Wooden Rusyn Churches of Eastern Slovakia

Wooden churches and belfries belong indisputably among the notable expressions of architectural creation in Eastern Slovakia. The numerous occurrence of wooden church objects In this country, especially in its northern and north-eastern parts, Is not fortuitous. It is closely connected with the geographical environment the main factor of which is formed by the large, huge mountains of the Carpathian bow rich in forests. In this environment a specific style of living was formed during the historical development, and specific culture arose from it as well. This culture was influenced 'not only by material natural conditions, but also by cultural atmosphere and by the fact that this area was the actual area of contact between two great world's cultures the West Roman culture and the Byzantine culture. This fact marked considerably and unambiguously the works crested in this environment. It was so strong that it overcame even the ethnic influence of those nations which had settled in this district and which, living in one community, created a specific cultural symptom the creative works originated in this environment are marked by. The geomorphologic and natural conditions of this district influenced also local architectonic creation very considerably. This is expressed not only by the material realization in wood and by construction, but also by various formal symptoms taking individual architectonic patterns from artistic styles of older periods as well as from the aesthetic sense of the creators.
The wealth of forests in the Carpathian Mountains formed very suitable and rich soil for architectonic creation. The most beautiful jewels of our folk architecture were originated and have been preserved in this environment up to the present. In the area which became the homeland of many nations of the huge Carpathian bow common culture was formed to a certain extent in the sphere of architecture and urbanism. We can say that each ethnic unit or religious rite gave its mite to the treasure of the architectural creation which was formed in this milieu.
Cultural architectonic creation as a determined creation belonging to this milieu and connected first of all with certain geomorphologic and life facts ca be then understood not only as the creation of some ethnic unit or religious group, but also as a common work of the fallow-creators, individual nations as well as churches under the influence of the mentioned factors. The culture of this area was inseparably bound with its social life, where besides various ethnical influences a great number of material, psychical and common historical factors cooperated.
From the urbanite point of view, the wooden churches can be rated as dominants in the milieu of considerably varying urbanite conception of Eastern Slovak communities. Their special place and function in villages with both line and cluster, or chain, or street building up is evident at first sight. They are almost regularly situated on hills, or at the peripheries of villages. Essentially, they govern the whole environment. Another position of the churches is in the centre of a village where the church forms certain nucleus of the settlement. One of the characteristic features of such an object is the fact that the church is considerably isolated from residential as well as farm buildings of the village. They are usually situated over the road or over the brook in this case they are regularly surrounded by grown up verdure. Near the church there was usually a cemetery with simple wooden or iron crosses. Usually a wooden fence, rarely a stone wall surrounds the church area and this is some remain of the former fortification of the church object. In several cases, the area of the church is complemented by a wooden belfry which stands separately.
This isolation of the wooden churches was caused especially by the safety reasons because of the danger of fire. The log-cabin building of a wooden church was regularly based upon a simple stone sustaining wall laid dry without any mortar, eventually only later filled in with lime mortar or with earthen daub.
As far as the building material (used for the wooden churches is concerned, we can say according to the density of occurrence that larch was the most usual material in use. It was very popular for its qualities, considerable content of pitch as well as for its great power of resistance against bad weather, rain, snow and water. This material, however, was more and more rare during the course of time, and that is why it rarely occurs at newer objects; it is substituted by spruce and even by fir which is not of very good quality. Yew as a building-material for building the wooden churches can be found only exceptionally; we can find it now only in several detail parts of some older objects (Kezmarok, Trocany). As the basic material, yew is used only in one single case at our oldest object at Hervartov. Besides these, also oak and beech occur among the materials used for building the churches. They are of use especially in the buildings of huge belfries and bell-stools, but they are rather rare.
Wood preparation and working was based upon the fundamental technique of using the axe and later the saw which was in use as late as in XIX century. When working the constructions both beams and boards that were cut from stems with the axe, the both-hand knife was also used; -it was indispensable especially for manufacturing shingles.
The log-cabin system can be thought the fundamental construction used when building wooden objects. In several rarer cases, especially when building belfries, the column construction was in use. This one was also used for enclosing the secondary areas like galleries, halls, shelters, entrance gates etc. These log-cabin constructions are usually rectangular, but sometimes also polygonal.
A characteristic feature of our log-cabin constructions are log-cabin castles, which are very varying, fanciful and original in this district. Their creators tried to build such a castle which would be able to eliminate all the unwanted forces and influences affecting pressure and pull. That is why these wooden buildings were very stable, and we do not know such a case that they would have fallen down without direct breaking the original material. The builders regularly used wooden oak wedges for setting the wooden constructions instead of hooks and nails.
Wooden log-cabin buildings of churches ,,in fur coats ", which try at least by their external appearance to free themselves from traditional materials and imitate masonry buildings that are more ostentatious and representative according to the opinion of people, are relatively very rare in our country, but still, they occur here. Such an arrangement of a wooden church covers eventual deformations of the wooden construction as well. This technique links up with a similar type of folk architecture wide-spread in North-Eastern Slovakia, where it occurs rather often especially at dwelling buildings. Such log-cabin ,,in fur coats" are usually just covered with plaster and then whitewashed, There are no special decorations on their external walls. Their technical construction accords with the level of local folk building (Jalova, Krasny Brod etc.).
The builders used the shingle on principle for covering the roofs of wooden churches. According to local situation, shingles differed in length and width and they were often decorated, especially by the edge of the roof or on belfries, little towers or by the windows and little protection roofs, For its short service life, the single roof-cover unfortunately gave way to various hard covers, especially eteraite or tin roofs, which undoubtedly be based the aesthetic effect of these wooden church buildings.
When building wooden objects, metal was used only in the decorative and functional elements like crosses, door-posts, gratings, window and door mounting and locks. Metal gratings in wooden churches represent quite a special chapter of the village smiths' creation. They are regularly hammered and chiseled from iron bars. Their design and creative decoration reach high master level. Window gratings often took patterns from older, especially Gothic and Renaissance buildings. They were usually made by cutting and forming when hot, in the way of old Gothic thorn or lily gratings. Among the decorative details in metal there are often very interesting and remarkable metal door-posts, both bar and arrow, or lily ones as well as ingenious, often rather complicated locks, mountings with beautiful handles, decorative door-knobs and targets; all these things are worked up in a highly accomplished way of artistic creation. Their appearance is considerably influenced by animal and plant motifs, both conventionalized and naturalistically authentic with their models.
It is characteristic for building wooden churches that their creators are mostly anonymous, so that we do not know any master builders with the exception of those who had built the new objects, and except Stefan (Stephen) Tulka, who is the master builder of the church at Rovne the church which has not remained up to the present. Sometimes only donators are known, especially those who had their names engraved in the beams or in the entrance portals of the churches, usually with the year when the building was built. Talented and skilful folk handicraftsmen can be considered the true master-builders of the wooden churches. They grew out from the local milieu, and building a church was a point of honor for them as well as it was the proof of their craftsmanship We presume that some of them, after gaining experience in building, qualified themselves as certain folk master builders with higher ambions, and then asserted themselves specially as the builders of church buildings.
Wooden churches in Eastern Slovakia bear a number of special symptoms which enable their classification. They are classified into special groups according to their specific character, dispositional design, formal construction, religious appurtenance, creative decoration, complements, etc.
All these specific features forming the individual types crystallized in the course of centuries; this resulted in the fact that they have become some indispensable attributes according to which they differ from one another. We can find here, however, various variations and transient types between them and between the individual groups, of course. They were originated when two great culture spheres met in this region and influenced each other Eastern and Western cultural spheres. Their reciprocal interaction had a strong influence on the whole culture of this country, which is expressed quite naturally and regularly both in the -material base of artistic creation and in their ideal super-structure in the artistic performance of the architectonic expression of the builders' works. This fact is not to the detriment of forming the environment - and its artistic production. It caused a lot of specific and complicated relations arose in this environment. It is nearly impossible to analyze and interpret them in the presented- work regarding its character and purpose.
Historical development, geographical and ethnical perspective paralleled with the regional classification, resulted in the fact that we meet a number of remarkable architectural types in this region: they are dependent on the district where these objects built, on the time of their origin as well as on the religion of their builders. According to the historical information, data and archives documents, we know that much more wooden buildings had existed originally in our district than have remained up to the present. In most cased, wood is not so durable material as stone or burnt bricks. In spite of the fact that many wooden buildings do not exist any longer, at least those main types of churches which illustrate the building techniques as they were in practice in the individual parts of Slovakia, have remained up to now.
Basically three types of construction have been preserved in our country as far as wooden. churches are concerned.
The oldest type is still bound with the Gothic style of artistic creation. Individual style patterns derived from the Gothic stone creative elements are clearly visible and identifiable in the wooden buildings belonging to this group. These oldest churches are situated in Northern Slovakia near Zilina at Trnove, in the Orava district at Tvrdosin and Zabrezie, in Eastern Slovakia the most valuable one is at Hervartov.
The next, newer one to come is formed by the so-called central buildings which are built upon the Greek-cross-shape basis. Nearly all of them are equipped with emporas corresponding with the type of churches with pulpits. They are the echo of the Silesian architectual type; they are similar to articular, and later toleration cathedrals. The oldest of them is at a Liptovian village Paludza, others at Hronsek near Banska Bystrica (Central Slovakia), at Istebne and Lestiny, the Orava district, and at Kezmarok and Podhorany, Eastern Slovakia.
The third group is formed by the wooden churches of Eastern Slovakia. They are mostly the objects belonging to the Eastern rite, originally Greek-Catholic, later changed into Orthodox churches. We can meet various modifications of building styles here. A great deal of the churches have three towers, the individual parts of the construction are underlined by beautifully graduated steeples, while others have rich carved architectonic parts especially the overlapping beams. They are equipped with rich inside furniture with a dominating ostentatious iconostas considerably influenced by Byzantine, i.e. Eastern artistic heritage. Most objects built in this style come from XVIII century. As though the past were conserved in. these churches within their tiny proportions, urbanite incorporation into the countryside, their position in villages, where the folk creator knew the axe as the almost only tool.
These buildings cover a large gamut of periods. They represent a spontaneous expression not only by their material performance which is determined by the environment of their origin, but also by their creative, aesthetic and formal achievement that expresses the best what the people . of this country had had their sense of beauty, proportions and harmony. In spite of the fact that all the churches have one thing in common wood the material they are built from, they can be ranked among various architectonic styles and types according to their form as well as their artistic design, as we have already mentioned above.
The church at Hervartov, built ostensibly during the years between 1593 1596 (although it can be considered at least a hundred years older) can be placed among the most valuable and oldest wooden buildings in our region. This church is the repercussion of western Gothic architecture. It was the model to the building of a wooden log-cabin church at Brezany near Presov, which repeats the style of the church at Harvartov in a reduced form in spite of the fact that it was originated in 1727. Its separately standing tower, open in the basement, with an entrance which imitates Gothic stone portals, is typical for this style.
This church is also remarkable from another point of view. The crevices between the beams are filled with earth and whitewashed, by which they remind us of the bearing of the monumental wooden architecture upon the folk architecture in Eastern Slovakia.
The intensity of the Gothic art reached such a level in this environment that is also influenced the church buildings of the Eastern rite which are stigmatized by its artistic taste also in XVIII century, i. e. in the period when most of these buildings originated. This expansion of building can be connected with the so-called ,,Union" the union of the Orthodox and Greek-Catholic churches in the year of 1648. This union, however, was not spontaneous and it was reinforced after suppressing the Thokoly's rebellion. We can presume that there were older wooden churches constructed according to the Eastern rite in Eastern Slovakia. This fact is indirectly proved by some preserved older parts of the interior effects. Especially the objects at Trocany and Topola should be mentioned as far as these older types of churches are concerned.
The church at Trocany was built in 1739 in the area of an older object. Its older origin is shown by the urbanite situation of the object. It Is situated in the centre of the village, in spite of the fact it does not form the dominant of it. It stands in. a row of houses like as ordinary member of the row, and practically It is not more prominent than the other houses in the build up. In the object there are some remains of an iconostas from XVII century, table icons from 1608 and 1638 as well as some other parts of the interior affects. The local church at Topola originated about 1700.
Most objects from XVIII century are related by construction, disposition and artistic creation. They consist of three parts, built like log-cabins, and the triplicity of their interior is in many cases underlined externally by three towers that are increasing and enlarging gradually to the west. Many interiors of these churches were originally rich decorated by wall and ceiling paintings. In spite of the fact that the interiors of the individual churches differ In decoration we can say that they are based upon the Byzantine models which formally had had a firmly established canon. The creators of the Icons took subjects from the Gospel -first of all. The Pantocrator, figures of the prophets, evangelists, apostles, church fathers, scenes from Christ's earthly life, scenes from St. Mary's life as well as various saints, as if or example St. George. St. Michael, St. Dimitry, St. Paraskeva, etc., form the most usual motifs.
In the interior of a church was painted, the painter concentrated his work to the northern wall which was always plain, without any windows. In most cases the painter divided the wall by strips which were always vivified by plant ornaments. Then both the Individual figures or/and groups of figures were placed into the frames formed by this schematic division. The church fathers (regularly above life-size) were placed in the sanctuary. The nave was decorated by simple expressive paintings by which the painter acquainted people with the content of the Old and New Testament. The visitor of the object is introduced just Into the middle of the action which the painter created In a simple understandable form. By these paintings, the artist created some counterpoise to the iconostas, where the individual scenes and figures had to be performed strictly according to the laws of iconography. The vaulted ceiling of the dome was mostly covered by figures of evangelists and angels surrounded by rich, usually plant ornaments (Kozany, Potoky, Koike and others).
In many cases, the colors of the interior corresponded with those of the exterior, where they were concentrated especially about windows and doors, and on the steeples. Only a narrow gamut of colors was used in the exterior blue, green, red or black (Bardejovske Kupele, Nova Polianka, Rovne, Sarisske Cierne).
The iconostas is the most important part of any church building of this type. It is the artistic as well as functional nucleus of the whole building. The iconostas is a tangible document of the Eastern religious Ideology and a constituent part of each church belonging to the Eastern rite. Its construction is clear, settled beforehand strictly according to the demands of iconography. It arose from a low divided little wall which separated the altar from the other parts of the church. Originally it consisted of four columns holding the architrave. Approximately by the end of the fourteenth century, some pictures were placed between the columns which gradually resulted in the origin of the real iconstas as we know it today. The iconostas is a natural gravity centre of the whole space as well as it is its ideal center. It is divided both horizontally and vertically into three parts pointing out the middle, where the Royal Gate is situated.
There have been a great many opinions on the genesis of the former Greek-Catholic, today mostly Orthodox churches. Most of them were based upon the individual understanding the whole problem, which also results in forming knowledge. Unfortunately, a lot of the opinions are subject to the level and scope of the preparatory study and knowledge regarding the fact that the whole material is usually known only partly. From this reason it is generally possible to say that the wooden churches in the Carpathians district, and consequently also the wooden churches in Eastern Slovakia, form certain typological, material and technically-constructive group, in which we can notice a great deal of influences belonging not only to the limited massif of the Carpathians. They extend beyond their borders and witness to the fact that their existence in this environment was not accidental. Further on, they also witness to the fact that they have their old roots arising from the natural, material as well as social conditions of the society which created them. Regarding the great many cooperating factors, the gathering of various kinds of culture, and the extent of the influence of various cultural spheres, also here a few groups were originated, and it is possible to provide some territorial classification according to certain common features of these wooden churches.
The existence of a certain type, rather influenced by Eastern Ukrainian architecture on the one hand, and by Western Slovak architecture on the other hand, can be observed in Eastern Slovakia. It is not difficult to understand this fact which also depends on some fundamental cooperating factors.
Both ethnic and confessional units stand behind these factors; both of them function approximately under the same conditions and in the same natural environment. To put it in a few words, these objects are a conglomeration of architectures of the transient east-western type, or Romano-Byzantine type.
Wooden churches were arising in the course of the whole XVIII century, but the tradition of using wood as a building material was so strong that as late as in the XX century we can find new buildings of wooden churches which lack, however, the original picturesqueness and relation to the environment. They are mostly lately erected buildings in the widest sense of the term, and in some cases they are even, designed by an architect. They do not respect the original division; they are much more serviceable and simpler.
Generally speaking, the wooden cult building of Eastern Slovakia is the expression of the people's creative genius which expressed both their experience and artistic taste in them, and so documented the cultural-aesthetic level of the people. These churches, for their original design, attraction and beauty, belong among the jewels of this region and represent the best the people could create in this environment under those conditions.

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Originally Composed: December 6th, 2004
Date last modified: March 28, 2005