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Ancient wooden churches in the Land of Zakarpattya
This time Olena Krushynska, a great wooden-church devotee whose knowledge of these architectural landmarks ranks her among the very top wooden-architecture historians in Ukraine, travels to various places in search of new discoveries, with the starting point being the town of Khust.
Sokyrnytsya — Kraynykove —
Danylove — Oleksandrivka — Kolodne
The main tourist attraction of Khust is its ancient castle — but it is not made of wood, and thus does not belong to our present story. Another tourist attraction that brings many sightseers to Khust is situated in the vicinity of the town — it is the Daffodil Valley. Both the Castle and the Valley are in all guidebooks not only of Zakarpattya but of Ukraine as well, and both are worth seeing — but we go elsewhere.
The village of Sokyrnytsya is situated 15 kilometers south-east of Khust. I glimpsed the church I was looking for and its bell tower, hiding behind the trees, as we were approaching to the village.
Wooden-architecture historians group the Church of St Mykola (Nicholas) together with other churches of a similar style into what is termed Maramarosh Gothic. Maramarosh is a geographical area which includes parts of Zakarpattya and neighboring Rumania, and there is a number of churches to be found there with many features which bear resemblance to each other — hence the name.
The Church of St Mykola dates from the seventeenth century. It was built in the village of Shashvar but in 1770 the church was taken apart, loaded onto wagons and shipped to the village of Sokyrnytsya where it was re-assembled at the spot on which it now stands. It was then that the bell tower was built; also, during the re-assembling, some parts were discarded and replaced by new ones, and certain architectural and structural changes were introduced too. The basic three structural parts (zruby) of the church — the altar section, the nave and the section that supports the steeple — always remained inviolate.
The porch and the portal of the church are of a style that can be seen in several other churches built at around the same time, but later, this style considerably changed. I found ancient pre-Christian symbols carved into the frame of the door — circles that symbolize the sun, wavy lines and clusters of six stylized leaves.
The most conspicuous and distinctive part of the church, of course, is its steeple crowned with a spire. The church, as so many other wooden Ukrainian churches, is protected from the inclemency of the weather by cleverly arranged wooden shingles, which cover the church from “head to foot” like scales, and which fend off both snow and rain. The steep slopes of the roof contribute to the weatherproofness of the church. In the soviet times, the church was closed down but to a large extent was spared mindless vandalism of which so many churches had become victim. Unfortunately, the iconostasis was robbed of its icons and badly damaged too.
The central structure of the church is made of stout oak blocks and logs but the general appearance of the church creates an impression of uplifting lightness.
I could not withstand the temptation to climb to the top of the bell tower and was awarded for the effort by a gorgeous panoramic view that opened up for me. And the bells themselves also proved to be worth seeing — their venerable age added sanctity to the whole place.
The distance from Sokyrtnytsya to Kraynykove is three kilometers, and about the same distance is from Kraynykove to Danylove. Both villages boast spectacular wooden churches. Though all the three churches in the three villages have a lot in common, the request of the villagers that went together with the commission to build the churches comes to mind: “Build a church for us which would be like that in the neighboring village — but it should be a little better.”
I’m not sure about the “better” part, but all the three churches do have their own individuality.
The Church of Archangel Michael in the village of Kraynykove is probably the oldest of the three — evidently, this church was a source of architectural inspiration for the builders in erecting churches in Danylove and Oleksandrivka. The Church of Archangel Michael is surrounded by huge oaks which seem to be of the same age as the church itself, and their guard-like presence adds to the solemnity of the place and monumentality to the church which is not really a big one — only 14 meters in height. The wooden shingles are covered with moss and that creates a visual effect that attests to the considerable age of the church. Among the ornamental carvings I discovered the dates of the construction — “1666–1668”, and pre-Christian symbols of the water and of the sun, similar to those that I had seen in Sokyrnytsya. Though the church in Kraynykove bears rather a close resemblance to the church in Sokyrnytsya, each of them has its own distinctive features.
One of such features is the absence of a bell tower near the Church of Archangel Michael. In fact it did have one, but in 1927, the bell tower was moved, together with its bells, to stand side-by-side with the then newly-built Orthodox church (the Church of Archangel Michael belongs to the Greco-Catholic community of the village).
The Church of Archangel Michael is one of the few churches in Ukraine that has paintings which were executed on canvas and then fixed to the interior walls. These paintings date from the 17th– 18th centuries, and they are in an urgent need of restoration. Some of these paintings have been irrevocably lost, but those that have not perished — yet — can be saved.
From Kraynykove we proceeded to Danylove whose wooden church stands on a hill and thus can be seen from afar. The slopes of the hill are rather steep, and the path that takes you to the church is not a straight one from the foot of the hill right up to the summit, but climbs up in zigzags making the ascent a slow but still manageable physical exercise.
The church of St Mykola is one of the tallest in Zakarpattya — or rather its steeple is among the tallest, reaching the height of 35 meters. The church’s position on the top of a hill makes it look even taller than it actually is.
It is probably the youngest church among those that I saw on my trip which began in Khust. According to the date that I saw carved on the doorframe it was built in 1779. The windows on the roofed porch are of an original and unusual design and one feels tempted to have one’s photo taken peeping out from one of them.
Some windows are more of conventional square shape and they are fitted with decorative protective grills made of cast iron. The interior of the church revealed paintings done in 1828 by the painter I. Kornmayer.
The bell tower carries old bells, on one of which I could make out this inscription: “Peter Hilzer 1892,” and some words in Hungarian; it also had reliefs depicting saints.
Another four kilometers — and we are in the village of Oleksandrivka. Scanning the landscape as we approached the village, we did not spot the church. We parked near the building of the local council and were about to start asking for directions, when I caught a glimpse of a spire in the distance. We walked towards our destination along the narrow paths that wound their away around vegetable gardens. At one point, we left the gardens behind and found ourselves in front of a low hill on the top of which sat the church with a bell tower by its side. The place for the church has been chosen excellently and not only from the visual point of view — even the air there seemed to be fresher.
The Church of St Paraskeva was built in the fifteenth century at a different location but in the same village. It was moved from place to place several times and finally the right spot was found. There is not much original timber left in the church though, but the parts that rest on the ground are indeed the oldest. Most of the rest dates from 1753, and I found a carved inscription which confirms this date.
Walking around the church I realized that in contrast to the three previous churches, this one was built with the horizontal rather than the vertical being the dominant feature. The spire seems only to emphasize this architectural arrangement. From certain angles of view, the undulating hills form a very picturesque background.
The steeple with four little spires around the central one seem to be very similar to the ones we see above the other churches but a closer look reveals different proportions and different decorative carving. The proportions of the bell tower make it look very graceful.
The Church of St Paraskeva proved to be closed and we had to trudge back to the local council and ask for it to be opened, if possible. Our request was granted. The church is not functioning and as we went in we discovered that it still contained the remains of a museum into which the church had been turned in the soviet times. The exhibits which “reflect the local way of life” were covered with a thick layer of dust but it is not these exhibits that captured our attention — the church has the best preserved murals among all the wooden churches of Zakarpattya (I hope to take a trip to the village of Novoselytsya to see the church there which is reputed to be almost as good as far the murals are concerned).
The murals which retain some of their original colors were done in 1779 by Stefan Terebelsky with the assistance of local amateur artists. The reds, blues and grays dominate the Biblical scenes that adorn the walls. The apse displays the scene of Eucharist on the three walls with Christ in the center with bread and wine in front of him on a round table. Among 26 church hierarchs and saints you can see an Orthodox patriarch, a Roman pope, Saints Antoniy and Feodisiy, the monks who founded the Pechersk Lavra Monastery in Kyiv in the eleventh century, and other personages — the paintings bear witness to the rather vast church-history knowledge of the artists.
Other walls are decorated with various Biblical scenes — Adam and Eve; The Fall; Cain and Abel; Last Judgment; The Four Horsemen of Apocalypses, plus there are some allegoric figures to be seen. The eighteenth-century iconostasis with its icons is still in its place but both the murals and the icons are in a bad and urgent need of restoration — the faces of the martyrs and saints and Biblical personages seem to be pleading from behind the dark surfaces of grime and time that cover them, to reveal them in their true glory to the eye.
On the way to the village of Kolodne we stopped in the village of Steblivka to have another look at the Church of Rizdva Bohorodytsi (Birth of the Mother of God) which date to 16th century (with later reconstructions; the previous issue of our magazine carried an article about this church, Life after Death).
We traveled along the route Khust-Tyachiv until we got to Bushtyno where we turned onto the road that took us to Kolodne, a twenty-kilometer ride. The church we were looking for stands right in the center of the village, at an elevated place, so no time was lost in looking for it.
The Church of St Mykola is, on the one hand, a typical wooden church of that area with its structure made up of three zruby-sections, but on the other hand, I find it to be the most impressive of all that we had seen before. In my eyes, it looked like a medieval knight in full armor, the steeple being its helmet. The huge oaks growing around the church looked like warriors who protect this marvel of wooden architecture. The church is believed to have been built in the 1470s; the twelve-meter logs that rest on the stone foundation and support the rest of the structure are the original ones, and thus are over five hundred years old! There were additions made in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but the lower parts have never been touched. The latest addition was the steeple and its top, and the covered porch with its decoratively carved pillars.
I discovered on the walls carvings of some of the pre-Christian symbols — wavy and zigzag lines and circles — familiar from other churches; the door frames are decorated with carvings too; there are some ancient features, like the cross-shaped window, which emphasize the venerable age of the church.
For many years the church had stood abandoned, and time and neglect began to threaten its very existence (one of the zruby-sections began to slide to the side, the roof was leaky), but luckily last year restoration began in the church with the money donated by the US Embassy in Ukraine. The shingled roof was the first to be thoroughly mended, but unfortunately the water that had been seeping into the church for years, had done a very serious damage to the murals which had been executed by Antony Vali in the eighteenth century. You can still see a Latin inscription — if you know where to look — which testifies to that fact. The paintings of other parts of the church date even from earlier times.
Though the restoration has begun it does need to be urgently continued.
A view of the Church of St Mykola in the village
of Sokyrnytsya (as seen from the bell tower).
Olena Krushynska at the bell tower.
The road sign says:
“4 Wooden Churches of the 15th–18th centuries.”
The gallery with decorative wood carving
of the church in Kraynikove.
The Church of Archangel Michael in the village
of Kraynikove that dates from 1668,
is surrounded by age-old oaks.
The bell in the bell tower of the Church of St Mykola
in the village of Danylove; the name of the maker
of this bell can be seen in the raised oval on the side
of the bell — Peter Hilzer, Neustadt 1892
(the writing is in Hungarian).
The gallery of the Mykolayivska Church in Danylove —
typical feature of such churches.
The Church of St Mykola in the village of Danylove
dates from 1779.
The Church of St Paraskeva in the village
of Oleksandrivka was built in the 15th century;
its present appearance dates from 1753
when the church was reconstructed.
Murals, rather unique for this kind of churches,
in the Church of St Paraskeva in Oleksandrivka
date from the 17th century.
The gallery of the Church of St Mykola
in the village of Kolodne.
The Church of St Mykola in Kolodne is one of the
oldest wooden churches in Ukraine; it is believed
to have been built in 1470.
One of the murals of the interior (detail).[Prev][Contents][Next]