Letter from Europe

From Norway to Silesia

Issue no. 2020/20

Picture above: The Norwegian stave church at Karpacz, Poland (photo © hidden europe).


There are only about two dozen surviving Norwegian stave churches. Most of them, unsurprisingly, are in Norway. But curiously there's a fine example of a Norwegian stave church on the northern slopes of the Giant Mountains in south-west Poland. The church was purchased by the German Kaiser and transported from Vang in Norway to the Silesian hills in the early 1840s.

Dear fellow travellers

We are on the hunt for a fragment of Norway. Our starting point is the small town of Piechowice in the Kamienna Valley. Piechowice is the last place in this part of Polish Silesia that still has a glassworks. There was a time when villages around the River Kamienna produced glassware which in its quality rivalled the very best Bohemian crystal.

Striking south-east into the hills, the horizon is dominated by the summit of Sniezka (Snežka), which is the highest point in the mountain range which here separates Poland from the Czech Republic. This north side of the hills was until 1945 German territory, part of a wider Silesian region which was ceded to Poland 75 years ago after the Potsdam Peace Conference. In the 1920s and 1930s, this whole area was immensely popular with Germans looking for an energetic vacation in the hills, perpetuating a tourism tradition which extended back to the early 19th century. To German speakers the mountain range is known as the Riesengebirge - the name translates as Giant Mountains.

The Germans have left their mark in this region, with a feast of Jugendstil architecture and some striking Wilhelmine villas. But they have also left a curious church, one which for several hundred years served the faithful of the Norwegian village of Vang.

Norwegian wooden stave churches rely on a distinctive post-and-lintel design which became very common in the mediaeval period. These are glorious buildings: textured, solid and a firm symbol of a community’s link with the land. But, by virtue of their design, they were also very portable. They could be dismantled and reassembled elsewhere.

In the 1830s, Vang was booming and there simply wasn’t space in the village church for all who wished to gather each Sunday. So a new church was built, leaving the old stave church still standing alongside the larger building. It was a prominent Norwegian painter called JC Dahl who discovered the redundant church in Vang in 1839. Dahl persuaded the German Kaiser to purchase the building.

The building was shipped to Berlin, where the original plan was to erect the church on the Pfaueninsel (Peacock Island) in the park landscape of the Havel near Potsdam. But fate intervened in the form of an appeal from the German-speaking Lutherans who lived in the hill town of Krummhübel on the northern slopes of the Giant Mountains.

“The Catholics have a good church, but we have nowhere to hold our Sunday service,” they pleaded, asking King Frederick William IV if he might possibly offer a grant to support the building of a church.

The Kaiser graciously replied that he would gladly supply a church in kit form which would surely amply meet the expectations of the Lutheran faithful. Thus it was that the former church at Vang found a second home in the Silesian hills.

Frederick William IV travelled to Krummhübel to lay the foundation stone. For some months, local craftsmen then wrestled with the challenge of putting the building together - probably with all that same exasperation that you and we know from assembling flat-packed IKEA furniture. But with perseverance and advice from Norway they succeeded. The church was consecrated in its new location in July 1844.

The church sits on a shoulder of land just below Sniezka. There are superb views north towards the Kamienna Valley and the Silesian Lowlands. The building itself is extraordinary, a striking piece of Scandinavian ecclesiastical design transposed into another land. It has settled well into the landscape and doesn’t look out-of-place. Indeed, given that this region has a remarkable range of wooden churches (eg. those at Jawor and Swidnica), the stave church from Vang nicely complements those other examples.

Today Krummhübel has a Polish name of course. It’s called Karpacz. The Norwegian church is in the upper part of the village, and it surely rates as one of the most visited buildings in the Giant Mountains.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

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