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Wooden churches — marvels of folk architecture
A Christian church, particularly an old one, is always more than just a building designed for worship. It visually embodies in its architectural form the spirit and soul of the nation that has created this church. The church's architectonics, symbolism, icons and rites are all designed to help the worshippers comprehend better the Christian spiritual values; they also represent, in a compact but yet comprehensive way, the world and our place in it. In order to make the church's message convincing and easily accessible, its architectural style should reflect the national character of the nation that builds this church. Ukrainian wooden churches are such creations. They make you think not so much of a sermon, but rather of a wondrous religious song.
The symbolism contained in an Orthodox Christian church was worked out by the Fathers of Eastern Church among whom we find St Dionysius the Areopagite, Maximus the Confessor and Symeon the New Theologian. The system they worked out went into the foundation on which the principles of building Eastern Orthodox churches stand, and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is a successor to this ancient tradition.
In many parts of Ukraine where stone for construction was not available, timber was used instead. All the Ukrainian wooden churches, no matter where or when they were built, have a number of common features. All of the Ukrainian wooden churches originally had the nave with aisles flanking it on both sides (in later times, the number of interior partitions in churches varied). This three-partite plan reflects three dogmas: God’s Holy Trinity; Christ’s Divine Nature and Human Nature He acquired on Earth; the spirit, soul and body of the human being. The wooden church, like any other church, is thought to be the Ark of Salvation for the worshippers, and it was built in the symbolic shape of a ship oriented from west to east. Domes or spires are its masts, and the crosses on their tops are its sails. The west-east orientation is suggested by the Holy Writ: the garden of Eden was in the east (Gen 2:8); Christ as the Sun of righteousness (Mal 4:2) rises in the East and He is called the East (Luke 1:78, in the Ukrainian translation; the Dawn or Daybreak in English translations). Besides, if you move from darkness to light, you move from west to east.
The first recorded reference to a wooden church in Ukraine (in the land of Podillya) dates from the tenth century; it is mentioned in an agreement with a Byzantine emperor signed by Prince Ihor in the year 944. There are many more references to wooden churches to be found in the documents dating from the eleventh century.
In the early 1020s, Grand Duke Yaroslav the Wise had a five-dome church built in Vyshhorod at the tomb of St Borys and St Hlib, the first two Ukrainian martyrs. It was one of many wooden churches built in that century in accordance with the then prevailing architectural style.
We have additional evidence from the writings of foreigners who travelled across Ukraine in later centuries. In the seventeenth century, Paul of Aleppo, a deacon from Syria, mentions the complexity of architectural design and lighting effects in the interior of the wooden churches he saw during his travels to Ukraine. It was in the seventeenth century that the architectural design of the stone churches began to be influenced by that of the wooden ones. This fact can be interpreted as suggesting an ever wider spreading of wooden churches in Ukraine. The peak in the construction of wooden churches in Ukraine was reached in the eighteenth century when these churches acquired an elaborate architectural design and considerably grew in size — some of the wooden churches soared to the height of 40 meters (over 120 feet) and had from five to nine domes.
In the early nineteenth century, the tsarist government banned the construction of wooden churches “in the national folk style” within the confines of the Russian Empire. Wooden churches continued to be built only in the areas of Ukraine which were under the domination of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and the age-long traditions were maintained.
Ukrainian wooden churches have their own architectural peculiarities which differ them from wooden churches built elsewhere. New trends in architecture never altered the basic features of Ukrainian wooden churches and those changes that were introduced were not sufficient to give these churches a distinctly different appearance. Tradition always remained stronger than innovations.
The central frame of the church was built in the form of a cube with logs laid horizontally and secured at the corners with all kinds of joints. In this lies the primary difference of Ukrainian wooden churches from, for example, surviving stave churches to be found in Norway. The Ukrainian builder’s approach allowed for more flexibility and the interior could be considerably expanded. Several more smaller cubical frames could be added to the central one. The roof was generally tent-like. The number of boxlike frames within the church determined the number of domes above it — up to nine. The general exterior shape was pyramidal, with the central dome towering above the rest.
Starting from the second half of the 16th century, the cubical frame began to give way to hexagonal or even octagonal frames. It added to the expressiveness and visual impact of the churches. The exterior shape of the churches also went through a change and the church’s outline was made to fit an imaginary equal-sided triangle or even-armed cross. It was the shape of the central frame that determined the appearance of the whole. Architecture, no matter whether sacred or civil, obeys the rules of construction, beauty and geometry.
The exteriors of wooden churches were planked, mostly vertically, and the roof was made of wooden “tiles.” There was no definite scheme of where to put windows in the walls, but usually they were placed rather high above the ground. Mostly, the windows were rectangular, square, cross-shaped and round, but no matter what the shape was they were meant to let in enough light.
Characteristically enough, Ukrainian wooden churches did not have what may be called “the facade,” with all the sides being equal in visual importance. Decorations included carved ornaments around the doors and windows. The wrought-iron crosses fixed on the tops of the domes were also elaborately ornamented. One can safely say that there are no wooden churches in Ukraine that would look like replicas of each other.
The interior space of the wooden churches seems greater than it actually is thanks to its clever architectural arrangement. In ancient times, the interior walls were decorated with paintings but gradually wall paintings disappeared from the wooden churches built in the central and eastern parts of Ukraine. As long ago as in the seventeenth century, the wall paintings were hardly to be found in any wooden churches, with the exception of smaller ones in the west of Ukraine. The iconostasis — the tall icon stand that separates the central part of the church from the altar — remains the main decorative element. It stands in close harmony with the general interior appearance of a wooden church.
The belfry which is usually a separate structure often is of a simple, functional design. It is built to visually correspond with the building of the church. The church and its belfry form a unit which harmoniously blends into the surrounding landscape.
Tools and styles
Ukrainian church builders used the simplest of tools to create their architectural wonders — axes, drills and augers, planes, saws and plumb lines. In many cases, the carpenters evidently did without saws and without nails. Logs and other construction elements are joined together so tightly that it is impossible, no matter how old the church is, to stick the blade of a knife between the logs or planks.
Art historians have established several architectural styles which varied from region and from epoch to epoch. Wooden churches continued to be built in western parts of Ukraine up to the Second World War.
Many of the wooden churches built before the second half of the seventeenth century in the lands of Prydnirpovye, Halychyna and Bukovyna differ in appearance but have the same basic architectural principle of construction that unites them. They consist of either three or five square or octagonal cubical frames, each frame roofed separately, and with the vertical symmetry line uniting them into one whole. Among the best examples are the Svyatodukhivska Church (of Holy Spirit) in Potelychi, in the land of Halychyna, dating to 1502; the Church of Saint Michael the Arch-Warrior in Dorohynka, in the land of Kyivshchyna, dating to 1600, and the Mykolayivska Church (of St Nicolas) in Chernivtsi, in the land of Bukovyna, dating to 1607.
In the land of Zakarpattya (Transcarpathia) in the area of Khust several churches dating from the seventeenth century, differ from other typical wooden churches of Ukraine in their overall visual effect. Some of their architectural and decorative elements remind Romanesque and early Gothic churches of Western Europe.
In the lands of Zakarpattya and Pidlyashshya we also find wooden churches of the Lemkiv style — a style not found anywhere else. Among the best examples are the Church of St Jacob the Apostle in Povoroznyk in the land of Peremyshlyanshchyna, dating to 1604, and the Pokrovska Church (of the Intercession of the Holy Virgin) in Kanory in the land of Zakarpattya, dating to 1762.
In the land of Prydniprovye we do not find any wooden churches older than of the eighteenth century, the seventeenth century with its wars of independence proving to be too ruinous for wooden buildings. It is particularly regrettable since it was in this area that a new style that put an emphasis on the verticality of the architectural composition, was formed. Several of the eighteenth-century churches reflect this new Baroque-influenced style. One of them is the Troyitsky Cathedral (of the Holy Trinity), a Cossack church in Novomoskovsk in the land of Dnipropetrovshchyna, dating to 1773. It is the tallest wooden church in Ukraine, rising to the height of 65 meters (about 200 feet).
The eighteenth century saw the formation of the Hutsul style in wooden church building. Most of the Hutsul wooden churches are cruciform, with one dome. The church in Vorokhta in the land of Prykarpattya stands out as one of the most elegant creations of wooden architecture.
The Boykiv style to be found in the Carpathian region flourished for about two centuries and is particularly noticeable for its achievements in secular architecture as well as for its peculiarities in sacred architecture. The roofs of the Boykiv churches had several levels of double-sloped roofs. The church in Kryvky in the land of Lvivshchyna dating from the eighteenth century is a fine example of the Boykiv style in ecclesiastical architecture.
The remarkable Ukrainian architect, art historian and ethnographer Hryhory Lohvyn called the wooden churches of Ukraine “a life-giving source, which give inspiration and force to create beauty and truth in this hypocritical warped world steeped in sin.”
May God continue to protect these wonderful creations of the Ukrainian soul, which connect the land of much suffering with the serene purity of heaven.
Rev. Andriy Vlasenko
Photos by Oleksandr Horobets