Exploring the history of Ringebu Stave Church

  • Find remnants of a 13th century stave church
  • See a wooden sculpture from 1250
  • Gorgeous views over Gudbrandsdalen

Ringebu Stave Church is one of the more famous stave churches of the 28 remaining. After all, it’s located in the popular Gudbrandsdalen (Gudbrand Valley) – it’s the only stave church there – and is very close to Lillehammer. The church is open to visitors in the summer months, and the nearby Prestegarden has an excellent museum. Additionally, Ringebu is one of the largest stave churches remaining.

Its appearance is not very stave-like, and that’s because the church underwent a rebuilding around 1630. Some parts of the original stave church remain, and they are visible both inside and out.

Here’s my guide to Ringebu Stave Church.

Just how big Ringebu is – people for scale

The Earliest Stave Church

The dating of this church is a little tricky. It is first mentioned in a diploma by a priest in 1270, but that diploma has now disappeared. When dating the timber, it was likely felled around 1192. It’s not the first church on the site; the site is likely a pre-Christian place of worship. In the 1980s archaeologists found post holes from an older church. Ringebu Stave Church is therefore an early 13th-century stave church. This makes it quite young compared to other stave churches.

Borgund Stave Church

The style of the stave church is of the ‘Borgund’ type – named after Borgund Stave Church. It is thus related to the stave churches found in Sogn and Valdres. This is useful information because, sadly, Ringebu Stave Church was rebuilt in 1630. What did it look like before 1630? We don’t really know. But looking at these better-preserved stave churches may offer a glimpse at the old Ringebu Stave Church.

Click here to see a drawing of Ringebu Stave Church made in 1862.

Rebuilding the Church in 1630

Ringebu Stave Church was rebuilt into a cruciform church in 1630. Why? Well, stave churches were small, dark, cold, lacked benches, and were Catholic. By 1630 Norway was Protestant, and major towns needed churches that could accommodate their needs. Some stave churches were able to avoid rebuilding, though most have had some form of renovation. Ringebu required a larger and more modern church, and so they rebuilt the stave church.

The church got a new tower, choir, cross arms, and sacristy. Werner Olsen was in charge of the work. His renovation work is well known in Norway. He worked on Lom Stave Church and rebuilt the church in Vågå. The characteristic red tower is from 1631.

The lower half of the walls were painted white in 1717; at the time the ceiling was much lower. During the last major restoration in 1921, they focused on restoring the original paint. They also tried to make the church look closer to its 17th-century form. They removed the old gallery, fixed the staves, and removed the lower ceiling.

What’s Left of the Original Church?

The nave is the original stave church. The 18 staves are still surrounding the nave. While the shape has changed a little, the 1921 efforts brought it back to its original shape.

Ringebu Stave Church before the 1920-21 restoration (source)

Ringebu Stave Church is one of the few that had transepts already in the Middle Ages. The walls in the north and south both still have traces of the transepts.

The portals are also somewhat original. In the Middle Ages, the ship had two portals. The south portal is preserved, while the west portal is still in use. Originally, doors in stave churches were very narrow. This is because you had to enter the church alone and not bring any evil spirits with you – I guess they both couldn’t fit through the door! However, in 1822 there was a major fire in Grue Church on Pentecost, where many people perished. You can read about the event here.

After this fire, new regulations said that the doors of churches needed to be very wide. Additionally, the door must open outwards and be unlocked throughout the service. Because of this, they altered the west portal with the new hinges and a wider frame. Still, you can see some traces of the old vine carvings around the portal. The ornamentation is often compared to the portal of Torpo Stave Church.

The original stave church used to have a hallway around the exterior of the church. Marks from it are still visible in the east gable.

The exterior of the church bears little resemblance of its first form. It’s unknown if the roof had dragons’ heads like Borgund, for example. Some very worn wooden fragments with a vine motif were found during an excavation in 1980.

Restoration Work Images

Amazingly, the 1920-1921 restoration was photographed. Below you can find some images from the restoration. They are hosted on digitaltmuseum.no and each link will open in a new tab.

Archaeological Exploration

The most famous archaeological survey of the church took place in 1980-1981. In total, archaeologists found around 900 coins. Most of them are from medieval times, especially the time of King Håkon Håkonsson (1217-1263). This also lends itself to the age of the church.

As mentioned above, there are old post holes from an earlier church. The post-church, or pillar church as it is also known, is a forerunner of the stave church. The staves (posts) stood directly into the ground. This wasn’t great, because this exposed the wood to humidity, making it rot quickly. Stave Churches have stone foundations, or at least stone around the staves, to prevent this from happening. Click here to see a photo of Ringebu’s staves.

Interior Decoration

Click here to see a photo of the interior decoration.

Inside the church, you’ll see the 18 staves, held together with St. Andrews crosses. This is commonly found in stave churches, perhaps most famously at Borgund Stave Church.

The church has remnants of medieval art (click here to see some wall paintings). However, most of the decoration is from the 17th and early 18th century. The altarpiece in the baroque style and is from 1686. The altarpiece is the oldest preserved inventory from after the Reformation. On it are the names of the wealthy donors. The pulpit is from 1703. The King’s Monogram is for Frederik IV – he is the king who sold the country’s churches at auction to get some money.

The chandelier is from the 18th century.

The soapstone baptismal font is from the 12th century and comes from the old pillar church that stood here before the stave church.

One of the most famous pieces of art inside the church is a figure of St. Laurentius. It is from 1250 (you can see it here). There are also two crucifixes from the 14th century. Two runic inscriptions are on the walls, as well as two animal figures and a human figure carved into the wood.

There were no windows on the original stave churches. If anything, they had tiny circular holes high up on the church. Windows let in the cold, and cold was not a good thing when you had to spend hours in the church. In the pre-Lutheran days, the churchgoers had to stand during service, which was in Latin. Most people did not understand Latin, but church attendance was compulsory. There were some benches along the edge of the church for the frail, but otherwise, you had to stand. In the Lutheran times, benches were added and services were now in Danish, which was a minor improvement.

Ringebu Prestgard seen from the church

Ringebu Prestegard

Close to Ringebu Stave Church is another site called the Ringebu Prestegard. It’s an ancient farm and old vicarage. It’s believed that at its peak there were over 50 buildings here, including outbuildings and farmhouses. Most are gone now; there are 5 listed buildings on the site today. The large main building is from 1743 after the last main building burned down. The site was a vicarage until 1991.

The main building became a gallery around 1997, which it has been ever since. A café is also located on the site. There’s also a museum and exhibition about the stave church, including some of the archaeological finds on display. Exhibitions also cover the stories of the priests who lived here, the garden, and the vicarage.

The garden is very old and is also listed for protection.

See Also

There is a nice little path that leads from the church up to the Prestegard.

The Legend of the Sister Bells in Ringebu

In 2018 a novel was published in Norway called Søsterklokkene, or the Sister Bells, by Lars Mytting. It’s based on a very old legend about the bells at Ringebu Stave Church. The following is the legend, translated by me from the Ringebu Stave Church website.

The story:

A story is told about the bells in the church. The bells were given to the church as a sacrifice by a family from the farm “Vestad’ in the 18th century. Two Siamese twin girls lived there. They were healthy despite growing up together. However, one day one of the sisters became ill. Her parents thought she was going to die. They prayed to God for the daughter and promised to donate to bells to the church if she could live. They also asked if the girls could be allowed to die at the same time so they would not be separated. The girl recovered and the family kept their word.

In Blaesterdalen, two bells were cast up and set up in the church. They were called the sister bells. They sounded so good that people thought there must be silver in the ore they were cast from. The rumours about these bells reached Christiania (Oslo). It was decided that one of the bells should be sent to Christiania and put in there. Out in the winter, they used sledges over Lake Mjøsa to transport the bells.

However, while on the lake, the driver of the sledges noticed the ice was cracking. He took it as a sign that it was wrong to separate the sister bells. He turned the sledge around and started to make his way back home. However, he started to think that he may be mocked once he got home, so he turned around and decided to go back to Christiania. However, the ice broke and the bell sank to the bottom of the lake.

In the spring, the bell was found, and a rope was attached to it. A group dragged the bell out of the water and onto the boat. Someone exclaimed arrogantly: “Now we have her, and she is going to the capital!”. Then the rope broke and the bell sank again.

The Cemetery

There is quite a large cemetery with some very old gravestones surrounding the church. I came across this interesting display of old graves; they’ve clearly been moved from their original location but are kept due to their age. Perhaps there are some famous names here?

Visiting Ringebu Stave Church

Opening Hours & Admission

The church gate is open all year round, so you can walk around the exterior of the church for free.

If you happen to be here between June and August, you can pay a small fee and go inside the church. The up-to-date opening hours and prices are at the Ringbu Stave Church website, which you can see by clicking here. They change every year, so it’s best to check the website. Their website is only in Norwegian – strange considering the tourist appeal – but the practical info is fairly self explanatory.

The church also has guided tours available. I highly recommend taking a guided tour.

Written Information

There are some information boards outside, though most of them are in Norwegian. They don’t put information boards up inside stave churches, which is why I recommend getting a guided tour.

How to get here

The stave church is well signed with brown signs off the E6, the main highway between Oslo and Trondheim. It’s located about 2km outside of Ringebu town, and the road up to the church is quite narrow. There’s a large parking out outside it.

We stayed in an AirBNB a five-minute walk from the stave church. I highly recommend it – this isn’t a paid endorsement, we just really liked the place. It was also nice to walk to the church. Click here to see it.

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