church. The inspection report from 1686 also reveals that the vicar wanted to pay for two new windows on the south side of the nave, at about the same time as vaulting was built in the nave and a part of the chancel.
The chancel addition itself is said to have been erected in 1601, and decorated in 1607. The carved corner post (stave) between the chancel and the nave marks what used to be the north-eastern corner of the church. This stave is also one of the remnants from the earlier church. The main motif in the chancel was Jesus and the 12 Apostles, painted in size (glue) paint. In addition, the walls were decorated with ornaments, inscriptions, flowers and foliage in strong colours on a white background. Two of the disciples on the south side of the chancel "disappeared" when windows were inserted in the 18th century.
A sketch by Dahl from the mid-19th century shows an addition in the extension of the chancel. This is the vestry that was built in the years 1720-1722. This vestry was removed when the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Monuments took over the stave church in 1880. The way Urnes stave church looks today is a result of lengthy restoration work carried out in the years 1902-1906. Architect Jens Z. M. Kielland was in charge of this restoration work, and he emphasized the importance of restoring something of the original style of the church room. Some of the more recent window openings in the church were closed, the external gallery to the west was extended and repaired, and the decorated gable fields in the nave and chancel were covered with panelling. In terms of the exterior, the church roof was covered with shingles and decorated with crests.
From 1882, the Urnes "sokn" was united with Solvorn "sokn". The Solvorn church was then meant to be the main church for this new "sokn". The Society for the Preservation of Ancient Monuments took over the responsibility for the Urnes stave church, and tearing the church down was never brought up as an issue. The very location of the church may also partly explain why this cultural gem has been preserved. Ornes did not get any road connection to the outside world until 1980, when a new road was built to Skjolden. Consequently, this unique house of God was left in peace.
Church plate and interior objects
The Holy Communion set consists of a chalice from 1648, a silver paten probably from the 17th century, and a pyx from about 1920. The Bible dates from 1699.
The gilded copper figure of John from before 1250 is eight centimetres high. John is holding a book, and this has probably been part of a Calvary group. The figure is made in Limoges, France. For a while this figure was stored in the Heiberg Collections - Sogn Folkemuseum at Kaupanger. The wall painting in the chancel from 1601, where many of the Apostles are portrayed, are similar to the lime paintings in Dale church, but they are probably not made by the same artist.
The bishop's chair in the chancel from about 1150 is one of the oldest chairs in the country. The pulpit dates from 1693-1695. The font and the baptismal bowl date from 1640 and the holy water ewer from 1920.
The chancel partition dates from 1699-1701, and the chancel doorway itself is 180 centimetres wide. The Calvary group from 1150 above the chancel doorway is extremely well preserved with only minor damage. The 224-cm-high cross is made of pine wood, and the 111-118-cm-high figures are made of alder. This Calvary group is the best preserved of its kind in Europe. The crowned Christ hangs on the cross, with Mary on his left, and the Apostle John on his right. The hand position of the two is an ancient symbol of grief. At the end of each of the four cross arms is a depiction of the evangelist symbols.
The staves or the columns in the nave are decorated with cushion capitals from the 12th century. They are richly decorated with 50 carved ornaments showing mythical beasts, foliage and plant ornamentation and also people. One of these, the so-called Urnes lion is now used as a symbol and logo of the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Monuments, whereas another has given inspiration to the coat of arms for the municipality of Luster. We assume there is a connection to Celtic and Irish art as there are striking similarities and concurrent expressions. Flemming Distler has a sophisticated interpretation of the motifs. In his opinion, there is a connection with the ornamentation on the northern portal, interpreting the motifs on the capitals in such a way that they tell a story of transformation where man conquers the animal trait within himself.
Most people will interpret the ornamentation as an expression of man in his great struggle between God and evil forces. One picture, half human and half horse, may be understood as a centaur, the symbol of the Tempter. The dragon is a biblical and classical picture of the Evil, a woman on horseback may be a symbol of immorality, whereas the dove is the symbol of the Holy Spirit. The lion is a symbol of Christ, the deer may be the symbol of the believer who longs for God and his help (Psalm 42). A bishop with a shepherd's staff protects and leads the flock of believers.
There are some weak points in our interpretation. Nevertheless, the pictures are far from silent. They speak not only of an unusual joy of splendour and ornamentation, but also make us wonder, reflect, and be warned of man and the forces.
The chandelier from the 12th century is made of iron and wood. The lid of the font, now hanging on the south wall of the church, is made of wood, measuring 57 centimetres in diameter. The painting from 1665 has the motif "The new Jerusalem". The painting from 1678 has the motif "Jesus carrying the cross". The painting from 1688 shows "Jesus on the cross".
The church bell dates from the 16th century.