Wooden churches in Eastern Europe represent distinctive feature of regional cultural heritage and are probably the most valuable contribution of this land to the world art treasury. In this research we will make an attempt to make in-depth analysis of relationships between architecture and design of these historical constructions in the light of local traditions and lifestyle. The study is divided into two parts illustrating materials and techniques used to create these fascinating buildings and key design principles tightly associated with regional culture.
Construction materials and techniques. In Slavic world wooden constructions were dominant until mid-1950s. Vast territories covered with forest provided cheap, solid, and easy-to-access building material used for domestic, industrial, economic, defensive, public, and religious units. Most ancient architectural monuments of that area trace their roots back to early 10th century which is also recorded in chronicles and modern ethnographic materials.
Traditionally architects recognize three styles of Eastern European wooden churches including Hutsul style (originated from the name of ethnical group in Ukrainian Carpathian Mountains), Gothic style, and Baroque churches adopted from western civilization . Hutsul churches have brought to us the oldest manner of Eastern European church building based on the principle of trinity – a church has three parts, three sections, and three towers. A Baroque tower gave name to 22 Baroque churches in this area. Churches with high spires and turrets represent the famous Gothic style in local communities.
All wooden sacred monuments are based on log construction allowing various solutions in terms of horizontal planning and exterior design. Apart from quadrate frame, unique polygonal constructional forms are observed here especially in altar rooms. Fir, spruce, and pine were widely used in constructing non-load-bearing parts of the building while oak, red spruce, and yew were applied while creating bearers and ribbands for the construction. Typically, buildings were placed on strong foundation stones joined together by clay, lime, and sand.
Older generations remember seeing eggs, bull’s blood, and breast milk combined together as an admixture for making the building stronger and more resistant to rains and storms . Initially for religious reasons no nail was used to make timber works and other constructional elements firm. This practice was very common to many wooden churches throughout entire region and some parts of Russia where this architectural phenomenon was present. Numerous conducted studies and artifacts found show that no-nail technique undoubtedly has to do with associations with crucifixion.
To solve this problem local craftsmen were trying to create climate-friendly unions to keep construction in one piece. Their invention of unique blazes on assembling unions made it possible to start building churches without iron nails with decreasing use of even oak wedges. Unlike Slavs, German tribes preferred pole and light-frame constructions. This type of wooden temples can be encountered in England and Northern Europe including Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. Similar architectural style has spread in Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, and Poland.
The second biggest heritage of wooden temples is possessed by Norway and has strong historical roots directly connected with era of Vikings and their friendly relationships with Slavs . Exterior and interior design. One of the most distinctive features of monumental architecture is triple design symbolizing Trinity. Significant number of wooden churches consist of three parts emphasized by three towers. The middle log of the temple is the biggest construction with square shape which has altar room inside. The front part is a shorter copy of the middle log and serves as an assembly hall for nuns.
The back part behind the altar room is the highest one and since it is always facing east as the beginning of a new day and life it has become a landmark for many travelers. Traditionally, location of all three parts corresponds to laws of symmetry which means that horizontal axis of the wooden church intersects with its vertical axis in the very middle of the building . In Middle Ages this so-called “triple style” was popular throughout entire territory of Kyiv Rus being applied on concrete churches as well.
Irrelevant of construction material or religion practiced in the church Slavs would always build their churches on top of a hill or in some remote area. Only rare spiritual architectural monuments are located in the village downtown. People from Eastern European community still believe that both wooden and concrete churches are too sacred to be situated somewhere close to the city downtown full of noise and turmoil. Sacral buildings in Eastern Europe (primarily east of Slovakia and west of Ukraine) frequently had pronounced decorations on shingles.
Wood carving ornaments covered approximately two thirds of the entire exterior design of the church. Rich decorations were stipulated by great number of carpenters and craftsmen who polished their talents on regular basis due to never-ending forests in the area. Many are still fascinated by remarkable iconostasis as a key and most valuable part of any church interior design. In wooden churches iconostasis is placed in altar room separating it from back part of the building. Iconostasis is a wall picturing sacred paintings decorated with gold.
Together these paintings represent iconography which requires strict observance of holy rules and selection of topics. Typical iconostasis in wooden churches have three exits. The main one is located in the middle and is designed especially for the main priest. Two other ones house secondary priests and deacons which are not allowed to use the main exit decorated with carved vermeil. Many wooden temples in modern Slovakia, Poland, and Ukraine preserved ornamental conical, A-line, and pyramidal domes. Impacted by baroque, quadrangular roofs acquired four more corners turning into octagonal domes.
Regardless of refusal from iron nails metal was still used to create additional functional details including crosses, gates, and window ironwork. Metal crosses placed on the top of each dome embodied creativity and talent of local artists. Apart from esthetic purposes, exterior and interior designs of wooden temples performed educational function as well. Artists painted walls using simple tools to educate people with Old and New Testaments. To do that they chose the finest wall of the temple with no windows or doors.
Then using simple paint and brushes to make foliated lines on the wall they pictured Jesus, Maria, prophets, disciples, and evangelists. Interestingly enough, non-religious episodes were also portrayed on those walls which corresponded to feelings and thoughts of people at that time rather than specific sacral motives. Some icon illustrations were linked to specific life situations and peculiarities of local community which perceived some saints as guarantors for their existence and prosperity. Most frequent images included St. George who based on local beliefs was helping farmers, St.
Nicholas who protected houses from fire and guaranteed well-being for carpenters, St. Michael as a sky warrior, and many other religious spirits. Such icons are marked with particularly exuberant ornament and thoroughly selected colors . Some of wooden temples in eastern part of Europe were not saved due to weather impacts and other negative influences. This is especially concerned World War I and World War II. Also active migration of local communities had negative effect on architectural monuments in general. However, once the church was built by permanent local community it was being taken care of appropriately.
Experts in the field of sacred architecture say, Eastern Europeans created design and architecture for their religious buildings that would remind them of closeness with nature and necessity to enrich inner world on regular basis. This is the reason why interior design alongside with its iconostasis and paintings are so exuberant and rich. Unlike Latin churches, wooden temples in this part of the world fascinate by its perfect combination with surrounding environment. Color scheme here plays one of the most important parts since green forests and deep brown represent perfect match .
Because of the painful losses in local wooden architecture the cultural value of each saved church has considerably increased and all wooden churches constructed in traditional manner are to be protected irrespective of age. In conclusion it would be appropriately to note that wooden churches in Eastern Europe symbolize peculiarities of local communities including religious beliefs, lifestyles, and geographical location. They represent special interest in comparison to other highlands such as the Alps which offer no architectural contribution whatsoever.
Educative function of wooden temples remains very valuable even today since wall paintings provide better view of historical reality. Due to its geographical location eastern regions of Europe have been equally influenced by neighboring cultures but still managed to preserve their own architectural identity. Works Cited Bragg, Rick. Wooden Churches: A Celebration. New York: Algonquin Books, 1999. Patterson, Joby. Wooden Churches of the Carpathians: A Comparative Study. Bratislava: East European Monographs, 2001. Sopoliga, Miroslav. Pearls of Folk Architecture. London: Brand House, 1996
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