Norwegian Woodcarving - the Pinnacle of Norwegian folk art

Woodcarving has always been an important means of artistic expression in Norwegian folk art, and reached a high level of artistic proficiency early on.

The wooden sculptures found in Osebergdronningas (the Oseberg Queen's) burial mound were of such high quality that there are hardly any artists living today who can replicate this type of work. Woodcarvings on boats, sledges, wagons and churches, often featuring amazing fantasy creatures, are proof of the highly developed artistic skill and competence of the time.

With the introduction of Christianity came the building of churches, and woodcarvers were employed to adorn God's house. Most of the doorways of Norwegian stave churches feature incredible woodcarvings representing some of the foremost in Norwegian folk art, perhaps even in Norwegian art in general -- from the ornamental woodcarvings of fantasy creatures around the doorway of the Urnes Stave Church, to the rich vine-like ornamentation on the stave churches in Valdres, to the patterns reflecting historical events carved around the doorway of the Hylestad Stave Church. Inside the stave churches, the wood carver's craft was also often put to work, for example, to create spectacular creatures in the ceiling staring down upon the churchgoers below.

During the Norwegian renaissance toward the end of the 17th century, woodcarving was primarily confined to the churches, where traditional Baroque patterns were commonly used to adorn altarpieces and pulpits. But woodcarving was also used to decorate the interior of homes, such as on moulding and furniture, as well as the geometric woodcarving used on household articles such as mangling rollers.

The 18th century was the Golden Age of Norwegian wood carving, and the intricate designs of the acanthus plant were created in wood by the skilful hands of master woodcarvers. This design was first used in an altarpiece - completed in 1699 by a Dutch craftsman -- for the Oslo Cathedral. From this holy site the trend spread to the woodcarving environment in Hedmark, and later to the Gudbrandsdalen valley, where it became most prevalent. The first master of the craft in this district was Jakup Bersveinsson Klukstad, whose altarpiece at Lesja Church was a masterpiece of woodworking. Later, the acanthus design was commonly used by craftsmen to decorate the interior of homes, as well as for cupboards and clock cabinets. Among the craftsmen were famous figures such as Sylvfest Skrinde and Ola Rasmusson Skjåk (Skjåk-Ola) both from Skjåk, in addition to Jakup Rasmusson Sæterdalen and Hans Olsson Helleløkken from Vågå. All these woodcarvers are richly represented in museums in the Gudbrandsdalen Valley. Many of the wood carvers also carved tombstones made of soapstone, which is typical for the Gudbrandsdal Valley.

In the early 1800s, the most important market for woodcarvers was adorning the interior of homes, and the acanthus pattern was the most popular pattern. Over time, the woodcarvings came to be used less for large pieces such as cupboards and clock cabinets and more for smaller household items such as photograph frames and souvenir items.

In the latter part of the 19th century, a formal educational curriculum for the art of woodcarving was established in Hardanger and in the Gudbrandsdalen Valley. Lars Kinsarvik in Hardanger developed a new style, the Dragon Style, based on ornamental themes taken from the Viking Age and the doorways of various stave churches. Lars would come to be a significant trend-setter and educator, and decorated many cafes around the country with the end-products of his woodworking skills. He is also responsible for adorning several church interiors made in the Dragon Style, particularly in the western part of Norway. In Dovre, Hjerleids Husflidsskule (school of arts and crafts) began teaching woodcarving and became a leading educational institution in the field of woodcarving. The school continues to this today to have a dominating position in this field.