An Ancient Stave Church in the Fjords and an Archetype of Viking Age Art

Perhaps the most iconic piece of Viking Age art is the carved decoration on the Urnes stave church, the main exemplar of the late Viking Urnes art style. Finding myself in Norway for work, I planned a weekend trip to Sogndal and surroundings, in the upper reaches of Sogneforden, with the Urnes church being the main objective.

The celebrated late Viking Age Urnes style art of the Urnes stave church.

A flight from Stavanger to Bergen and then another on to Sogndal (after some delays due to weather) delivered me to the area. Before coming in to land, I had a view in the winter dusk of Nærøyfjorden, famous UNESCO world heritage site.

Seen in the Google earth image below, this area, at the very head of the mighty Sogneford, seems to have an epic setting. I was excited to see what this would look like from ground level.

Sognefjorden with Lustrafjorden and the Urnes stave church in its upper reaches.

Zooming in, this is the area in the upper reaches of Sogneforden, from Nærøyfjorden to Lustrafjorden. Nærøyfjorden is at lower left. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as is the Urnes stave church.

Zooming in further to Lustrafjorden, the Sogndal airstrip is visible to the left of Kaupanger in the image. It lies at the end of a long winding track through snowy forest. My journey was along the western side of Lustrafjorden to Skjolden at the head of the fjord and then down the eastern side as far as Ornes.

I picked up a rental car and drove in the dark along the long winding track from the small airport, through a snowy forest, down towards Kaupanger, with its 12th century stave church and beautiful fjord-side setting. At the Vesterland Feriepark, I ploughed through the snow to reach my wooden cabin and settled in for some rest before the journey to be made the following day.

View from the cabin at the Vesterland Feriepark.

At sunrise I set off north, following the western edge of Lustrafjorden, past lakes and fjords, through snowy forests and several tunnels.  The little fjord-side town of Solvorn looks across at Ornes and in the summer it's easy to take a ferry directly across the water. Not on winter weekends, however.

Solvorn, an attractive and orderly fjord-side village.

Lustrafjorden seen from Solvorn.

Claws of ice near Marifjøra

Near Marifjøra, claws and fingers of ice adorned the dark grey metamorphic rocks. In other places, waterfalls rushed down steep walls of rock. The town of Gaupne sits at the head of a small side branch of Lustrafjorden. At the head of the fjord is the town of Skjolden and here a smaller road down the east side of Lustrafjorden can be taken. Views south down the fjord reveal the characteristic U shapes of the glacially carved valley.


A rare glimpse of blue sky above Lustrafjorden.

At one point there is a sign to Feigefossen and here a roaring stream races over boulders down to the fjord. The falls above cascade down a vertical wall of rock. Rocks sometimes fall onto the road and I was lucky at one point to be able to find a way through a group of fallen boulders.

Feigefossen, a 229 m fall.

Water-polished banded gneiss in the river below Feigefossen.

Finally the village of Ornes appears and up a track sits the famous stave church, surprisingly small on first acquaintance. In the small porch there is a stone with a carved cross on it. Columns with interlace carving on their capitals flank the door. There is an animal headed door knocker, and a crudely made face in one of the columns. Fire extinguishers are in evidence to one side and a sprinkler system above the door. The columns of the porch nicely frame views out across the fjord.

View from the church porch.

Cross carved in stone and a crude face marked in one of the columns.

Animal-headed door knocker.

Urnes stave church with fjord behind.

Walking around to the north side of the church produces a moment of shock and astonishment as the famous carvings come suddenly into view. This is a satisfyingly remote location for such a treasure, better in its natural habitat then it would be in a museum.

The main fields of Urnes style decoration on the church. One great beast is visible, with highly stylized mane. Serpentine biting creatures, with tail fins and limbs, give an impression of aquatic beings.

This is the archetype of the Urnes art style, the final stylistic development of the Viking Age before the appearance of the Romanesque style. The Urnes style is also found in England in small scale metalwork pieces

I returned to Kaupanger, visiting the stave church to be found there and then looking out over the fjord for a while before driving the winding track, through a gathering snowstorm, up to the Sogndal airport and the start of the long journey back to Houston.

Kaupanger stave church, still in use after nearly nine centuries.

Kaupanger on a Sunday afternoon.


  1. A truly spheric blog about one of the Holy Grails of Viking Age wich I desire to visit also one day. I think in its unique preserved outspoken style of Viking Art architecture only paralleled by the in Norman/Romanesque art style build church of Kelpick in Herefordshire, England. See:

    Indeed ´..This is a satisfyingly remote location for such a treasure, better in its natural habitat then it would be in a museum´. This is what Viking art lovers want to see. In the wild !


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