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Rooted in Wood

Exploring Slovakia’s wooden churches

On a cold and wet November day, a group of carpenters hammered away at the roof of St. Michael the Archangel Greek Catholic Church in the village of Ladomirová in northeastern Slovakia. Built in 1742, St. Michael’s stands out as perhaps Slovakia’s most beautiful and celebrated historic wooden church. Surveying the men’s work, the church’s pastor, Father Peter Jakub, explained that after 40 years, it was time to replace the worn hand-cut spruce shingles.

Only some 50 wooden churches, most dating back two centuries, survive in the modern central European republic of Slovakia; historians estimate more than 300 may have been built between the 16th and 18th centuries. Approximately 30 belong to the Slovak Greek Catholic Church. A handful have been closed and restored as museums, while the remaining churches are used by Evangelical Protestant or Latin (Roman) Catholic congregations. In recent decades, the Slovak government has designated 27 of these tserkvi (Slavonic for wooden churches) as national cultural monuments.

These wooden structures are inexorably fragile, vulnerable to decay and fire. But as architectural achievements constructed during a tumultuous and religiously volatile era, they now galvanize significant interest in and support for their restoration and preservation.

The lion’s share of Slovakia’s wooden churches clusters in the eastern region of Prešov, a mountainous and heavily forested area bordering Poland and Ukraine. Rusyn Greek Catholics — who inhabited tiny hamlets scattered throughout the Carpathian Mountains — constructed most of these churches.

A distinct Slavic ethnic group of poor peasant farmers, foresters and shepherds, early Rusyns followed the Byzantine form of the Christian faith even as the churches of East and West parted company after the Great Schism in 1054.

Rooted in the rites and disciplines of the Church of Mukačevo, now a town in Ukraine, Orthodox Rusyns attracted little attention from their predominantly Roman Catholic neighbors, if for no other reason than because of their isolation.

But in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, sociopolitical and religious events — the Protestant Reformation, the Ottoman Turkish invasion of central Europe and the rise of the Hapsburg Dynasty — prompted these Rusyn Orthodox communities to enter into full communion with the Church of Rome. As Greek Catholics, Rusyns maintained their liturgical rites, customs and privileges, including a married clergy, while professing union with the papacy.

Gifted loggers and carpenters, Rusyns preferred wood when building sacred and secular structures. Both practical and ornamental, woodwork adorns church towers, gates, doors and beam supports. Hand-forged wooden hinges and locks on hand-carved doors also characterize many of the churches. In place of nails, the Rusyns fashioned square wood pegs to hold together their elaborate wooden edifices.

Pointing to the heavy square pegs that fasten St. Michael’s wood frame, Father Jakub explained that Rusyn custom at the time forbade the use of metal nails in building churches. According to tradition, Jesus had been crucified with iron nails.

An edict issued by Hapsburg Emperor Leopold I in 1681 reinforced Rusyn building preferences. The edict limited construction of stone churches to Roman Catholics alone. It also stipulated that non-Roman Catholics build their sanctuaries outside the village or town center and within a fixed time period, usually one year.

Whereas medieval Gothic, Renaissance or Baroque churches inspire awe, overwhelming the visitor with their splendor, the smaller and simpler Rusyn Greek Catholic tserkvi make one feel at home, welcomed. Usually built atop hills away from bustling village life, these wooden churches inspire a sense of height and transcendence not by their size, but rather by their location.

“The famous Gothic reredos in Levoča is about 70 meters [224 feet] tall. That’s the height of the wooden church in Mikulašová,” said Martin Mešša, former director of the Slovak National Museum in Bratislava, contrasting Roman and Rusyn Greek Catholic churches.

“Gothic churches were built for 5,000 not 500. It’s town versus country,” he added. Though modest, Rusyn Greek Catholic wooden churches still required the expertise of specialized carpenters, sophisticated architectural techniques and significant financial sponsorship for their construction. Parishioners contributed what they could, but more often, major donations from local wealthy landowners finished the work. For instance, Prince Ferenc II Rákóczi (1676-1735), Hungary’s wealthiest landowner and leader of the Hungarian uprising against the Hapsburgs, rewarded his Rusyn Greek Catholic soldiers by financing the construction of many of their churches.

While each of Slovakia’s Greek Catholic wooden churches is unique, most share basic architectural elements. Essentially a polygonal building, a tserkva’s structural design resembles that of a typical log cabin. Interlocking logs provide the structural frame and walls of the church. Generally, the surfaces of the logs of the exterior are left rounded, while interior logs are hand-planed to create a flat surface.

When assembling the frame, the original builders often preferred logs of red spruce for its high content of tannic acid, which acts as a natural preservative. They also used cedar, pine and birch. Wood siding, usually spruce and cedar shingles, covers the frame to preserve it and insulate the church. Until recently, church caretakers treated the exterior with a dark brown stain. Now they use a colorless protective treatment that allows the wood surfaces of many of the churches to acquire their natural patina.

Most of the churches possess three principal and distinct chambers, usually with three corresponding roofs, each of which may be multilayered and hipped.

Each roof usually climaxes in a cupola, tower or onion dome crowned with an iron cross. Small crosses and stars often ornament the iron crosses and may symbolize the Virgin Mary, the Magi or the Passion of Christ. Other motifs include sunlike circles, the Greek letters alpha and omega, and leaves. As with icons, said Mr. Messa, the wooden churches and their ornaments functioned as didactic elements for illiterate Rusyns.

Oriented from east to west, the cupolas or towers descend in height from the west.

“The towers in aggregate symbolize the Trinity,” said Father Jakub, “and light is the coming of Christ.

“The towers are built so the light of the rising sun hits all three at the same time.”

The tallest tower often contains the bells; its corresponding chamber constitutes the church entrance and the babinec, or narthex, a vestibule for penitents and others restricted from the nave. In the past, this included women.

The middle tower or cupola houses the nave, where the faithful worship. Its high ceiling generally has an octagonal form and symbolizes eternity.

The smallest tower rises above the sanctuary, reserved for the priests and ministers of the altar. Traditionally, the sanctuary is slightly higher, a step or two, than the nave and recalls the “step up to the higher world of paradise.”

The iconostasis — a wall of icons — divides the nave from the sanctuary.

Notwithstanding these shared elements, the architectural design of individual wooden churches varies widely, depending on the community’s needs, wealth, available talent and cultural expressions.

Some, for example Sts. Cosmas and Damian in Lukov-Venécia, have open porches. Centuries ago, a single church served several villages. People from neighboring communities would walk to the church the night before the celebration of the Divine Liturgy and camp on the porch.

In many ways, Ladomirová’s church dedicated to the Archangel Michael exemplifies Slovakia’s Rusyn Greek Catholic wooden churches. Built at the edge of the village, a split rail fence topped with shingles runs around the church. The wooden, roofed gate culminates in an onion dome crowned with an iron cross. And among the graves in the churchyard stands an old wooden bell, also shingled.

The church’s Baroque iconostasis, featuring intricate and colorful carvings and icons, shimmers in the church’s cool light.

At its center, an elaborately decorated royal door is flanked by subdued doors reserved for the deacons and other liturgical ministers.

A row of medallions, each containing a cherub with three pairs of wings with which to cover himself in the presence of God, lines the bottom of the screen.

Above the cherubim, large icons of St. Nicholas, the Virgin Mary holding her son, Christ as Pantocrator, or judge, and the eponymous St. Michael the Archangel have been ordered according to ancient tradition.

Above these icons, images from the life of Christ are depicted; the Last Supper is centered above the royal door.

Icons of the Twelve Apostles, with Christ seated as righteous judge in the middle, compose the next row on the screen.

Lastly, a row of medallions, each featuring a prophet — flanking an icon of the crucifixion — runs along the top.

Since the 18th century, most icons and iconostases such as those at St. Michael’s were made in specialized workshops in Prešov, Bardejov and Cracow, then part of the Hapsburg’s Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Šariš Museum in Bardejov boasts a collection of nearly 450 icons from former churches.

In the early 1990’s, when St. Michael’s reopened (the Communists had closed the church), its icons and carved frame were sent to Bratislava for restoration. In 2006, an annual competition among restoration specialists awarded a prize to the craftsmen who lovingly renewed this unique work of liturgical art.

Since 2000, extensive restoration has begun on many of Slovakia’s wooden churches, with experts and craftsmen focusing on precious icons and iconostases and external carvings, frames and shingles. Specialized contractors now undertake most of this restoration work.

About 650 people, including 400 Roma, belong to St. Michael’s. But Father Peter Jakub’s pastoral duties also include celebrating the Divine Liturgy on Sundays and holy days at two neighboring Greek Catholic churches: St. Michael the Archangel in Šemetkovce and St. Basil the Great in Krajné Čierno.

St. Michael’s in Šemetkovce serves the village’s 90 residents, all of whom are Greek Catholic. Built in 1752, the wooden church was moved to its present site — high on a hill overlooking the hamlet — in the 1780’s. Board and batten cover the log structure and polychrome trims the edges. Only the first and tallest tower culminates in an onion dome; the two lower towers have gradated roofs topped with cupolas. Iron crosses, decorated with small crosses at arms’ end, crown all three towers.

The church’s wood-shingled roof is scheduled for cleaning this year. Replaced in 2001, the shingles have already acquired a thick blanket of moss and lichen. Damaged from water leaking through the old roof, a prominent mural inside the sanctuary awaits restoration once funding becomes available.

Inside the church, Father Jakub pointed out the altered icon of St. Thomas on the intricate 18th-century Baroque iconostasis, which had to be cut to fit into place. The church also possesses some rare 17th-century icons, depicting St. Michael and the raising of Lazarus.

St. Basil the Great is one of two churches that serve Krajné Čierno’s tiny population of 65. Built in 1730, St. Basil has three towers that, like its wooden gate, end in conical shingled roofs. Unlike most other wooden churches, the babinec and nave are the same width. Exceptionally small, the sanctuary allowed room for only one deacon door in its elaborately carved iconostasis. Between 1999 and 2004, St. Basil’s was fully restored. Treated with a colorless preservative, its new wood siding exudes a natural sheen.

When he first came to Ladomirová, the priest knew little about wooden churches. He now makes all decisions on restoration for the three churches, writing grant proposals and meeting with officials from the Ministry of Culture, the main source of funding.

Maintaining and restoring these wooden churches require a great amount of money. For example, the cost to restore one icon runs about $5,000. Unfortunately, the Presov region, where most of the country’s wooden churches are located, ranks as Slovakia’s poorest. Whereas Slovakia’s overall average monthly income reaches upward of $900, in the northeast it hovers closer to $350. Neither the parish communities nor the eparchies of the Slovak Greek Catholic Church can fund the restoration work, invaluable as it may be. To assist with expenses, the wooden churches charge visitors an admission fee and sell postcards.

Several important tserkvi survive just north of Ladomirová near Dukla, Poland. During World War II, this quaint countryside witnessed some of the bloodiest fighting on the Eastern Front. Probably Slovakia’s most picturesque wooden church, St. Nicholas in Bodružal, has been nominated — with Ladomirová’s St. Michael the Archangel — as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Nestled in the wooded foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, it sits high on a long slope off the road at the edge of the village. Built in 1658, St. Nicholas has three tiered towers, each with an onion dome and iron cross. A coordinated wood-roofed fence surrounds the tserkva.

The church’s caretaker, Helena Kažmirova, reflexively picked up windblown twigs and branches as she hurried along the path to the church.

Mrs. Kažmirova assumed her duties three years ago from her late father. Unlocking the door, she pointed out the bells overhead in the church’s first and tallest tower. She and her husband, Peter, also ring the bells for the parish.

Bodruzal once had a population of about 250, but in recent years it has dwindled to 50, of which seven families are Greek Catholic. “Young people go to towns to work,” she said, “and old people die.” Her own children work in Scotland and Ireland.

About 30 houses remain in the village, but most people live elsewhere. The village, Mrs. Kažmirova said, has produced many doctors, teachers and other educated people. Those who work in the region tend to come back on weekends to attend the liturgy and visit the graves of loved ones.

The Divine Liturgy used to be celebrated at St. Nicholas’s every Sunday, even during the Communist regime. “Maybe we were far enough out of the way to get away with it,” Mrs. Kažmirova speculated. But with fewer villagers, St. Nicholas’s now shares one priest with four other churches in the area; the priest rotates Sunday liturgy among the churches and the villagers follow him.

Several years ago, combined local and international funding paid for a new board-and-batten covering on the exterior of the church, which cost some $50,000. A new and much-needed electrical and security system is expected to cost about the same.

Inside St. Nicholas’s, icons glowed in the sunlight. Restored in the 1990’s, the elaborately carved, mid-18th-century iconostasis has only a very narrow deacon door — barely a foot wide — on its right-hand side. The parish community call the custom-made door the “children’s door,” as its use was limited to children alone when assisting in the liturgy.

A blemish on the church’s ceiling marks the spot where a German grenade crashed through during World War II. Miraculously, it fell to the floor but did not explode. The village’s traditional wooden houses, however, were leveled in the fighting.

Near the Polish border, perched on a low cliff on the outskirts of Hraničné, is the Roman Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. For centuries, Roman and Greek Catholics worshiped there, alternating liturgies from one Sunday to the next.

“But it really wasn’t practical because the holidays were different,” said caretaker Stefan Sdašak.

“Half of the village would be celebrating while the other half was working.”

At its peak, the village had as many as 600 residents. Today, only 220 villagers remain, all of whom are Roman Catholics.

First constructed in 1785, the church was rebuilt in the 19th century and then moved in 1972 when the adjacent road was widened. Exposed logs at the church’s foundation reveal its wooden frame. The church has a single, large tower, covered with wood shingles that climaxes in an onion dome and iron cross. An imposing Baroque pulpit and a trio of altars, dating from 1670, divide the nave from the sanctuary — gifts from a wealthy Roman Catholic parish in the nearby town of Stará L’ubovňa. A handful of icons, vestiges of the Greek Catholic past, hangs inside the church.

Several years ago, the villagers attempted to sell the church to an open-air museum and build a new one of brick. However, as a registered National Cultural Monument, the church cannot be sold easily. Meanwhile, the small village struggles to find the money to maintain the church.

“Upkeep is expensive,” said Mr. Sdašak. “There’s always something needing attention.”

Jacqueline Ruyak is a long-time contributor to these pages.

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