Østerlars Church

Østerlars Church is on Bornholm, an island I have already discussed in a previous post on Hammerhus Castle which you can read here. Østerlars is truly remarkable. It is only one of four round churches on Bornholm, but it’s the biggest and the oldest.

Østerlars was constructed c. 1150 and is dedicated to Saint Lawrence. The name comes from a contraction of Laurentii Kirke which became Larsker and eventually Østerlars (øster meaning east) to distinguish it from another nearby church dedicated to St Nicholas.

As you can see Østerlars is round, apart from the little belfry built off to the side (which holds two bells dating from the 1640s and the 1680). As to why it was built round? There are a number of opinions, but no one knows for certain. It is possible that Østerlars and the other round churches on Bornholm were either inspired by or built by the Knights Templar. The Templars certainly built round churches (you can see two below from London and Cambridge), they were modelled on the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. There is also a connection between Eskil the Archbishop of Lund and Bernard of Clairvaux who played a role in the foundation of the Knights Templar, so it isn’t impossible.

Templar Church London
Round Church Cambridge

Another, possibly more likely, answer is that the churches were built as fortifications, and the round shape was part of making the church more impenetrable. Østerlars was certainly built with many features that made it work as a fortification, originally the church wouldn’t have had a roof, and would have had a lower outer wall so it was possible to move around the outer passage that is now under the roof.

The walls are more than 2 m thick and the church sits on a site that commands a view of the country side.

There are also holes for a large bar on either-side of the main door, which argues that the church was probably built to ward off attack. If Østerlars was a fortification, it was probably never attacked as there’s no archaeological evidence of any battles on the site. It was most likely intended to be a place of protection and retreat for the congregation as well as a place of worship. Bornholm is in an important spot on the trade routes in the Baltic and was subject to attack by pirates as well as being a place of contention between several countries. The other possible theory is that Østerlars was built partly as an observatory. It’s also not impossible that Østerlars is circular for a combination of all three reasons.

Regardless of why Østerlars is round, it is beautiful. The conical roof isn’t original, the current version dates to 1744 and every single tile is wooden, but there are drawings from the late 17th century that show a very similar roof. The shingles on the roof are made from split Bornholm oak, they are regularly tarred to keep the weather out and are remarkably durable. These days modern equipment is used when the tiles need to be re-tarred, but in the past a chair was hung from the roof to administer the tar. You can see both the interior of the roof and the chair in the photos below.

It is also an extremely solid building, with 2m thick walls built in the double wall structure, with a cavity filled with soil and gravel. All the material was sourced locally. The walls are thick enough to have a stair running up to the second floor, as well as a substantial passage around the top of the church.

The interior of the church itself is no less impressive with an altar with the original stones. An organ, the font and the curved pews were added in later with successive renovations.

By far the most impressive part of the interior of Østerlars is the frescos. They were originally painted in the early 14th century, covered with limewash around 1600 as part of the Reformation and not rediscovered until 1889. They circle around the nave’s load bearing pillar and tell the story of the life of Jesus, beginning with the annunciation to Mary and ending with a very impressive depiction of judgement day.

You can see the story narrative unfold in the photos below.

As you can see, not all of the frescoes have survived. Also, there would originally have been more in other parts of the church. For contemporaries they would have been illustrative of the priest’s sermon which would have been in latin which was unlikely to have been understood by the locals. They are a truly incredible insight into the medieval world, in their depiction of clothing and garments and dreams and fears. Frescos from this era are not common, and these are a remarkable survival.

The landscape Østerlars stands in is an ancient one as well, with Iron Age, Roman and Viking settlements and artefacts. The Viking artefacts are particularly prominent with more than 40 runestones found on Bornholm. Three such stones were built into the fabric of Østerlars. The one you can see in the photo below was built into the belfrey before being removed. It reads: Broder and Edmund had this stone raised in memory of their father Sigmund. Christ and Saint Mikkel and Saint Mary help his soul. It dates to the mid to late 11th century.

Østerlars is still an active church, as well as being a building of national importance. It is very much central to its landscape and the history of Bornholm as well as being a truly beautiful and unique building.

References

Site visit 2018

Østerlars Church Booklet.

All the photos are mine.

Urnes Stave Church in Norway

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Urnes Stave Church in Norway is probably the most remarkable medieval structure I have ever visited. It is aided in this status by the truly incredible surroundings.

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IMG_2139It is, however, its completeness as a 12th century wooden structure inside and out, and especially the carvings, which make it truly remarkable.

This is the first of what will be a series of posts on the history of Iceland, Denmark and Norway. I’m beginning with Urnes because of its uniqueness and because it is UNESCO World Heritage listed.

Urnes sits on eastern edge of the Luster Fjord. It was built around 1150. There had been churches on the site before, parts of which have been reused in the church you can see today. It is the oldest stave church in Norway and is so distinctive and so influential that its style has come to be known as Urnes Style when it is used in other buildings.

The name stave church comes from the large vertical load bearing posts which form the basis of the structure of the church. Essentially it is composed of a vertical rectangular frame. You can see a cross-section of Borgund stave church below, which gives you the idea of the interior structure necessary for a stave church (Borgund is a lot bigger than Urnes though)

IMG_2089There were once over 1000 stave churches in Norway, but now only 28 remain. Most were built between 1130 and 1350 though a few are later. The black death affected the construction of new buildings after the mid 14th century. The reason they survived, even though they are wooden, is because the wood is coated regularly in pitch to protect it from the weather (this is still done at Urnes). In the case of Urnes it has a stone foundation, which stops it rotting from the ground up. The previous church on the site was a post hole church, the holes have been found in archaeological investigations.

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Stave churches are not all the same, they are built along different lines and with different styles. For example you can see Ringebu Stave Church below

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Urnes is one of the smallest, but it is also the most lavishly decorated.

The carvings are truly incredible. They are an amalgam of Celtic, Viking and early Christian design. Some are extremely reminiscent visually of early illuminated manuscripts like the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells.

IMG_2105IMG_2106The carving above is the side door which is no longer used, but would most likely have originally been the main entrance. You can see a stylised lion in the carvings on the left. These carvings most likely come from the exterior of the earlier church and were reused in the current church. You can see the interior of the door below.

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Other exterior carvings from the earlier church include the post you can see below.

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The main entrance to the church is on the west end and you can see more medieval carving on the capitals and it is thought that the ironwork on the door might be original as well.

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When you look at the photos of the church from the front you will noticed that there is an odd flap open.

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This flap, along with some other panels, are usually closed to protect the delicate carvings beneath. I was lucky enough that when I visited it was open for a conference group and, while it is very weathered, it is still beautiful and thought to be medieval. IMG_2101

The timber the church is constructed of is largely pine with elements of hardwood. The turret on the church is not original, in 1702 it replaced an earlier one from 1680. The roof was also tiled at one point. The current shingles date to the 20th century when the church underwent careful restoration, when much of the protective cladding was also added.

IMG_2141IMG_2143Leaving aside the exterior of the church for the moment, the interior is just as if not more impressive.

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You can see that the floor in the nave is lower than the rest of the church, this was because there was an open space under the floor which was used for burials. It was discontinued in favour of the external cemetery in the 19th century at least partly because of the smell.

The ceiling is 17th century, originally it would have been open like the underside of a boat. The original windows would have been small and porthole like. As you can probably tell the interior has been changed quite a bit over the centuries, but there are still a lot of medieval elements. My favourites are the carved capitals on the columns which then rise up into romanesque wooden arches. These were quite possibly based on contemporary stone churches of the time and are certainly similar to stone churches I have seen in England and Ireland.

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Remarkably some of the medieval fittings have also survived: including the figure of Christ on the Cross with Mary and John which dates to the end of the 12th century

IMG_2113Along with a medieval bishop’s chairIMG_2125

A medieval candelabra

IMG_2126and the chandelier which hangs from the ceiling

IMG_2136The gallery you can see part of above the chandelier, and above the chancel in the earlier photo, was added later and sadly involved cutting some of the original columns and capitals.

The highly decorated altar and pulpit dates to the 1690s, the chancel was extended out in the early 1600s.

IMG_2127IMG_2131The paintings and figures you can see on the walls are also 17th century.

Originally there wouldn’t have been fixed pews, they were introduced after the reformation and the ones in Urnes are 17th century. The boxed pew you can see in the photo below was for women being brought into the church to be cleansed after childbirth.

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Urnes was probably built for the wealthy local Ornes family, but it was also a church used by the locals. It is an amalgam of styles as the needs of the church’s community changed. It is a testimony to the quality of construction that it is still standing today.

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In 1720 it was sold to local priest Christopher Munthe and it remained privately owned until the parish bought it in 1850. By 1881 it wasn’t needed any longer because the parish was reorganised and it was to given to the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Monuments. The parish retained the burial rights in the churchyard and the right to hold services twice a year. This practice continues and Urnes is used by the local community for special occasions. In 1979 UNESCO included Urnes on its World Heritage Register

It met the three main criteria easily with UNESCO saying

Criterion (i): The Urnes Stave Church is an outstanding example of traditional Scandinavian wooden architecture. It brings together traces of Celtic art, Viking traditions and Romanesque spatial structures. The outstanding quality of the carved décor of Urnes is a unique artistic achievement.

Criterion (ii): The stave churches are representative of the highly developed tradition of wooden buildings that extended through the Western European cultural sphere during the Middle Ages. Urnes is one of the oldest of the Norwegian stave churches and an exceptional example of craftsmanship. It also reveals the development from earlier techniques and therefore contributes to the understanding of the development of this specific tradition.

Criterion (iii) : Urnes Stave Church is an ancient  wooden building and is outstanding due to the large-scale reuse of both decorative and constructive elements originating from a stave church built about one century earlier. It is an outstanding example of the use of wood to express the language of Romanesque stone architecture.

Urnes is truly astounding and for such a little church it certainly holds a lot of history.

 

References

Site visit 2018

Urnes Stave Church brochures

Urnes Stave Church Booklet

UNESCO Listing: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/58/

The photos are all mine.