Poland's Wooden Gothic Churches
"I have before my eyes those wooden churches ... which used to rise throughout Poland, authentic treasures of popular architecture." -Pope John Paul II
By Carrie Gress
Nestled in the Carpathian Mountains of southern Poland near the Slovak border is a cluster of nine unique Gothic churches that are little known beyond Polish borders, but a great source of pride for those who live in Southern Małopolska, or "Little Poland." These historic churches, built by wealthy families as signs of piety and prestige, still stand today, despite wars, weather, and time.
Built between the 15th and 18th centuries, the churches were constructed like others during their time, using horizontal timbers from local trees, such as larch, by skilled craftsmen using mostly axes. What has set them apart and placed them on the UNESCO Heritage list in 2003 is the unique configurations used among the churches for their era and area. Gothic architectural elements, such as arches, arcades, doors and window frames, columns and pediments all mimic the styles typically created in stone or brick.
The real genius behind these churches were the skilled craftsmen who came up with innovative solutions for working with wood. As the UNESCO Heritage site explains: "Thanks to the use of high-quality structural joinery solutions, such as the system of roof trusses binding the log structures of the nave and chancel, they [the churches] took on a characteristic architectural form featuring tall shingled roofs covering both the nave and the chancel and thus reinforcing the entire building. These churches also feature unique, high-quality joinery details, highlighting their Gothic character."
What is more surprising is that these wooden churches were built in generally isolated areas, on picturesque hills or valleys, far away from the cosmopolitan centers where Gothic architecture had spread like wildfire. The Gothic influence trickled into Little Poland through the native highland members of the local guilds and builders lodges who added their own twist to the local architecture.
While many of the churches started out with very similar characteristics, such as the altars facing east, an almost square nave, narrow presbyteries, later centuries saw variations on the original theme. Towers, arcades, and other changes in roofing structures were added.
The arcade areas were included for very practical reasons. Called soboty in Polish, or Saturday, and were built to to accommodate distant parishioners who traveled to the church on a Saturday and spent the night outside in order make early Sunday morning Mass.
These churches also reflect the native Polish sacred and folks arts. Rich iconography, statuary, and detailed biblical paintings directly upon the wood decorate these churches. The dry air and ventilation has preserved many of these original treasures dating back centuries (which also means that these churches are very cold in the high altitude winters).
In an area near these historical churches, another church was completed in a similar style in 1997 in the Zakopane area of Little Poland (also on the border with Slovakia, but in the Tatra Mountains, not the Carpathian Mountains). Named "Our Lady of Fatima," the church was built in gratitude for Pope John Paul II’s life after the assassination attempt in St. Peter’s Square on May 13, 1981, the feast of Our Lady of Fatima.
During his papal visit to consecrate the new church on June 7, 1997, John Paul spoke of native architecture, but also the native piety so tightly interwoven into Polish culture. “Looking at your church,” the pope started, “so beautifully decorated, I have before my eyes those wooden churches - increasingly rare nowadays - which used to rise throughout Poland, but above all in Podhale and Podkarpacie: authentic treasures of popular architecture.”
“All of them, like your own, were built with the cooperation of the pastors and faithful of the individual parishes. They were built by a common effort, so that the Holy Sacrifice could be celebrated there, so that Christ in the Eucharist would be together with his people day and night, at times of great joy and elation, and at times of trial, suffering and humiliation, and even on plain grey days.”
After all these centuries, the beauty and brightness continue to shine through - even on the greyest of days. Gratefully, Polish pride will continue to guard these treasures for centuries to come.
Short video produced by UNESCO/NHK on the wooden churches.