The Wooden Churches of Eastern Europe: An Introductory Survey

A Book Review
Andrew Gregorovich

Church of the Trinity (above on book jacket) 1775-78 and 1887 in
Novomoskovsk, Dnipropetrovsk oblast. An extraordinary, wooden
structure, the largest wooden church in Ukraine.

THE WOODEN CHURCHES 0F EASTERN EUROPE: An Introductory Survey, by David Buxton. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1981. vii, 405 p. illus., plans, maps. $85.00 U.S., 47.50 U.K. Cambridge U.P., Pitt Building, Trumpingtn St., Cambridge CB2 1RP; in USA: 32 East 57th St., New York, N.Y. 10022.

Rarely is there a book published which provides so much information on a subject that it can he described as a landmark book. David Buxton's The Wooden Churches of Eastern Europe is that kind of book. It unites a well written text together with an outstanding selection of photos, plans and illustrations to provide an excellent survey of the subject. For a long time to come it will be consulted as an authoritative study of the subject in English.

Church of the Trinity (roof plan above) 1775-78 and 1887 in Novomoskovsk, Dnipropetrovsk oblast. An extraordinary, wooden structure, the largest wooden church in Ukraine.

Organized according to six regions (Northern Russia; Ukrainian Galicia and Carpathia; Ukrainian Plains; Romania, Hungary and Yugoslavia; Catholic churches in Poland and Czechoslovakia; and Protestant churches in Poland, Slovakia and Finland) the book provides a clear and comprehensive review of the subject. Two appendixes supplement the subject with accounts of the log cabin in North America, which came from Eastern Europe via Scandinavia to America, and the vanished synagogues of the area.

Buxton's interest in the subject goes back half a century but it was in 1972 that he started work on it and in 1977 he made a trip to Ukraine. The assistance of the famous scholar Heorhiy Lohvin of Kiev is acknowledged by Buxton, who devotes a major portion of the book to Ukrainian wooden architecture

The author suggests that this is the first general survey of the subject and says, "I hope it will stimulate the interest of many visitors from the west . . . in one of the most attractive, but least known aspects of the rural scene in eastern Europe." He limits the survey basically to the blockwork, or log construction on horizontal principIes, of surviving churches.

The photographs are clearly reproduced and these provide the opportunity to make direct comparisons of Ukrainian wooden architecture with Russian, Polish and others. The highly aesthetic design of Ukrainian wooden churches is clearly evident in the examples and in comparison. Over 100 pages (87-188) are devoted to Ukraine with 135 plates and illustrations plus extensive references in other sections. The Boyko, Lemko, Hutsul, Volhynian, Podolian and the churches of Great Ukraine are analysed by Buxton according to their plan, construction, style and decoration.

Yezuopol, near Ivano-Frankivsk. Hutsul church with five domes, eighteenth century.

Knyazhdvor, near Kolomya. Five-domed Hutsul church of 1778.

Rovno Volhynia. Semi-cruciform church.

Typical but unidentified Boyko church with three cupolas. Lviv District, Western Ukraine.

The church of St. Nicholas at Krivka in the Carpathians, 1763.

Buxton is well acquainted with Ukrainian views explaining the Ukrainian claim to the heritage of Kievan Rus and says "the first brilliant period of Ukrainian Christian civilization was inaugurated by Prince Vladimir (Ukrainian Volodymyr)."

He also describes Hetman Ivan Mazepa as a "great patriot" whose defeat at Poltava by Tsar Peter was a "tragedy" to Ukrainians.

Considerable care has been taken by Buxton in his research but some errors have slipped through. For example, on page 149 he ascribes a sketch of the Cossack camp to Beauplan "about 1650" but it is actually based on a drawing by Teofil Kopystynsky published in Dzvinok 1890. It is not found in any of three copies of Beauplan's Description d'Ukranie (1660) which FORUM checked. Although the book is generally well written he has used the unnecessary definite article "the" before Ukraine. Occasionally the text will bother Ukrainians such as his reference to the "very Polish" city of Lviv. Names are usually not given in their Ukrainian form and he has used some unusual forms such as Boyk and Lemk for the usual Boyko and Lemko.

Some of his conclusions to the Ukrainian churches include these observations: "Practically all Ukrainian wooden plans were either longitudinal, with three cupolas, or cruciform, with five; and in the second case the domes stood in the axes, i.e., on the arms of the cross ... - It may still be maintained that Ukrainian solid-timber cupolas represent an attempt to imitate Byzantine domical structures, but it seems more probable that these too had been handed down locally from early, possibly even pre-Christian, times. The one feature of Ukrainian wooden churches that can be attributed with more confidence to the Byzantine inheritance is the onion dome in its outward aspect. Introduced in its later Byzantine form, raised on a drum, the dome gradually assumed the bulbous shape so familiar ... Its function in Ukrainian ... wooden churches is not structural but purely aesthetic: it gives a culminating flourish to every tower and cupola." He sums up with "I therefore feel it is unrealistic to link the timbered solutions found ... Ukraine with any early experiments in dome design carried out in countries further southeast (even if Ukrainian-type wooden buildings ever extended so far afield). Their real links, I am sure, are with the ancestral wooden architecture of the old Slav homeland, best represented today by the more primitive churches of the Boyks ..."

Ukrainian wooden belfries drawn by D. Savitsky.

Ukrainian wooden belfries drawn by D. Savitsky. The lower example is identified as Volhynian.

Buxton's name is well known from his earlier work Russian Medieval Architecture published by Cambridge University Press in 1934 and reprinted in New York by Hacker Art Books in 1975. The Wooden Churches of Eastern Europe is highly recommended for libraries since it covers a significant subject of European and Slavic culture for which there is virtually no other source. - A.G.

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Copyright © 1985 Andrew Gregorovich

Reprinted from FORUM Ukrainian Review No. 61, Spring 1985
Published by the Ukrainian Fraternal Association
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Originally Composed: Monday September 22nd 1997.
Date last modified: Friday February 4th 2000.