The Hobøl and Tanum Churches Understood as Palimpsests

Facing each other from across the Oslo fjord, the Hobøl and Tanum churches are fine examples of medieval stone architecture, likely from the 12th century.

Map of the churches. Image by Author.

In 1020, Norway was Christianized by King Olav Haraldsson. At the time, stacked stone constructions were simple as buildings were primarily made of wood. More advanced stone constructions came along with the Christianization of Norway, leading to churches being the first examples of stone buildings in Norway.

Catholic Churches

At one point, there were approximately 300 stone churches around Norway—but only half of them still stand today. The constructions were typically designed around a nave and a choir, but it was also common to see an apse at the end of the choir—as in the Tanum and Hobøl churches. These Catholic buildings were oriented along an east-west axis, with the nave on the west side and the choir on the east side. The northern walls had no windows, one or two entrances to the nave—depending on the size,—and one entrance to the choir. One entrance was along the west wall and one on the south wall. While only speculation, it is possible that one entrance was used by women and the other by men, who sat on the opposite sides of the church from each other. The churches had few, and small, windows due to the lack of heat and the price of glass. As in the two example churches, there were only windows on the south walls and one on the east wall of the choir. The nave and the choir were typically separated by a narrow portal clogged by wooden bars and curtains, as one can see in Orthodox churches today. There were no benches and the priest spoke only in Latin.

Plans of Hobøl and Tanum through the centuries. Image by Author.

In Norway, the earliest churches were built in the 1000s, but none of these exist today. The knowledge of stonemasons was likely imported from England, which indicates the hight cost of these buildings. Stone was a symbol of power and wealth, and was reserved for building in large cities. In the countryside, churches were by constructed of wood. At the time, these wooden buildings were considered more simple than the stone churches of the cities, but today they are the, well-known, stave churches. The material of Tanum and Hobøl indicates the importance of their location at the time of construction. Eventually, the use of stone construction spread and was used to build important structures such as the kings’ residences. 

Building declined between the 14th century and the Reformation, partly due to a pest that devastated the Norwegian population.

Baptismal font of Hobøl and Tanum church. The two unique furnishings remaining from Catholic time. Image by Author.

The Reformation

Due to different religious ideologies, and abuses of the Catholic Church, the Reformation took place in 1536-37. Prior to this, the Church was the largest landowner and the richest organization in the Kingdom of Norway. The concurrence with the monarchical power followed a major change in the practice of religion, which had a direct impact on the architecture of churches. Churches were stripped of their wealth and the abundance of precious metals were retrieved and melted down. From then on, new churches were primarily built of wood and in different styles. Around the same time, Norway became part of Denmark, leading to much of the wealth being used to finance wars.

Changes in the middle age church revolved around removing the Catholic altars and apses with icons of Saints and improving the conditions for the speaker. Pulpits were raised from the floor so that the speaker could be seen and heard.

Pulpit of Hobøl church, 1602. Image by Author.

By this time glass was much cheaper, so the windows were enlarged to better the reading conditions. The length of the sermon also increased, leading to permanent benches placed in the nave. Later, galleries were built to accommodate more people. The portal between the nave and the choir was enlarged to allow the congregation to become a more integrated part of the ceremony. 

Sections of Hobøl church.

Sections of Hobøl church. Image by Author.

A final post-reformation transformation was the addition of a spire. In similar churches, spires were post-reformation, but it is unclear when Hobøl got its spire or if Tanum ever had one. What is certain is that the windows were enlarged, sacristies added, and a bell tower added to Tanum church in the 1700s.

Possible evolution of the south facade through centuries. Hobøl to the left and Tanum to the right. Image by Author.

The Final Alterations

The last major changes to the churches of Hobøl and Tanum took place in the 1800s. This is a common time for alterations among Norwegian churches, and came as a consequence of new laws and a general lack of knowledge about the old buildings. Windows were, again, enlarged, towers, porches, and sacristies were added or, sometimes, redone to look more medieval. The interior was painted white, causing the loss of many murals from the 16th and 17th centuries. Sources mention some writings on the north wall of Tanum church that were lost during a renovation in the 1800s. 

A tower and windows were added to Tanum church and windows were added to Hobøl. Heaters were placed in the church and new laws regulating that 30% of the congregation needed a place to sit caused the destruction of churches considered too small.

These changes were characterized by the new gothic style that had a significant influence. With the exception of the modernization of lights, heating systems, and fire protection, the churches have now stood untouched for many years. Thanks to their protected status, they will likely remain like that for the foreseeable future.

West facades of Hobøl and Tanum church.

These Medieval churches are now approximately 900 years old. They were built in a completely different context than today, one where Catholicism was the religion and stone a new building material. Over the centuries, these buildings have gone through many alterations, but are still, in essence, the same structure as 900 years ago. The people, the religion, and the culture has changed, and with it, the church buildings. Many church buildings  have been lost, but those that still stand exhibit how people have adapted architecture to spiritual needs over the centuries.



Norsk folkemuseum. Inventar i kirken. Accessible from:

Unn Pedersen & Jon Vidar Sigurdsson. (2015) Landet blir kristnet. Accessible from:

Sigrid Marie Christie & Håkon Christie. Hobøl kirke. Accessible from:

Wikipedia (2019). Reformasjonen i Norge. Accessible from:

Ragnhild Marthine Bø. (2017) De første kirkene i Norge. Accessible from:

Bjørg Holmsen & Hans Tveten. (1988). Tanum kirke i Brunlanes 800 år. Larvik: Østlands-Postens Boktrykkeri. 

Hans-Emil Lidén. (1972). Middelalderen bygger i stein. Blindern, Oslo: Universitetsforlaget. 

Øystein Ekroll & Morten Stige. (2000). Kirker i Norge. Oslo: Forlag for arkitektur og kunst.


Berner, C. (1911) Fig. 47. Tanum kirkes grundplan [Drawing]. Accessible from:

Sigrid & Håkon Christie. (1959). Norges kirker Østfold bind 2. Oslo: Riksantikvariatet.

All drawings are drawn or redrawn by the author.