Tag Archives: church

A song of gods and dragons: What’s behind the animals carved in Norway’s stave churches

Norway’s stave churches are a sight to behold. Built on staves (large wooden posts) and with a distinctive roof, they’re now almost unique in the world. But these churches are more than a tourist attraction: they tell a tale of a time when the country switched from Norse beliefs to Christianity.

Heddal Stave Church (Creative Commons).

It seems somewhat surprising, given their traditional way of life, that Vikings embraced Christianity so thoroughly. But around a thousand years ago, the shift was already taking hold.

The oldest stave churches still standing today (that we know of, at least) are dated to the 1100s, but earlier churches are also known. Catholics preferred stone for their churches, and Vikings also built some wooden churches — but stave churches were the norm. They didn’t use any nails, just wood, and the inside was often decorated with dragons or other mythical animals.

It’s a weird thing to decorate your church with. Most churches have biblical events or scenes carved or painted, but mythical animals are not a common sight. Typically, these animals have been interpreted as pagan remnants, a sign that even though locals switched to Christianity, they maintained some of their previous beliefs.

The inside of a stave church. Creative Commons.

When Norway obtained independence in the 19th century, following the “four hundred year night” rule under Denmark, Norwegians sought to rediscover their national cultural heritage — and found it in stave churches. They were unique, historians at the time said, and the animals carved inside them are also unique.

But they may have only been half right, says post-doctoral fellow Margrete Syrstad Andås at Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), who is spearheading a research project on stave churches.

“Stave churches were once the main focus of Norwegian historical art research because nationalism was important,” says Andås.

“But times have changed. Nationalism as a theme has become more problematic, and at the same time we’ve started questioning how Norwegian these buildings really are. Part of my project involves shedding new light on the stave churches.”

Which begs the question: just how uniquely Norwegian are stave churches, and are the decorations truly pagan?

Urnes Stave Church. Creative Commons.

Most research on stave churches was only published in Norwegian or other Scandinavian languages — rarely in German — which made it inaccessible to other researchers, and essentially perpetuated early findings about the churches. Andås wants to help contradict some of the false ideas about churches and make real science more available to the world. Some of her work focused on the Urnes stave church, depicted above.

“With The Urnes Project I want to show that the stave churches reflect a common European cultural heritage. The aim of the project is to ensure that stave churches are brought into the European conversation about the medieval art in architecture,” she says.

The first part of the study involves dating the church and its elements. Researchers know that Urnes was built in the 1130s, but wooden churches (and many large timber buildings) often incorporated wood from earlier structures. This wood can be dated using a method called dendrochronology, based on the trees’ growth rings.

When there’s a dry year, or a particular rainy one, this information is conserved in tree rings. Over the years, researchers have built catalogs of what these years “look like” in the tree rings, and whenever they find timber with visible rings, they can backtrack it and see when the tree was cut.

Surveys show that the chieftain of Urnes started cutting trees for the church in the winter of 1131-1132. However, the church reused a portal from the previous church, dated to 1070. The oldest dated logs in Urnes went as far back as 765 — the oldest Norwegian church material found with this method.

But the portal is particularly intriguing.

Carvings from the church portal, traditionally interpreted as the mythical Norse beast  Níðhöggr eating the roots of Yggdrasil. “The intertwined snakes and dragons represent the end of the world according to the Norse legend of Ragnarök.”

“Several of the serpents entwining and attacking the big lion on the portal are transformed into lilies,” says Andås.

This was regarded as a classic Norse motif, but Andås believes that this interpretation isn’t really correct. Another researcher in the project, Natalie le Luel, points to the importance of one overlooked detail: the animals are in a hybrid state, becoming transformed from serpents into lilies. In this, le Luel sees a different motif: the lily was a symbol of salvation at the time, and thus the evil powers – the forces of chaos – appear to be in the process of themselves being overcome by good. The dragon, another symbol represented at Urnes, is not necessarily as Norse as once thought, the researchers also point out.

“The dragon is often portrayed in modern times as representing the pre-Christian Nordic era, but this is completely wrong,” notes Andås.

The dragon is one of the central motifs on the capitals inside the Urnes stave church and is one the UNESCO World Heritage list. Photo: Birger Lindstad

Urnes stave church bears similarities to churches in other parts. With its ancient Viking-age art and animal ornamentation, it still bears resemblance to what was going on in other places.

Urnes researcher Griffin Murray has studied the Urnes style outside Scandinavia, especially Irish churches. The Urnes style represented a form of expression that stretched from the Baltic Sea in the east of Scandinavia to Ireland.

The dragon itself is completely missing in pre-Christian times in Scandinavian art (where wingless serpents predominate). In this context, the dragon was interpreted by the research team to represent evil in a Christian context. Other animals are also believed to represent Christian motifs and serve as an allegory, though in a rather unconventional way.

“The animal is a stylized lion, a central motif in the heraldry of the late Viking age. The lion as a symbol of the ruler can also symbolize Christ, who is struggling against the evil forces,” says Syrstad Andås.

All in all, the new interpretation points to the Urnes church art as a magnificent collection of Christian, rather than pagan craftsmanship — with the main theme of the struggle between good and evil. Sure, it was a rather unusual type of Christian art, but Christian nonetheless.

“Inside the church, continentally oriented and highly educated craftsmen carved a series of nearly fifty decorated capitals, with lions in acrobatic poses, dragons, hunting scenes, men pulling their beards and men fighting with lions,” says Syrstad Andås.

Since Norwegian stave churches were not regarded with much interest in science until now, it’s quite possible that we’ll be learning much more about these churches in the years to come. Almost a thousand years after they were built, these churches are getting new life.

There are now as many Americans who claim no religion as evangelicals or Catholics

The number of Americans who identify with “no religion” is now for the first time just as large as Catholics and evangelicals, according to a recent survey of US citizens’ religious beliefs.

Credit: Pixabay.

Ryan Burge, a political scientist at Eastern Illinois University and a Baptist pastor, interviewed more than 2,000 people in person for the survey. He and colleagues found that 23.1% of Americans claim no religion, comprising a group that includes atheists, agnostics, the spiritual, and just about any other person that rejects organized religion. Meanwhile, 23% of the respondents identified as Catholic and 22.5% as evangelical. This means that all three major groups are somewhat tied, bearing in mind the survey’s margin of error.

The findings reflect a rising trend in “no-religiousness” among Americans, primarily driven by millennials. Since 1991, the number of Americans who claim no religion has risen by 266%. Within six years, this group will become the largest in the country, Burge told CNN. So, it seems like the USA is catching up with some European countries whose populations have long ago transitioned towards a ‘no religion’ majority. These so-called post-Christian societies include Estonia, Sweden, and the Netherlands where between 70% and 80% of young adults categorize themselves as non-religious.

Even among people who identify with a particular religion, a large percentage aren’t necessarily involved in religious practices. A different survey found that two-thirds of American Christian young adults stopped going to church at some point between the ages of 18 and 22.

What makes more and more people feel alienated by organized religion is a matter of debate. The internet certainly has a major role to play by spreading ideas and helping people find other like-minded individuals on all sort of online communities like Reddit.

However, these findings should also be taken with a grain of salt. A lot of these people who identify as “no religion” still act pretty religiously. What do I mean by that? A recent Pew Research Center survey of more than 4,700 U.S. adults found that one-third of Americans say they do not believe in the God of the Bible, but that they do believe there is some other higher power or spiritual force in the universe. The same survey also found that most of the respondents who identified with ‘no religion’ believed in angels and prayed.

Then there’s a 2014 survey conducted by the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture on 15,738 Americans, which found that 13.2% of the participants called themselves atheist or agnostic. One-third of these, however, responded affirmatively to the question “Do you think there is life, or some sort of conscious existence, after death?” And while some might say they have ‘no religion’, these same people might be engaged in New Age spiritual practices, which are early similar to organized religion in many respects. In other words, Americans are not necessarily prepared to relinquish their supernatural beliefs but rather find it increasingly difficult to relate to traditional forms of religion.

Stunning church discovered in underground city in Turkey

A surprising finding could change the history of early orthodoxy. In the biggest underground city in the work, archaeologists have found a church with frescoes hidden from sight for centuries. They show Jesus rising into the sky and defeating evil.

The site itself is spectacular. Just imagine – it’s an underground city which has been inhabited since 5000 years ago. The city could have easily accommodated 20,000 people and had all the usual amenities found in other underground complexes, including wine and oil presses, stables, cellars, storage rooms, refectories, and, of course, chapels and churches. This 1,500 year old church is a great example.

The rock-carved underground church is located within a castle in the center of the Turkish city Nevşehir, an area known for subterranean structure. The archaeologists have studied only the top part of the church, because that’s how far they got with the excavations.

“Only a few of the paintings have been revealed,” said researcher Ali Aydin, who told the Hurriyet Daily News: “There are important paintings in the front part of the church showing the crucifixion of Jesus and his ascension to heaven. There are also frescoes showing the apostles, the saints and other prophets Moses and Elyesa.”

Ironically, the archaeological work was only being done because of a housing plan in the city – and now this could reveal a forgotten chapter in the history of Orthodoxy.

The frescoes they have uncovered already seem to be unique, depicting uncommon scenes, most notably that of Jesus the Christ rising into the sky and punishing bad souls. However, uncovering the paintings is no easy feat. The church was filled with soil and rubble, and it will take a lot of digging, cleaning and restoration before the paintings can be admired and studied properly. Ali Aydın, an archaeologist working at the site, emphasized that only the church roof is visible – so we don’t even know how tall it is.

“We have stopped work in order to protect the wall paintings and the church. When the weather gets warmer in the spring, we will wait for humidity to evaporate and then we will start removing the earth,” he said.

He expects even more spectacular paintings to be unearthed.

“Only a few of the paintings have been revealed. Others will emerge when the earth is removed. There are important paintings in the front part of the church showing the crucifixion of Jesus and his ascension to heaven. There are also frescoes showing the apostles, the saints and other prophets Moses and Elyesa,” he said, adding that they had also found the real entrance of the church used in the past but had yet to expose it.

The Byzantine Empire, sometimes referred to as the Eastern Roman Empire extended over much of today’s Turkey, including the area where the underground city is.