There is probably no other place in Europe – and very few elsewhere – with wooden temples and prayer houses of Christianity of many rites and denominations, Judaism and even Islam on the territory of one country. Rzeczpospolita (The Republic) – union of middle-european countries: Poland, Lithuania and Kiev Russia (Ukraine) existing from the late middle ages til the end of eighteen century, have been multinational and multicultural state. The Roman-Catholic churches are the most numerous, understandably. The oldest timber churches survived only as archeological relics, but we have one example of wooden 12-th century church, that have been built in Norway, in the village named Vang, then, in 19-th century dismantled and sold to the Prussian king, who decided to reconstruct it in the mountain landscape, near the town Karpacz on Lower Silesia. Its the rare example of so-called „stavkirke”, with rich Viking style decoration.
The oldest survived church built in southern Poland in the village Haczów, however disputable is the dating, it’s the largest one. It’s nave span extends 12 m, with a height of 8,5 m. The oldest for a certainty dated churches came from fifteenth century, like Dąbrówka (about 1410) or Zborówek 1459.
Both large and small churches were built on the same scheme. As a rule they were oriented. Two squares or nearly square rectangles: bigger – the nave and smaller – the choir (presbytery), made up the outline. Sometimes the polygonal east end have been formed, to follow the Gothic brick churches choirs. The framework towers appeared on church western fronts not until the end of 16-th century. The following centuries brought the wooden churches in which the builders took the ideas chiefly from the brickwork and masonry architecture, erecting wooden churches with two-towers façades, imposing dômes and decorated with classical orders.
Poland’s oldest wooden temples of the Byzantine, Orthodox rite, are almost contemporary with the oldest Roman Catholic churches. The most ancient of Eastern-rite „cerkwie” at Ulucz village is dated on the beginning of 16-th century. These early specimens, studding the borderlands of the Polish and Ukrainian cultures, afford a superb synthesis of Western and Eastern building traditions. Their large dômes on the naves, with smaller cupolas over the chancels and womans’ courts was technically perfect and full of an Oriental mysticism.
The protestant churches are younger then Catholic and Orthodox temples, but specific in their construction made of timber frames. Many of them surviwed and are still in use (mainly as Roman Catholic) at the northern and western part of the country. Their black and white painted frames, as old as 17-th and 18-th centuries, are very characteristic for the landscape. But the 17-th century Silesian protestant churches, built by rich town merchants against the prohibition laws of the German imperial Catholic government, are probably the biggest and mostly decorated temples in Poland. As it was prohibited to build stone or brick protestant churches on Silesia, they are entirely made of wood, being the huge engineer structures in the timberwork construction.
The variety of the Polish wooden temples is supplemented by the prayer-houses and mosques of the Islamic Polish Tartars in the north-eastern regions. Their edifices are modest rather then monumental, but very interesting. Here the local carpenters had to meet the requirements of rites and religions which were absolutely strange to them.
Alas, the synagogues of the Jewish communities, with only a very few exception, can no longer be observed in the countryside. Burnt by Nazis during the Second World War, were never restored by the congregations which were murdered in German concentration camps. According to Mosaic law the synagogues were supposed to tower over the surroundings. Builders and carpenters, most probably either Catholics or Russian Orthodox, applied all of their skills to satisfy all partners. There were interior cupolas multiplied on top of each other, the storeys of galleries and rich polychromic decorations being the important element missing of that all Polish environment.
But if we cannot stop the destroying of wooden structures by time, humidity, fire or wars, we may do one thing: document it; by measurements, photography and research. On the Faculty of Architecture on Warsaw University of Technology, during interwar period (1922-1939) a students’ groups under professor Oskar Sosnowski leadership compiled a collection of drawings and photographs concerning the monumental as well as vernacular architecture. Rescued during the burning of Warsaw by the Nazis and continued after war, it consists now more than 35 thousand drawings – plans, sections, façades and details along with thousands of photographs, and is probably the biggest archive of this kind in Poland. Surely the documentation of wooden churches is only a part of this collection, but an important one, for many of these obiects exist now only on those drawings and photographs. Our intention is to digitalize all this stuff.
Dangers to the Sacred Wooden Architecture in Poland (after ICOMOS report)
In its annual report for the year 2000, the Polish National Committee of ICOMOS pointed to the principle dangers regarding five types of heritage monuments in Poland. They are:
fire hazards to heritage monuments built of wood
dangers created as a consequence of modernisation as well as the transformation of the ownership of industrial heritage sites
dangers to military cultural heritage sites
deterioration of heritage sites due to the lack of use or insufficient funding
danger of theft and smuggling.
In its 2001/2002 report the Committee pointed to problems concerning dangers to industrial monuments; in this 2002/2003 report we present dangers to our sacred wooden architecture, which is an important, often unique, contribution to the European heritage. It consists of wooden churches, built between the 14th and 19th centuries, mainly Catholic, but there are also other churches, including Protestant, Orthodox, Catholic-orthodox, Dukebor, Jewish and Mariavites churches, the last characteristic only of Poland. There are also a few wooden Menonite churches of the Dutch settlers.
Wooden religious architecture consists not only of churches, but also chapels, belfries and morgues.
Presently there are 2785 items of religious wooden architecture in Poland (1729 churches - including temples of other religions, 730 belfries, 315 chapels and morgues). Most of them are in central and south-eastern Poland in Mazowsze, Malopolska, Podlasie (within Mazowieckie, Malopolskie, Podkarpackie, Slaskie, Lubelskie and Podlaskie Vojewodeships).
The oldest and most precious churches built in the Middle Ages are the evidence of the mastery of their builders, quite often decorated with paintings as in Malopolska. About 70 churches were built in the 15th century such as in Debno, Lopuszna and Nowy Targ. Six of them (from the 15th and 16th centuries) were nominated to the World Heritage List.
Their good maintenance is the concern of industry, institutions, organisations, parishes and also individuals who want to save these treasures of Polish culture for the following generations. These efforts, unfortunately, do not always bring the planned results, because these monuments are at risk during times of both peace and war.
Fire hazards are of particularly high danger, especially to the most precious monuments, because fire destroys the monuments down to the foundations.
Between 1999 and 2000, 50 churches burnt down. The most frequent cause of fire is not damage to electric installations, but fire lit deliberately. This is why many churches no longer exist in Laczna (near Gliwice), Miedzyrzec Górny, Lekawica near Zywiec, and lately in Dluga Koscielna and in Wola Justowska in Cracow. Fires are often set to cover other delinquencies such as break-ins and theft, because in many churches real masterpieces can be found.
Thieves are frequently encouraged by inferior mechanical or electronic alarm systems. Many of the monuments are carefully watched by vigilant individuals, but still a large number of churches located a considerable distance from houses or farms are left without any custody.
The number of delinquencies including arson, theft and vandalism against sacred monuments (there are no separate statistics for wooden churches) during each period of 10 years stays the same and reaches about 1500 cases every year. The General Conservator of the Monuments in the Centre of Public Monuments in Warsaw has initiated a list of 91 wooden heritage monuments that are to be preserved and protected within a complex programme (guarding against threats such as the setting of fires, theft and vandalism).
Another very serious danger is nature itself. The flood of 1997-1998 caused much damage, especially in Silesia. Numbers of historical interiors were destroyed, as well as the main construction features of the buildings.
Finally, a very serious problem is created by substituting old churches with new ones. After a new church is built, the old one is usually abandoned and it deteriorates gradually. This can be prevented by revitalisation.
Preventing all these dangers requires first of all finances, then monitoring of the objects, followed by dissemination of knowledge concerning their value.
Polish experiences in integral restoration of wooden objects. Problems of restoration the wooden buildings with preserved rich decoration inside (after K.Chmielewski)
In Poland there are al lot of qualified specialist in many different branches connected with restoration of works of art: restorators of painting, sculpture, architects, constructors, chemists, documentalists and craftsmen. The students are learning at three university departments of restoration of works of art: Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow and University in Torun. The restoration of objects on the wooden support is important part of lectures and practices. Restorators co-operate with specialists from other high schools and laboratories.
Before restoration works are executed researches;
- static's analysis of buildings
- dendrology and dendrochronology analysis,
- analysis of binding mediums and pigments,
- uv, infra-red and x-ray analysis.
Often high analysis technology is used e.g. spectrograph, gas chromatograph and others.
We have experiences, good and worse, in integral restoration of wooden monuments, especially with preserved polychrome inside.
The main difficulty of restoration the wooden buildings with preserved decoration inside is proper co-ordination of different kinds of works. The skills and knowledge of many specialists have to be making use. First of all should be made numerous researches including laboratory analysis. The result enable to identify original and non original used technologies and materials on the one hand and give proper diagnosis of kinds and causes of damages on the other. Good project of restoration and proper carry out of restoration works are based on wide range of researches.
Usually they concern following problems:
- stabilisation of wooden construction of building,
- damages of roof covering and roof structures,
- degree of moisture,
- weakness of wooden structure by microbiology and insects attack,
- technique of polychrome on the walls and ceiling - types of damages, consolidation and adhesive of ground and colour layers, flake, powdering, chemical changes etc.
With these problems are connected final decisions:
- kind and range of intervention in original structure of monument,
- use of new materials and technology,
- remove non-original elements, also repainted layers of colour,
- eventually, range of possible reconstruction.
The Archive of the Dep-t of Polish Architecture; Faculty of Architecture, Warsaw University of Technology;
Marian Pokropek: Atlas Sztuki ludowej i folkloru w Polsce. Warsaw 1978 nn; passim;
Wooden Churches of Little Poland (documentation for Unesco List). Cracow 2000;
Krzysztof Chmielewski: Wooden churches with painted decorations in Poland (www.woodenculture.org)
ICOMOS: Dangers to the Sacred Wooden Architecture in Poland (www.international.icomos.org)