Lorentz Dietrichson stated that Norway once had at least 750 stave churches. 28 of these remain on their original sites today, some intact, others in ruins. Heddal stave church is the largest of them all.
A legal record from 1315 gives the first literary mention of the church. During the Middle Ages, it was always referred to as Ryginar church (in Heiradali). The Rygi farms, from which this name comes, lie near the church but higher up.
According to the late Anders Bugge, the chancel of the present church is actually the nave of an older, smaller church, which was built in the middle of the twelfth century.
If we keep to Bugge's arguments, the first stave church at Heddal could hardly have been much over a hundred years old when it was enlaraged to form the church we have today. There is a runic inscription in the covered exterior passage, on the fourth wall-board to the right of the south portal. The inscription consists of five runes, two of which, Professor Magnus Olsen argues, may be disregarded as mere decorative flourish. What remains are the runes for MRN - which can be interpreted to mean: Maria 1242. The church was consecrated on St. Crispin and Crispian's day, the 25th of October, and dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Magnus Olsen hesitated to regard the inscription and his interpretation of it as definitive proof of the date of the church, but this is how it is generally accepted. The legal record from 131# corroborates this dating indirectly.
The Fabric of the Church
'Ryginar church in Heitradali' was built in the reign of King Håkon Håkonson, during a period of great prosperity. That Heddal, too, was a wealthy community at the time, is shown by the size of the church and its furnishings.
A glance at the construction of the nave is the best way of starting once's tour of the church. The nave is divided from the two aisles by four pillars (staves) on each side. At each end of the nave, two more pillars are placed a little closer to the corner pillars. These twelve interior pillars are joined together at the top with brackets, St. Andrew's crosses and horizontal planks. At the lower end, they are tenoned into the round sills, which form a frame resting on a stone foundation. They are flat at the top, cross each other under the corner pillars, and extend so far beyond the crossing that they can also serve as a foundation for the sills bearing the walls of the nave and the exterior covered passage. In this way, the sills supporting the walls are raised off the ground. At the corners, where the sills meet, great pillars astride of them keep them in place. The wall boards rest in a groove in the sills at the bottom, while the top fits into a groove in the head beams. The boards are tongued and grooved.
In the course of the centuries, Heddal stave church has been subjected to many alterations. A drawing by Schiertz, which appeared in 1837 in J.C. Dahl's work on the stave churches, shows Heddal church with a flat, low ceiling, and with windows immediately below. There was a gallery on each side, extending beyond the pillars of the nave. There was also a very large central stave in the nave. This may be part of the original fabric of the church, intended to support the steeple, but it seems more likely that it was put in to carry the weight of the mid-seventeenth century coiling. In 1844, when Adolph Tidemand painted his 'A Catechism' here, the appearance of the interior was unchanged. When the Danish architect, Nebelong, 'restored' the church in 1850-51, the renaissance interior had to make way for innovations. Nebelong's contemporaries were the first to condemn his work here, but the interior nevertheless remained unchanged for a hundred years until, thanks to the generosity of director H.B. Holta of Tinfos, the church was as far as possible restored to its medieval appearance. In 1939, director Holta asked Gudolf Blakstad and Herman Munthe-Kaas to submit plans for the restoration of the church, and these two architects are responsible for restoring to Heddal church the appearance it has today.
Now, the interior of the church is once again open, as it was during the Middle Ages. The structure and many of the constructional details have again become visible. New paint on the walls of the nave and the chancel has been removed, and the remains of the medieval decorations and the seventeenth century decoration can once more be seen.
The West Portal forms the main entrance of the church. The aisles are entered from the north and south respectively. The chancel porch is also on the south. All the portals are preserved with their wealth of carving. They are ornamented with animal motifs and with a good deal of foliage, which would seem to indicate a date in the middle of the thirteenth century. A row of highly stylized, expressive masks carved near the top of the interior pillars of the nave and chancel bear, as it were, the weight of the roof truss.
A seat in the chancel, constructed on the post principle, is ornamented with gaping animals' heads, facing outward and forward. On the back of the chair, there are two horsemen facing a woman who stands between them. She is usually taken to be Brynhilda, the valkyrie with whom Gunnar Gjukesson was in love. He was not able to penetrate the fire that burned all round her bower; it is here rendered by tongues of flame in her skirt. Sigurd Fåvnesbane came to his rescue - he rode through fire and water, and won Brynhilda for Gunnar. So the two horsemen are Gunnar Gjukesson and Sigurd Fåvnesbane. A bench from Heddal stave church, now in Gol stave church at the Norwegian Folk Museum, has a carving of Gunnar in the snake-pit. A circular iron chandelier for 23 candles also formed part of the medieval inventory. It is now in the University of National Antiquities.
That alter piece is from 1667. The central motif is the Crucifixtion. Insert at the bottom we see the Last Supper. Between the double pillars there is, on the left, an allegorical representation of Wisdom, and on the right a corresponding one of Temperance. These two are sculptures. Inset at the bottom we have the shepherds, kneeling in Adoration. The picture at the top dates from 1908, the year when the alter piece was restored. It is painted by Lars Osa, and shows the Resurrection. The antependium, the gift of Ingebjørg Bjørnsdotter Seljord (Sellejord) (1669-1723), is of shorn, yellow velvet, and is patterned with arabesque-like foliage.
On the north wall of the chancel, standing between large vines, are paintings of the apostles: Peter, Andrew, James (major), John, Thomas and Matthew, with the apostolic emblem and John and Matthew also with their evangelist's symbol. The row of apostles continues along the south wall of the chancel, but it is less clear here. In Bugge's opinion, the master who painted the figures on the front of the pulpit in Romnes church (about 1700) may also be responsible for these apostles at Heddal. The apse and the nave are decorated with foliager similar to that in the chancel, and in the nave traces of older painting also remain.
Heddal Church in Story and Legend
There is a legend telling of five farmers of Heddal, Raud Rygi, Stebbe Strånd, Kjeik Sem, Grut Grene and Vrang Stivi, who together decided to build a church here. In some variants of this legend, Torgjørn Hustveit and Storstakk Håberg are also mentioned. One day, Raud Rygi met a stranger who was willing to do the work, but set three conditions one of which must be fulfilled: Raud Rygi must either fetch the sun and the moon down from the sky, forfeit his life-blood, or guess the name of the stranger. Raud thought that the last condition should not prove too difficult, and so he agreed to the stranger's terms. But Raud got but little time in which to find the answer, for during the first night all the building material arrived, the spire was built during the second, and it was clear that the church would be finished on the third day. Down at heart and fearing for his life, Raud walked over the fields, trying to think of the unknown carpenter's name. When he had come to Svintråberget (a hill south-east of the church) he heard a strangely beautiful song, clearly audible:
Hush, hush, little child,
Tomorrow Finn will bring you the moon.
He will bring you the sun and the Christian heart,
Pretty toys for my little child to play with.
And so the riddle was solved. The builder was called Finn, and he lived inside Svintråberget. Finn, known as Finn with the Fair Hair, could not stand the sound of the church bells, and so he later moved to Himing (in Lifjell).
The same as Finn is, in legend, said to have built the cathedral in Trondheim, Avaldsnes church, and the cathedral in Lund in Sweden, so the legend was obviously known in many places.
The village green with local museum lies about quarter of a mile south-east of Heddal Stave Church.