While in some parts of Europe, men may have raised their first churches from stony rubbles knowing many would never see the climax of stone and mortar, early Ukrainian church builders chose timber and the simplest of tools - axes, saws, and planes - to craft their religious reverence.
In September 2013 UNESCO added 16 wooden churches to its List of World Heritage Sites— eight in Poland and eight in Ukraine, of which Lviv oblast have four, while Ivano-Frankivsk and Zakarpattia oblasts have two each.
Before applying to UNESCO, Ukrainian members of the initiative committee examined hundreds of wooden churches along the Ukrainian-Polish border, choosing eight that met UNESCO’s criteria: they are unique, well preserved, open to visitors, and their congregations support their addition to the list. Overall, most of the wooden churches designated as architectural heritage sites in Ukraine are located in the west of the country. Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk and Zakarpattia oblasts alone are home to 1,089 of Ukraine’s 2,353 wooden churches.
Located within the Polish and Ukrainian Carpathian mountain range, the sixteen wooden churches are outstanding examples of the once widespread Orthodox ecclesiastical timber-building tradition in the Slavic countries that survives to this day. The architectural forms of the churches with tri-partite plans, pyramidal domes, cupolas and bell towers conform to the requirements of Eastern liturgy while reflecting the cultural traditions of the local communities that developed separately due to the mountainous terrain. They include Hutsul types in the Ukrainian south-eastern Carpathians at Nyzhniy Verbizh and Yasinia; Halych types in the northern Carpathians either side of the Polish/Ukrainian border at Rohatyn, Drohobych, Zhovkva, Potelych, Radruż and Chotyniec; Boyko types either side of the Polish/Ukrainian border near the border with Slovakia at Smolnik, Uzhok and Matkiv, and western Lemko types in the Polish west Carpathians at Powroźnik, Brunary Wyźne, Owczary, Kwiatoń and Turzańsk. Built using the horizontal log technique with complex corner jointing, and exhibiting exceptional carpentry skills and structural solutions, the churches were raised on wooden sills placed on stone foundations, with wooden shingles covering roofs and walls. The churches with their associated graveyards and sometimes free-standing bell towers are bounded by perimeter walls or fences and gates, surrounded by trees.
For the present time 13 churches are still used as churches, the other three - Radruż, Rohatyn and Drohobych are kept intact as museums. Also the authenticity of materials remains high as the structural timbers have been carefully repaired by traditional methods over the years. The art work has a high degree of authenticity and the timber exterior roof and wall cladding which requires replacement every 20-30 years has in most cases been appropriately restored. Given that periodic replacement of the wall cladding is part of the ongoing maintenance schemes, continuation of technical knowledge related to techniques and workmanship is and essential requirement for future preservation of authenticity in workmanship and maintenance techniques. Almost all churches retain their original doors and locking devices, with inscriptions on the lintels giving the dates of construction and names of carpenters.
This September we encourage travelers and sight hunters to take a trip to several places in Western Ukraine, which is rich in architectural landmarks in general, and wooden churches in particular.
One can start tour in Ivano-Frankivsk oblast with its 462 wooden churches qualified as architectural heritage sites. The first town worth visiting is Rohatyn - the birthplace of Nastya Lisovska, the legendary Roxelana or Hürrem Haseki Sultan – the legal wife of the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. The local church is one of the oldest preserved wooden churches in Ukraine, though its precise age is a matter of scientific controversy. According to popular opinion, it was built in the early 17th century. The official date, however, is 1598: the local priest Ipolyt Dzerovych found the date carved on the northern wall of the central solid-timber section. The shrine has one of the oldest and most beautiful Renaissance-Baroque iconostases in Ukraine dating back to 1650. The church and its iconostasis attained their status as works of art at the time of Austro-Hungarian rule, when the shrine was first listed as an architectural heritage site. In 1963, it was added to a list of national historical sites for a second time. In the 1980s, it was restored by Ivan Mohytych, a top Ukrainian expert. Today, the church acts as a branch of the Ivano-Frankivsk art museum while also serving religious functions.
The village of Nyzhniy Verbizh is known as a crossroads of four mountain rivers, including the mighty and turbulent Prut. It is also the birthplace of Hryhoriy Semeniuk, an ally of legendary Carpathian outlaw Oleksa Dovbush – a folk hero often compared to Robin Hood. Local lore claims that Semeniuk began construction of the shrine in his village. It is unique for its five domes built in the traditional Hutsul style and covered with engraved tin. The church was actually built in 1808 but the interior still contains icons from the late 18th century. Regular services are still held in the church today.
Further the trip goes westward through Zakarpattia oblast, home to 110 preserved wooden churches recognized as architectural heritage sites. One is the Church of Ascension or Strukiv Church in the village of Yasinia. Local lore claims that the village’s founder, Ivan Struk, built the church out of gratitude to God for saving his sheep in a storm. The modern Church of the Ascension, however, dates back to 1824. It is one of the best examples of sacred Hustul architecture. Inside, there is an iconostasis from the late 18th century and a number of 17th-century icons. Perhaps the local lore is true after all.
The village of Uzhok in Velykyi Bereznyi region is on the border of Zakarpattia oblast near the Uzhok Pass where the river Uzh begins. The local Church of St. Michael the Archangel is one of the county’s symbols and a popular subject for painters. It was built in 1745 in the Boyko style. Similar churches are widespread in mountainous parts of Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk oblasts. The Uzhok shrine stands atop a hill and fits harmoniously with the surrounding landscape.
Across the Uzhok Pass is Lviv oblast, home to 517 of Ukraine’s wooden churches. The first one that is absolute must-to-visit is in the village of Matkiv in Turka region, several kilometres from the border with Zakarpattia. The most beautiful element of this village at the source of the Stryi River is the wooden Church of the Holy Mother of God re-consecrated in honour of St. Demetrius. Like the church in Uzhok, it is in the Boyko style, although it differs from Zakarpattian Boyko architecture. Built in 1838, the church houses an iconostasis from the 1840s.
Drohobych is the largest town in this list, hosting a few dozen architectural sites. St. George’s Church stands out in particular. In 1656, it was moved from the village of Nadiyiv, now in Dolyna region, Ivano-Frankivsk oblast. The chapel of the Introduction of the Blessed Virgin Mary built over the choir balcony makes the shrine’s structure unique.
Zhovkva region in Lviv oblast has two churches on the UNESCO list. One is the Holy Trinity Church in Zhovkva. Once a residence of the Polish kings Sobieski, the town will probably end up on the UNESCO list someday as well. Its church was originally built in 1601 but was destroyed in a fire, so the modern building dates back to 1720. It contains 18th-century murals and a five-layer Baroque iconostasis created by the masters of the Zhovkva Painting and Carving School under Ivan Rutkovych. Today, the building acts as a church and museum.
Potelych, a village on the Ukrainian-Polish border, hosts several architectural sites and a German military cemetery. The most interesting building here is the Church of the Descent of the Holy Spirit. Built in 1502 on the site of the former Church of Boris and Glib, its construction was financed with donations from local potters. In the 1970s, skilled Lviv masters Ivan Mohytych and Bohdan Kindzelskyi restored it.
Recognizing the historical and cultural value of Ukraine's wooden churches, the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture and Arts launched a restoration and preservation campaign of over 1,900 churches made of wood, largely located in western Ukraine, several years ago. The campaign, scheduled to last five years, includes registering each structure, evaluating condition, and completing the restoration process, ensuring the longevity of one of Ukraine's most eclectic and unusual cultural traditions will be preserved for future generations.