Kurek, Jan, Sołtysik, Anna – Wooden Orthodox Churches in Poland

Kurek, Jan, Sołtysik, Anna – Wooden Orthodox Churches in Poland

Jan Kurek and Anna Sołtysik (Poland) [1]

Forms and interior divisions of churches in the west and east of Europe have always been similar. People honoured God through cathedrals and small temples, where the interior decoration was rich and enchanting, or rather simple with almost no details. When we think about a typical Christian temple, we imagine a dignified cathedral with a high roof, towers and pinnacles. Inside, a sense of mystery is created through huge, colourful stained-glass windows, which tell us biblical stories or just are playing with sunlight. All these architectural elements, connected with appropriate music and ceremonial liturgy, served to make people ‘come closer’ to God and heaven.

Only the biggest cities had their cathedrals; in most towns and villages people built small, often wooden churches. Timber was a familiar building material, so that local carpenters could easily make constructions for their temples. Even though they were rather simple in form and function, they were suitable for local communities. Wooden churches became permanent elements of the landscape – in a spiritual and material respect.

Even though religious wooden buildings were common in other parts of Europe – from Great Britain, France, Germany, Norway, Sweden and Russia – it is in the Carpathians region where the forms of wooden churches were most varied. Availability of timber and a rich craftsman’s tradition resulted in the differentiation of forms and sizes of wooden orthodox churches and belfries.

In bigger towns, such as Turka, Drohobycz, Potylicz or Zolkiew, there was more than one church, so that one of those was often bigger, with a more complicated structure, more details and a rich polychromy.

In the Subcarpathian region, Christianity appeared approx. 870 AD. It was a region where in 20th century Tadeusz Obminski (professor at the Technical University in Lvov) was searching for archetypes of wooden orthodox and catholic churches[2]. He thought that despite the fact that log construction was typical for many regions of Eastern Europe (Galicia, Ukraine, Russia), log construction of vaults and domes originated in regions at the borders of Caucasian countries. Obminski singled out several types of orthodox churches. The most distinctive was a type with three chambers and a two-story column gallery – as in the orthodox church in Chotyniec. In such churches, from the upper gallery there was an entrance to small chapel – the Chapel of Warriors. This chapel was located over the Women’s Gallery and it also had its own iconostasis – as in the Holy Cross Orthodox Church in Drohobycz.

Wooden orthodox churches have existed in the Subcarpathians region before Boykos and Lemkos built their own temples there. Examples of such buildings are: the orthodox church in Ulucz (1569) and the gate-belfry with orthodox church (at upper floor) in Dobra Szlachecka (the turn of 17th-18th century). Over the centuries many types of orthodox churches occured in this region. In the East – Hutsuls orthodox churches were built on a Greek cross plan, going to the west – there were more complicated in forms Boykos orthodox churches and in the West – Lemkos orthodox churches[3]. Carpathian orthodox churches were also under the influence of Moldavian and Hungarian styles, especially in decoration. Since 17th century, Polish baroque architecture also  became an inspiration for interior architecture and icon painting in many orthodox churches in that time. Artists in southern Rus, have in most cases made an interpretation of what they have seen and they created their own, regional baroque style.

Many elements of construction and forms which are present in orthodox churches, were also common in other buildings – log walls, roof construction, arcades, external and internal galleries, porches or architectural details.

In the opinion of researchers, there is something unique in the character of architecture of orthodox churches in the Polish and Ukrainian borderland. It seems that it was caused by the specific localization – between Latin and Byzantine cultural circle, among ethnically varied areas of Poland, Rus, Slovakia, Bukovina, Moldova, etc.

The authors of this article have been conducting research into wooden architecture (also wooden orthodox churches) since 1989[4]. Thanks to many inventory drawings, they have been able to systematize types of orthodox churches in a part of Carpathian region[5]. The typology is connected with the ethnic and geographic division of the examined areas: Boykos, Lemkos, Hutsuls, Transylvania, Bukovina, Volhynia and Podole. There are also many mixed-types which are based on architecture from different regions.

As an example – among Lemkos orthodox churches we could define five types. Each type differs from the others in its tower – its form, location and construction, but also in architectural detail, size of the church and type of the roof and dome. It seems more cautious to make more general typology of orthodox churches.

On the one hand, types of wooden orthodox churches are connected through their location in a specific geographical and ethnical region, but on the other hand we could make this typology based only on their forms and construction. In this more general classification we could list types of orthodox churches: archaic o.ch., tower o.ch., roof o.ch. and mixed types, which join particular features from the beginning of their building or later after their conversion.

Archaic orthodox churches have a domical/cupola or a gabled/pyramid construction, with one cupola over the nave and ridge roof, which could also ‘hide’ inside its form pyramid or cupola construction.

The architecture of wooden orthodox churches in the Carpathian region reflects the mentality and the specific understanding of sanctity by local communities. But on the other hand, depending whether this area was in a Western or Eastern sphere of cultural influence, that is the reason for a differentiation of forms, construction and details among Carpathian orthodox churches.

Every nation and religious or ethnical group is looking for their own identity, also in architecture. Trends and styles often came from big cities to small towns and villages, but local builders and carpenters, bringing in their own experience, changed the original pattern into their own, more simple, regional style.

The Polish-Slovak-Ukrainian borderland had since ages been under the cultural influence of Poland, Russia, Transylvania and other cultures, such as Byzantine, Caucasian or even Scandinavian. During the 20th century, people started to search for their own identity and national style in architecture, but was it possible? It seems that in this region, it is the diversity and combination of cultures, styles, constructions in the cultural heritage which is most characteristic and valuable.

Nowadays we can define what is our heritage, but the most important question is – how will we preserve historical wooden architecture, including Greek Catholic orthodox churches which are now within the Republic of Poland? First of all, historical religious buildings must be kept in use by the local community, which could regularly make some small repairs. After the Second World War, in some regions this was no longer possible. Ukrainians who lived at the Southeast were displaced from their homes, and as the result, orthodox churches too were destroyed or abandoned. Only a part of these churches were adopted by the Roman Catholic or the Orthodox Church.

Since 1989, the most precious historical orthodox churches were under legal protection and there ware some repairs and renovation work of the most valuable objects. Construction works, but also inventory works were financed out of the Ministry of Culture budget, with financial support from the local Restoration Office. Since the last decade, we have also got additional financing for restoration works from the European Union.

As the result of this joint effort, it is possible to maintain wooden orthodox churches as our European cultural heritage, which is diverse, complicated, but beautiful.

Jan Kurek is architect and associate Professor at Cracow University of Technology. Anna Sołtysik is architect and adjunct at the University of Rzeszow.

[1] Kurek J. – architect, associate professor at Cracow University of Technology; Sołtysik A. – architect, adjunct at University in Rzeszow.

[2] T. Obminski, O cerkwiach drewnianych w Galicyi, w: „Sprawozdania Komisji Historii Sztuki”, T.IX.1914 (Kraków) oraz Geneza budownictwa drewnianego w Polsce – PhD work 1908.

[3]Gorak J., Dawne cerkwie drewniane w województwie zamojskim, Zamość 1984.

[4] Kurek J. has organised annual inventory summer camps for students in southeast of Poland, Ukraine and Russia. Sołtysik A. is taking part in these research works since 2008 and publishes articles about historical, wooden buildings e.g. about architecture in Northern Russia and Scandinavia.

[5] [By:] Kurek J., Drewniane cerkwie karpackie – problemy konstrukcji i formy, [In:] Drewniane budownictwo sakralne w górach – materiały z sympozjum, Kraków, 1 grudnia 2001, s.129-144.

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