Beautiful churches from a distant north

By Martin Rama   September 5, 2019 | 11:08 pm PT
Century-old churches in northern Vietnam are an attraction worth preserving.
Martin Rama

Martin Rama

This summer I spent time with my family hiking through Norway. Much of the enjoyment came from the stunning views of the fjords, where the sea enters deep into an imposing mountain range and pristine villages and green fields quickly give way to dark, almost vertical stone cliffs. But I was also amazed to visit some of the unique medieval churches that sprinkle Scandinavia. And I thought that the story of their preservation was relevant for the churches of Vietnam's northeast.

More than one thousand churches supported by vertical mast-like pillars (or stave) were built from the 12th century onward in what is now Norway. The churches were small like chapels, with at most two dozen pillars supporting their wooden structures. But layer after layer of tiled rooftops irregularly piling on each other made then look tall, like gentle carapace-covered beasts grazing in the lush fields by the fjords.

Stave churches were built at a time when a Viking nation was converting to Christianism, most probably in a halfhearted way. The carved decorations around their doors represent dragons and monsters, not virgins or saints. And their wooden friezes tell stories about Scandinavian mythology, not about the Bible. This unusual combination of Viking and Christian cultural heritages makes the stave churches of Norway a distinct architectural species. Unfortunately, they soon became an endangered species.

In the 14th century the Black Plague killed two thirds of the local population. With fewer people around and fewer resources available, the churches were not maintained and many of them collapsed. The damage was even worse as local communities became more prosperous, centuries later. Then, many churches were demolished to build bigger ones.

In 1650 there were only 270 stave churches left, and by 1800 only 70 of them were still standing. This is when Fortidsminneforeningen, the oldest heritage preservation society in the world, was born. Its founders were artists, historians and archeologists. Key among them was J.C. Dahl, a famous painter of the time, best known for his melancholic depictions of the Norwegian landscape. Despite his mainly international career, every time he returned home J.C. Dahl was moved by the beauty of stave churches and was keen to save them from disappearing.

This society advocated for the protection of stave churches. In parallel it mobilized funds to buy those that were about to be demolished and renovated them based on its own interpretation of how they might have looked in a distant past.

The society also helped document this precious heritage at risk. Sketchers produced moving drawings of dozens of stave churches while historians researched their history. This is how we know about Torolf, a master carpenter who built several of them, together with half a dozen local assistants in each case. The work involved preparing almost 2,000 wooden pieces and then assembling them without blueprints or nails, a technical accomplishment requiring extraordinary skill.

As heritage awareness increased, the demolition of stave churches gradually slowed down. It stopped completely in 1880, almost 35 years after the society was founded. By now the 28 remaining stave churches are all protected through a combination of public and private initiatives. Eight of them are in Norway’s heritage list, and one of them entered the UNESCO world heritage list... but this was almost one and a half centuries after J.C. Dahl and his colleagues started their campaign.

As I was visiting one stave church after another, I thought that their history was highly relevant for today's Vietnam. There are indeed more than 1,200 churches under the dioceses of Bui Chu, Phat Diem and Thai Binh, which roughly cover Nam Dinh and Ninh Binh Provinces. This is where Christian missionaries landed in 1553, long before colonial times, making the region the cradle of Vietnam's Catholicism.

Bui Chu Cathedral in the northern Nam Dinh Province, May 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

Bui Chu Cathedral in the northern Nam Dinh Province, May 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

Many of the churches of Vietnam's northeast are more than one century old. And much the same as in Norway, they wonderfully combine radically different cultural traditions. Their cross-shaped layouts are Western, while their pagoda looks are unmistakably Asian. But these buildings are nowadays at risk, as local communities become more prosperous and have the means to replace them with much bigger (and supposedly more beautiful) modern structures.

As I was leaving Norway, reflecting on my family vacation, I felt hopeful. According to economic historians, Norway’s income per person in the mid-19th century was similar to that of Vietnam at the end of the 20th century. Meanwhile heritage awareness is rapidly developing in Vietnam, among both people and government. Greater wealth and consciousness allow for some optimism. If 28 out of 70 remaining stave churches could be saved in Norway, then it should be possible to preserve the original architecture of large numbers of old churches in northeast Vietnam.

Along the way it should also be possible to document the architecture and history of these extraordinary buildings. For example, we do not know whether the equivalent of a Torolf, the master carpenter, was involved in their design and construction. And while Vietnam did not experience anything like the Black Plague, we ignore much about the suffering of the local communities during the struggle for Vietnam’s independence.

The Red River delta is totally different from the Norwegian fjords. Its landscape is flat, the sea has the brownish color of the river, and the misty air from the heavy humidity blurs the boundaries between earth and sky. There is something a bit sad about the never-ending horizon, just sprinkled with church towers as far as the eye can see.

Therefore, I would not expect masses of tourists ever coming to hike through the countryside of Nam Dinh and Ninh Binh provinces. But hopefully some day large numbers of visitors will come there to admire their magnificent churches, as they do in Norway.

*Martin Rama is the Chief Economist for Latin America and the Caribbean at the World Bank, and a project director at the Center for Sustainable Urban Development under the Vietnamese Academy of Social Sciences. The opinions expressed are his own.

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