Skoger Old Church – a Guided Tour.
As many of the medieval churches in Norway, this church is built at a very visible point in the landscape. If you drive from the south towards Drammen, you will see the church from a long distance, as you can see from here that the view is excellent. If you were on your way southwards, having crossed the fjord and landed at Solumstranda, you would have seen the church from the road when you passed Knive and Eik as the Bishop of Oslo, Jens Nilssøn, did on his journey in 1594.
On the other hand, it is not impossible that this place was a place of pagan worship before the Christianity took over, and that the church was erected here for those reasons. The farm nearby, Hanaval, has given ground to the church, and the baptism of the farmer there may have been the reason for erecting a church here. Christianity was well known in this area before the end of the 10th century, and the possibility exists for a wooden church prior to the erection of the present building. Some other more mythic explanations for the erection of a church here have been provided as well.
Anyway, the church has one very special feature that it shares with only one other church in Norway: It is built over a well. The other church is the Nidaros Cathedral. The well is probably under the altar, and it has caused a lot of trouble with rot in the wooden floors during the centuries. The moral is that you shall never try to build in a well that will only cause trouble.
The church is built of around 1200 tons of stone. The stone was probably not taken from the immediate vicinity, at least at present there are no obvious deposit of rocks for masonry work here. The rocks are probably transported from the steep hills in Mælen a few kilometres away.
That has been a tough and long-lasting task. The rocks have been transported on sleighs during winter time as there were no roads available for transport on wheels. Each rock has a weight of around 200 to 300 kg which implies around 5000 trips to transport the whole mass needed. Calculating with about 80 farms in the parish and one sleigh with two horses available from every second farm for one or two days each week and about ten weeks available for this task between Christmas and Easter (when farming went on low gear) and only one trip possible each day due to daylight and loading/unloading time, the result shows that the transport lasted for more than ten years. In addition would timber and lime for the masonry work need to be transported, timber from the nearby forests and lime from lime ovens in Asker and Bærum closer to Oslo.
We have some information about the dating from dendrochronological investigation of the wooden construction in the roof. (The wooden construction carrying the roof over the choir is the original one.) This shows that the oldest log was cut in 1192 and the youngest one in 1218. This supports at date of consecration about 1220 and a building time of about 25 years. The symbols drawn in the wet lime during the consecration ceremony are still visible on the north wall. Reminiscences of burnt wood under the west wall suggest that there has been a wooden building here before the present church was erected. That may have been a stave church or a pagan building, probably the first as Christianity reached this area from Denmark well before the year 1000. The reason for burning down the stave church may have been an accident, the unrest in the area during the reign of king Sverre (1179-1202) or simply that they wanted a new and better church.
In the early seventeenth century, more precise the late 1620’s, a thorough restoration of the church was carried out. The altarpiece, the pulpit and the galleries were added at that time. The sacristy on the north wall, which later on also served as a meeting room for the churchwardens, is from the early 18th century and somewhat older than the wooden porch at the front entrance. It has been told that the meetings lasted very long after the installation of the oven; it seems that the wardens, being ordinary peasants, favoured sitting there telling stories over being home looking after the farm. The old wooden roofing was replaced by glazed Dutch roofing tiles in 1652.
In the night to the 21 July 1748, the church was hit by lightning. That has been the ultimate fate of many historical buildings, but due to heavy rain, the church did not catch fire. The roof above the nave was destroyed and had to be rebuilt. The count owning the church was out of money and applied to the King in Copenhagen for support. He got a positive answer, and the roof was reconstructed, partly by reuse of the old timber. The old church bell from the thirteenth century survived and was supplemented in 1754 with a new one with a deeper sound. The bell is imported from the Netherlands. [It should be noted here about the ownership that the King acquired the churches during the reformation in 1537. Owing to great debts after the great Nordic war 1700-1720, he sold the churches in 1723. The local count (had to) buy. He soon realised that the income from the churches was too low to pay the expenses (in addition to certain fees, the church owned seven cows and sold the milk, butter etc.). In 1757 he finally sold the church to the peasants in the parish, each had to pay according to the standard income of the farm. The cows were sold in 1885. Today, the church is owned by the local congregation.]
In the 1820’s, the church went through a major overhaul, the windows were enlarged and the side altars inside the church were removed. (They were visible in 1770.) The wooden porch at the front entrance was also erected at that time. The bell tower was reconstructed in 1829 as a part of the overhaul.
The church was taken out of regular service in 1886. It has, however, been kept as a reserve and for special events. In 1926, 1972-73 and 1999-2001 major restorations were carried out. The bell tower is still awaiting final restoration. Today, the church is used during the summer season for all types of services except funerals.
The main parts of the interior stem from the overhaul in the 1620’s. The galleries with the ornaments and the front paintings, the altarpiece and the former pulpit are all dated 1631. The altarpiece is quite traditional, with the eye of God overseeing the world, the painting of the last supper and arms and ornaments common at that time. The altarpiece was restored in 1753.
The galleries from 1624 were enlarged in 1652 and 1753 as we can see from the dating of the pictures of King David (1652) and St. Olav (1753). For some reason (installation of the organ?) the gallery front was brutally cut to make space. We can see this from the fact that the painting of St. Peter is cut in two. The first words of the creed are also cut out at that occasion. The paintings were covered by grey paint which in turn was removed in 1926. the ornaments under the gallery are probably painted in 1652 by the same artist as the pictures on the gallery front.
The pulpit of 1631 was removed and destroyed in 1829, probably due to the corner figures showing improperly dressed women as angels. The inscription, however, was kept (they didn’t want to burn words from the Bible) and rediscovered in 1999 among dirt and rubble upstairs. The inscriptions are today stored in the sacristy.
The baptismal font is a large log of pine probably from the middle ages. The custom of baptism by complete immersion was abandoned due to climatic reasons, and the more convenient baptism by sprinkling of water was adopted. The paintings are from the 17th century, later covered with grey paint which in turn was removed in 1972. The basin was made of tin, and both basins are leaking due to tin pest. We got a silver basin as a gift in 1737. That is used in the new church today.
The chandeliers are both very old. The chandelier in the choir is of unknown age. The chandelier in the nave is from May 1692 and the chain from 1693 as you can see from the inscription. The crucifix above the sacristy door is from 1713 and was donated by an honourable widow downtown. It seems as if she most of all wanted her name and nobility to be remembered, although she writes “to the beauty of the church and the glory of God”.
The organ was installed in 1825. It is at present the second oldest usable organ in Norway. It has been restored a few times, but would need a thorough restoration to work well as a concert organ. It could be noted that the second organist was only 15 years old in 1830 when he entered his service, and he served for the rest of the century; 70 years! In 150 years we had only three organists.
The first oven was installed in 1832, the existing ones were a gift in 1868.
The ship is a model of a warship from the Napoleonic wars. It was given to us in 1816 by a sailor from Tangen. He has probably sailed with the Danish-Norwegian fleet during the war. It was restored in the late 1940’s by another seaman from Tangen. It is a warship to symbolise the eccelsia militans the fighting church (originally against the papacy). If not kept straight by an invisible fishing line, however, the ship tends to drift southwards to the sunny lands instead of across the pain of Calvary to the paradise (symbolised by the altarpiece). Unfortunately, this seems to be an allegory to the behaviour of the church of today.
Turning back to Calvary, the Calvary group on the front wall is the most precious of all the pieces of art that we have in this church. The group is nearly as old as the church itself. The figures were originally mounted on a vertical bar of wood, but that was removed when the group was taken apart and the figures of Mary and John were brought to storage in the loft above the choir. That may have happened as early as in the 1620’s, however, the cross was later cut to fit in when the choir portal was enlarged in the 1820’s. In 1909 Mary and John were rediscovered in the loft and the whole group was restored. The cross was remade at the workshop at the Central Office of Historic Monuments. The vertical bar, however, was not reconstructed.
The benches are a story of their own. We can see that they do not fit very well into the building. It is assumed that they are second-hand, and that they were installed here when the church was reconstructed after the thunderstorm in 1748. The fall of building rubble after the lightning stroke has probably damaged much of the inventory in the church, and the old benches may have been impossible to repair. Second-hand benches were then taken from the old stave church at Hillestad, which was demolished at that time. (The present church there was built in 1724.) At the end of each bench, the name of the farm sponsoring that bench is written; the size of the donation decided the place in the row. It should also be noted that the bars supporting the benches along the floor are different: On the northern row, the obsolete style of at conical bar is visible, on the southern row the more “modern” square style appears. The women were to accept the old rubbish!
The reason for the special cabinet at the back row is somewhat uncertain. One explanation is that it was designed for the count and his family, but he was very rarely present at services here as he lived in Larvik. Another explanation is that it was for prisoners who were to be kept under control even when they attended the service. A third explanation is that it served as reserved seats for the vicar’s family.
Author: Sverre Hornkjøl