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Wooden churches in the land of Zakarpattya

The Church of Mykola Chudotvorets (St Nicolas the Miracle-Worker) in the village of Nyzhnya Apsha today and in postcards of the 1930s. The church dates to the 17th–18th centuries.

Olena KRUSHYNSKA’s cultural enthusiasm seems to know no bounds — she continues her exploration of Ukraine in general, and of Zakarpattya in particular, in search of old wooden churches. She never gets tired to declare her love of them every time she sees these wonderful architectural creations.

 

In the article published in the previous issue of Welcome to Ukraine, I described my exploration of Khust and its environs. This time I traveled further east, along the River Tysa (incidentally, the river marks the border between Ukraine and Rumania). The area, which is historically known as Marmarosh, includes a part of Zakarpattya and a part of Rumania, with a lot in common in the locals’ traditional culture and customs. Wooden churches are one of the more conspicuous features of that culture.

In the villages that are situated in the basin of the River Apshytsa, 25 kilometers away from the place where the River Tereblya, a tribute of Tysa, joins the latter, the cultural closeness is felt particularly strongly. The villages of Solotvyno, Nyzhnya Apsha, Seredne Vodyane, Verkhne Vodyane, Bila Tserkva and Hlyboky Potik were founded centuries ago by migrants from Valakhia, a region with predominantly Rumanian population. Now, in the twenty-first century, they belong to Zakarpattya, western Ukraine, but the people who live in those villages still speak Rumanian and have retained many traditions and customs which are Rumanian rather than Ukrainian.

 

Nyzhnya Apsha

This village is hardly mentioned in guidebooks and I find that in this way injustice is done to Apsha — the village boasts an amazingly beautiful wooden church that stands on a hill above the village. Its refined silhouette is unique among the churches of its kind.

The Church of St Mykola Chudotvorets (St Nicholas the Miracle-Worker) was built in 1604 and is one of the many similar churches built around that time. The church was reconstructed in the eighteenth century to suit the changing tastes (most of the wooden churches went through such alterations in the course of time). In the soviet times, the church was closed down and then turned into a museum of “everyday peasant life.” Incidentally, even the name of the village was changed from Nyzhnya Apsha to Dibrova. Thanks to being a museum the church was restored in the end of the 1960s. In 1994, after Ukraine’s independence, the church was returned to the Greek-Catholic community.

The reconstruction of the eighteenth century left untouched the very core of the church and some of its features show the church’s ancient origins — a row of small windows rather high on the walls are one of such features. This type of windows is typical of  churches built in the early seventeenth century. The steep roof of the church made of oak covers the church as though with a cloak. Over the western zrub (a box-like structure made of logs that formed the core of the church; usually there were two or three such zruby built to form the inner structure of a church) rises a spire surrounded by four smaller spires. In contrast to the church, the belfry looks small and low.

Looking at the church, I had a feeling it is poised to soar above the village. The trees around it create a proper setting for the church, enhancing its beauty. Walking around the church, you keep discovering new exciting aspects of it.

Unfortunately, I found the village itself to be monstrous in its modern ugliness. From old photographs I knew that most of the houses and fences around them were richly decorated with carving; the wooden houses with tall roofs were enhanced by wooden galleries. There are very few houses like this left, with most of the houses in Apsha and in the neighboring village of Seredne Vodyane built of cement and bricks painted in garish colors, with high metal fences around them; kitsch statues and fountains in the backyards are so tasteless that I felt my teeth began to ache. The houses are of monumental proportions but the families living in them occupy only one or two rooms, the rest being used as storage for stocks of merchandise — these days, most of the villagers are actively engaged in trade. They seem to build their house not for comfortable living but for ostentation, to confirm their social status by the display of wealth. In contrast to the gaudiness of the houses, the streets are unpaved and rains turn them into impassable mire — nobody seems to care to spend at least some of their wealth on asphalting the streets…

 

Seredne Vodyane

This village, which is situated a couple of dozen kilometers from Apsha, awards you with the sight of two ancient wooden churches — both of them are dedicated to Mykola Chudotvorets. The locals refer to these churches using sobriquets to tell one from the other. Both churches stand on hills and standing near one of them you can glimpse the other one in the distance.

One of the churches is among the oldest of its type in Ukraine. The powerful zruby inside date from the year 1428. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the church lived through reconstructions with a new tower built above the church. The monumentality and solidity of the church called to mind associations with a mighty medieval warrior. I saw a church of a similar, unadorned beauty only in Kolodne (I described it in my article published in WU #2’ 2009). Rows of small windows and memorial crosses nailed to the walls emphasize the venerable age of the church. The gravestones in the graveyard and the shape of the crosses clearly show the Rumanian rather than Ukrainian traditions. Among the graves stand the belfry under a tent-like roof and a large wooden crucifix.

The four-tier iconostasis in the church was made in 1761 and from an inscription on it we learn that it was a Ukrainian who headed the group of artists that made the iconostasis. The church is one of the very few wooden churches in western Ukraine that display the remnants of wall-paintings — in a very poor state of preservation. In the early 1990s, amateur restorers painted new pictures over many ancient original murals thus actually destroying them; other murals which were untouched by this destructive “restoration” are very badly damaged by time and negligence. But I could see, even through the damage, that the murals were significant creations of folk art of the seventeenth-eighteenth centuries, with local villagers presented as Biblical personages. In one place I discovered a portrait of the local “priest Nikora” who must have superintended the reconstruction of the church in the eighteenth century.

It took me some time to find my way to the other church among the monstrous houses of the village, topped by garishly red and sickly pink roofs.

When I arrived at my destination, I discovered that the church stood evidently long abandoned, with tall grass around it, in which several graves were hiding. The silhouette of the church reminded me of a dinosaur or a giraffe that is stretching its neck high to see something in the distance. This impression was intensified by the shingles that cover the “back” of the “dinosaur” — that is the roof over the zruby, which shingles looked like scales. The state of the shingles and the general state of the church clearly showed that the church had not been used for a long time and that nobody cared to maintain it in a decent condition. I discovered an inscription that said that the rotten logs of the zruby were removed and new ones were installed in the year 1699. This date and the fact that this sort of restoration was required, suggest that the church was actually built at least a hundred and fifty years earlier.

 

Velyky Bychkiv

The village of Velyky Bychkiv marks the place from which begins the area known as Hutsulshchyna, and which spreads over the most of the territory of the present-day Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast.

Though I did not find any old wooden churches in that village, I was not sorry I went there — I saw a recently built wooden church which is worth seeing. The church, which is dedicated to the Translation of the Relics of St Mykola, combines traditional elements with a more modern style. The local Greek-Catholic community hired Mykhaylo Kravchuk, an architect from Rakhiv, to design a church of five zruby in the traditional Hutsul style. It took builders who specialize in wooden construction, about eighteen months to build the church. In 2005, the church was consecrated. I find it to be a proper way of maintaining and developing age-old traditions in architecture, and hopefully it will keep the wooden-churches tradition alive for years to come.

 

Dilove

Following the River Tisa to the north, I arrived at the village of Dilove. The village is proud to be literally the geographical center of Europe. At the end of the nineteenth century, geographers of the Academy of Sciences of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in Vienna established that it was in the vicinity of that village that the geographical center of Europe was located (at that time, the area where the village is situated belonged to Austria-Hungary). A geodesic sign was placed at the exact spot of “The Center of Europe” with the following inscription on it in Latin: “Locus Perennis. Dilicentissime cum libella librationis quae est in Austria et Hungaria confectacum mensura gradum meridionalium et paralleloumierum Europeum. MDCCCLXXXVII”. It translates as: “A permanent, precise spot. Very precisely established spot of the Center of Europe [established with the help of] a special device which has been made in Austria-Hungary, [with] the meridians and parallels [marked on it on a certain scale], 1877.” A second sign was placed there in the times of the Soviet Union, and a third sign appeared after Ukraine’s independence — all confirming that the spot is the geographical center of Europe.

Dilove sits on the border with Rumania and it is advisable to have an ID with you if you decide to visit it.

The wooden church I was looking for is located about thirty meters up a street running from a border-crossing check point. Originally it was dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, but in 1995, when it became Greek-Catholic, it was re-dedicated as the Church Rizdva Bohorodytsi (the Birth of the Blessed Virgin). According to a local legend (which, in fact, can be quite true), the church was built at the spot where a bell that rolled down from a chapel which had been ruined by a lightning bolt, stopped rolling and stayed put. The first written mention of the church dates from 1750.

The architectural emphasis in the church is on the horizontals rather than on the verticals and it makes it different in its appearance from other wooden churches to be seen in the basin of the Tysa River. The church looks rather squat and wide, earthward rather than skyward bound. The style of the porch suggests that it has not been affected by later restorations. I found the date, “1750”, carved on it (during the soviet times, the church was used as a museum, and it helped to save it from dilapidation and ruin).

 

Bohdan

The church I was looking for stands above the village of Bohdan, rather high up on the mountain slope, probably at an elevation that makes it the highest spot in Ukraine where a church can be found. It was built fairly recently, in 1993, by the Hutsul shepherds who brought the herds for grazing high up into the mountains. Apparently, as they spent long months in the mountains with their herds, they wanted to have a church there to save them trips down and then again up the mountain on religious holidays and feasts.

It is a small church that looks like a picture in a children’s book of fairy tales. 

 

You can learn more about wooden churches of Ukraine at www.derev.org.ua

 

 

 

The second church of St Mykola in the village of Seredne Vodyane; this church, which dates from 1428, is one of the oldest wooden churches in Ukraine; the church acquired its present-day appearance in the eighteenth-century reconstruction; the tall spire was also added at that time.

 

One of the two churches of St Mykola of the 17th century in the village of Seredne Vodyane; one of the murals in the church’s interior.

 

The charming little wooden church high up in the mountains at the place known as Polonyna Rohneska; it was built in 1993 by Hutsul shepherd.

The 18th century church in the village of Dilove is located at the border with Rumania, a short distance from the border check point.

 

 

One of the best recently-built wooden churches in the Land of Zakarpattya is in the village
of Velyky Bychkiv.

 

Gravestones in the graveyard at the ancient Church of St Mykola; the one-tier belfry can be glimpsed in the background.

 

Photos by the author

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