The churches dragon heads a lot like gargoyles that are found on cathedrals, are used as drainage systems for the church.
Borgund Stave Church is a stave church located in Borgund, Lærdal, Norway. It is classified as a triple nave stave church of the so-called Sogn-type. This is also the best preserved of Norway’s 28 extant stave churches.
Borgund was built sometime between AD 1180 and 1250 with later additions and restorations. Its walls are formed by vertical wooden boards, or staves, hence the name stave church. The 4 corner posts were connected to one another by ground sills, resting atop a stone foundation. The rest of the staves then rise from the ground sills, each stave notched and grooved along the sides so that they lock into one another, forming a sturdy wall.
Borgund is built on a basilica plan, with reduced side aisles, with an added chancel and apse. It has a raised central nave demarcated on four sides by an arcade. An ambulatory runs around this platform and into the chancel and apse, both added in the 14th century. An additional ambulatory, in the form of a porch, runs around the exterior of the building, sheltered under the overhanging shingled roof. The floor plan of this church resembles that of a central plan, double-shelled Greek cross with an apse attached to one end in place of the fourth arm. The entries to the church are in the three arms of the almost-cross.
The ceiling is held up with “scissor beams” or two steeply angled supports crossing each other to form an X shape with a narrow top span and a broader bottom span. The lower ends of the X shape are joined by a bottom truss to prevent the X from collapsing. In the case of Borgund, an additional beam cuts across the X below the crossing point but above the bottom truss, for extra stability. This stabilizes the steeply pitched roof, consisting of horizontal boards covered in shingles. Originally, the roof would have been covered on the outside with boards running lengthwise, like the composition of the roof beneath it, however in later years wooden shingles became more common.4 Scissor beam roof construction is typical of most stave churches.
Bracing in the form of cross shaped trusses also appears on the walls of the building itself, diagonal beams running up the walls from the floor to about level with the top of the arcade. Further crossing, this time in a more ornamental sense appears in the cross shaped carvings with medallions in the center, commonly dubbed “Saint Andrew’s crosses” which run along the area above the arcade, in the visual “second story” that is not actually a gallery but is located where one is commonly put in large stone churches elsewhere in Europe at this time. Near these smaller crosses are the pincer beams, running between the columns to help further wedge everything firmly together. The most important bracing elements are the carved buttresses that are supported by knee joints and arc upward from the outer wall to the top of the arcade as these help to support the outward thrust on the stave walls.
Borgund has tiered, overhanging roofs, topped with a tower. On the gables of the roof, there are four carved dragon heads, swooping from the carved roof ridge crests, recalling the carved dragon heads found on the prows of Norse ships. Similar gable heads also appear on small bronze house shaped reliquaries common in Norway in this period.Borgund’s current dragon heads possibly date from the 18th century, however original dragon heads remaining on earlier structures, such as the stave church at Lom stave church and nearby Urnes stave church, the oldest still extant stave church, also in the Sogn district, suggest that there probably would have been similar dragon heads there at one time. Borgund is one of the only churches to still have preserved its ridge crests, carved with openwork vine and vegetal repeating designs.
Most of the internal fittings have been removed. Apart from the row of benches that are installed along the wall inside the church in the ambulatory outside of the arcade and raised platform, a soapstone font, an altar (with 17th century altarpiece), a 16th century lectern, and a 16th century cupboard for storing altar vessels there is little else in the building. After the Reformation, when the church was converted for Protestant worship, pews, a pulpit and other standard church furnishings were included, however these have been removed since the building has come under the protection of the Fortidsminneforeningen. There would have been more artwork in the building, most likely in the form of statues and crucifixes, as remain in a few other churches, however these are now lost.
Several runic inscriptions are found on the walls of the church, one reads: Tor wrote these runes in the evening at the St. Olav’s Mass. And another one reads “Ave Maria” and you will find these at the west portal of the church. The dragons on top of the church were often used as a form of drainage.
A new church for the parish of Borgund was built in 1868 – and the old church has not been in ordinary use since that year. Borgund stave church was bought by Fortidsminneforeningen (The Society for the Preservation of Norwegian Ancient Monuments) in 1877. The first guidebook in English for the stave church was published in 1898.
The church served as the inspiring example for the reconstruction of the Fantoft stave church in Fana, Bergen in 1883 and also for its rebuilding in 1997. The Gustav Adolf Stave Church in Hahnenklee, Germany, built in 1908, is modelled on the Borgund church. There is also a replica of the Borgund stave church in Rapid City, South Dakota, United States.