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Ancient wooden churches in the Land of Lvivshchyna
The previous issue of our magazine featured an article about some of the wooden churches in Western Ukraine (Lviv, Kuhayiv, Medenychi, Drohobych, Skole, Rozluch, Yasenytsya Zamkova, Komarno). This time Olena Krushynska takes the readers on a tour of Zhovkva, Krekhiv, Volya Vysotska, Potelych, and Belz in search of wooden landmarks.
* See the first article in the series Wooden Churches in Lviv Region in WU issue ¹ 2’2008
Lviv is my base. This time we — I and a couple of my friends — proceeded from Lviv in the northern direction. The first stop on my trip was the town of Zhovkva, about twenty kilometers north of Lviv. We found what we were looking for pretty fast — right in the central street of the town there stands a wonderful wooden church, Tserkva Svyatoyi Triytsi.
The Church of the Holy Trinity was built in 1720 with the money donated by the local faithful and by Prince Kostyantyn Sobieski, the son of John III Sobieski (1624–1696), King of Poland from 1674 to 1696 (incidentally, the king was born in Olesko, not far from Lviv; it was the king who commanded the Christian army that in 1674 dealt a crushing defeat to the Turkish army which besieged Vienna; for this victory he was acclaimed in Europe as Hero of Christendom). Zhovkva was a fief of Prince Kostyantyn Sobieski. The name of the architect who designed the Holy Trinity Church is not known. The church combines the architectural features traditional for Ukrainian wooden churches but it also assimilated some Renaissance influences. There are some other buildings in Zhovkva in which design one can see motifs inspired by the architectural ideas of the Italian Renaissance.
The town was founded by a high-ranking Polish noble, chancellor of Rzeczpospolita (Polish Commonwealth) Stanislaw Rzolkiewski, at the end of the sixteenth century. In 1603, thanks to Rzolkiewski’s efforts, the town was granted the Magdeburg Law. He commissioned a number of architects from Lviv (most of them of Italian descent — Paolo the Happy, Paolo the Roman, Ambrosias the Benevolent) who were responsible for the Renaissance features in Zhovkva’s architecture. Today Zhovkva is one of the very few towns in Ukraine that has preserved the basic Renaissance plan in its layout. The harmonic proportions, some architectural details and the general silhouette of the Holy Trinity Church suggest Renaissance borrowings.
The interior of the church is dominated by the five-tier iconostasis with about fifty icons in it. The iconostasis dates from 1728 and displays some typical features of a style in art and architecture that came to be known as Baroque. We know who created the iconostasis — it was the artist Ivan Rutovych and his disciples, and the wood carver Ihnatiy Stensky who belonged to what in the history of art is known as the Zhovkva School of Painting and Wood Carving. Many of the artists who worked in Zhovkva were invited from abroad but there were quite a few of local masters as well. What united them was a desire to combine European Baroque features with local Ukrainian ones. Decorative elements of Ukrainian traditional paintings go hand in hand with gold backgrounds and bright, intense colors. The images in the icons can hardly be described as canonical — their faces are those of local burghers and in the backgrounds you can see local landscapes rather than stylized Biblical ones. The ornate woodcarving of the iconostasis can be described as typical Baroque, and the Tsarski vrata — the door in the iconostasis that leads to the altar — is particularly lavishly decorated with woodcarving.
Some of the original murals in the church have been preserved but only in the apse behind the altar, and thus they can be seen only by the priests — no one else is allowed to go behind the iconostasis. I peeped through a side door and saw impressive frescoes of the eighteenth century — Moses Praying on Mount Sinai, and AbrahamÕs Sacrifice.
We discovered another wooden church in Zhovkva too — Tserkva Rizdva Presvyatoyi Bohorodytsi, The Church of the Birth of the Most Holy Mother of God. It was built in 1705 and stands at a cemetery in Vynnyky, one of Zhovkva’s suburbs. It took us quite some time to find it, but it proved to be worth our time. The iconostasis of the church was created by the local masters of the Zhovkva School of Painting and Wood Carving in 1708–1710 and is a fine piece of religious art worth seeing.
From Zhovkva we proceeded to the village of Krekhiv where we knew we would find an old monastery. But first we wanted to look for a wooden church we had been told we could see in the village. We asked for directions and after driving through several village streets we spotted the church we were looking for behind a stone wall. If we did not know for sure where to look for the church we would hardly find it — tall trees surrounded it on all sides.
The gate in the wall had a wooden belfry above it, which, in the times of old must have also served as an observation tower.
The St Paraskeva Church dates either from 1658 or from 1724. Some historians believe that originally it was built in the territory of the monastery in Krekhiv and later moved to its present location. According to historians of architecture, the design of the Paraskeva Church influenced the design of similar churches in that area.
There is an engraving by Dionisiy Sinkevych, dating from 1699, which shows the monastery in Krekhiv — behind the stout walls of the monastery, complete with towers which were definitely built for the purposes of defense, we can see several churches one of which looks very much like the Paraskeva Church. There is nothing unusual about a wooden church being moved from place to place — in those times it happened quite often. A church would be disassembled, its parts then transported on carts and wagons to a new location.
In the monastery there stands now a replica of the wooden church that can be seen in Sinkevych’s engraving. It was rebuilt in 2002, the engraving being the guide for the architect and workers who were engaged in rebuilding the church.
From Krekhiv we returned back to Zhovkva and from there went on the village of Volya Vysotska to see one of the oldest wooden churches in the Land of Lvivshchyna — it dates from 1598. The timber used in the construction of the Church of Archangel Michael was not the usual pine but other kinds. In the nineteenth century the church went through a reconstruction which enlarged its size and the original proportions of the church were thus altered. At the end of the twentieth century the roof was covered with sheet iron and the walls were painted.
The bell tower which looks rather imposing, is considerably younger than the church itself — it was built in the eighteenth century.
From Volya Vysotska we traveled to the village of Potelych which is situated close to the Polish border. What now is a village used to be a town which even enjoyed the privileges granted by the Magdeburg Law. The town, whose vicinities of the town were rich both in dense forests and mineral resources, flourished in the fifteenth-seventeenth centuries thanks to the trade in timber, minerals and handiwork. Potelych was also a center of pottery production with all kinds of good-quality earthenware and faience, including ceramic tiles for stoves, that were made there. The town did a brisk trade in pottery for a period of time but in the nineteenth century handicrafts and trade declined, and the town gradually lost its urban status and turned into a village.
A guild of potters was organized in the sixteenth century with rather strict rules that regulated the activities of the guild and admittance to the guild. One of the streets of Potelych was settled only by the potters. In 1555, with the money donated by the potters, a wooden church was built at the foot of a tall hall nearby the town. The church was dedicated to the Holy Spirit. A wall was erected around the plot of land on which the church stood. Within the walled compound a bell tower and three warehouses were built for storing earthenware produced by the potters of Potelych and waiting to be sold or exported. It was near their church that the potters would gather to discuss their problems and make decisions. In times of trouble, potters fled the town to hide behind the defensive walls of the church. The potters even had several cannons to defend themselves with in case they were besieged. Some of these cannons have been preserved to our days.
In 1736, the church was damaged during a military action but it was restored and a new, Baroque-style dome added.
The church is one of the oldest wooden churches in Ukraine but it is not only its venerable age that makes it a particularly valuable landmark — the church boasts murals that were painted in 1620–1640. These murals are considered to be among the best of their kind in Ukraine. There are only one or two wooden churches in Ukraine which have as many murals and in such a good state of preservation. Such countryside churches were usually painted by several painters who were commissioned at different times when the local communities had gathered enough money to finance the painting, and one should not expect a unity of style or dominant themes. But on the other hand, this lack of unity and a variety of styles introduced by different artists give the interior of the wooden churches a wonderful liveliness and cheerfulness. In painting the faces of the figures in the religious paintings, the artists were definitely inspired by local residents rather than by the prescribed canon.
The murals were painted with tempera right on the wooden surface of the walls and now you can see the pentimento of wood patterns that shows through the thin layers of paint. Though there is no much artistic sophistication in these murals and the range of colors is rather limited, the painters managed to create images of artistic and emotional significance.
The Church of the Holy Spirit was not the only one of Potelych. There was also another church, the Church of the Holy Trinity, which was the biggest among the wooden churches of the Western Ukraine. It was destroyed in a fire and a new one, made of bricks, was erected at the site where it had once stood. The original wooden bell tower has been preserved though and its size can give you an idea of the size of the church that had once stood close by.
The town of Belz is located in the very north of Lviv Oblast and to reach it one can go back to Lviv and from there on to Belz, or one could skirt Lviv and go through Rava-Ruska, Uhniv, Velyki Mosty and Zhovkva. It was the route we took. All these villages and towns are worth a tourist visit. Rava-Ruska boasts an impressive building of the City Hall, and villas built in the early twentieth century in the architectural style known as Secession. Uhniv has a church, Uspensky kostel, that dates from 1642 and displays typical Baroque architectural features.
Belz is an ancient town which is mentioned in the early medieval Kyivan Rus chronicles. Some of the remains of the old town dating to the early times of the town’s existence have been excavated by archeologists and can be seen by tourists. The Dominican Monastery of the seventeenth century, the building of the City Hall and a tower of 1606 are among the sights the tourist can appreciate.
But our main aim of visiting Belz was to see the wooden Church of St Paraskeva Pyatnytsya which was built in the seventeenth century. The bell tower by its side dates from the nineteenth century. The church is situated close to an old cemetery. The Belz State Historical and Cultural Reserve is an organization that looks after the church and other architectural landmarks in Belz and it carried out restoration of the church in 2006–2007. The church had stood on the foundation of stendary — large wooden piles, but they had decayed and had to be replaced with new ones. Bricks were laid among them to add strength to the foundation. The shingles on the roof are also new ones as well as some logs and other pieces of timber here and there. There are no murals preserved in the interior; some of the icons from the Paraskeva Pyatnytsya Church can be seen in the art gallery of the Olesky Castle.
Photos by the author
St Praskeva Church and its bell tower in Krekhiv.
The bell tower had a gate on the ground floor and
served as a defensive and observation facility as well.
The Krekhiv Monastery. Engraving by Dionisiy
The five-tier iconostasis. Wood carving by Ivan
Rutkovych and his disciples. 18th century.
The Church of the Holy Trinity, 1720; some
architecture historians see in its architectural
features a certain influence of the Renaissance
The Church of the Birth of the Most Holy Mother of
God in Vynnyky, suburb of Zhovkva. 1705.
The Church of the Holy Spirit was built in 1555 with
the money donated by the Potters’ Guild in
Potelych, the richest guild at that time.
Wrought-iron hinges on the door of the Church
of the Holy Spirit.
Murals in the Church of the Holy Spirit were painted
by folk artists in 1620s–1640s and they reflect
typical features of the then Ukrainian folk art.
The Church of the Holy Trinity was built in Potelych
in the 16th century and destroyed by the Bolshevik
authorities in 1937; the bell tower is still standing.
The Church of Archangel Michael in Volya-Vysotska,
which was built in 1598, is one of the oldest in
The Church of St Paraskeva of the 17th century
in the town of Belz before restoration.