The wooden churches of the Lemkos are the most distinctive feature of the region's landscape. Virtually every village had a church at one time, and most were constructed almost entirely of wood. They are usually situated close to rivers and creeks (on the banks) or on hillside slopes, and always on an east-west axis.85 They are almost always surrounded by a circle of trees, from which the emerging towers and domes present a most dramatic image. 86
The Lemko church is based on a tripartite design (sanctuary, nave and choir) which evolved from the churches of the neighboring Bojko region to the east. It retained that tripartite plan, each section with a separate (frequently Bojko-style pyramidal) roof but topped with Baroque turrets and cupolas. The most radical departure from the Bojko model is the Gothic borrowing of a tall defensive-like bell tower built over the narthex/choir section. It is reasonable to assume that the Lemko master craftsmen traveled elsewhere in Poland, Hungary and Slovakia and adapted the Gothic and Baroque attributes they saw to the Lemko church.87
Each section of the church is basically square (except the eastern wall of the sanctuary; see below). Of the three sections, the nave is usually the largest. The whole church is rarely over 20 meters in length, and is frequently only about 15 to 16 meters. The ceilings are low, contributing to a "very small and cramped" interior which still manages to be "endearingly intimate"> 88)
The roofs are an intricate system of overlapping and pointed wooden shingles. Initially, only the bell tower was topped by a dome; only later were cupolas superimposed over the nave and sanctuary. The whole church, including walls, cupolas, and turrets, is typically painted on the outside, even in multicolor designs. This performs an aesthetic function, but more importantly it protects the building materials from the wet mountain weather. 89
In the eastern Lemko Region (Lesko and Sanok county), the high belfry does not appear. The traditional three-dome design (with the highest dome over the choir section) is retained, although they do not dramatically vary in height. Some churches in this area have even four or more domes depending on the size of the church (e.g. the four domed church in Komancha). Some of these churches even have a separate belfry (e.g. Komancha and Turzansk/Turyns'ke, Sanok county).90
Also in Sanok county in the village of Lipowiec/Lypovec was found the only occurrence in the Lemko Region the Svidnyk-area, Presov Region variation of the Lemko church: the sanctuary section of square rather than apsidal (semicircular) shape.91 Unfortunately the church, built around 1703, is no longer standing.
The churchyard is typically encircled by a fence, either of wooden framework or of stone. Stone, iron or wooden cross monuments are found in the churchyard, and the village cemetery typically is part of or immediately adjacent to the churchyard.
Wrought iron crosses crown the church domes as well as free standing bell towers and church porches. Each one is unique;92 most are based on the Rus' eight pointed ("three-bar") cross design (of which the bottom bar may or may not be slanted), and many incorporate the inverted crescent symbolizing the victory of Christianity over Islam and the Turks.
The Lemko church interior is dominated by the multi-level icon screen (ikonostas), a wall which separates the sanctuary/altar area from the nave. Like other Byzantine church icon screens, those in Lemko churches follow a strict pattern by which the icons are displayed. The bottom row, from left to right, contains icons of Saint Nicholas( the patron of the Rus' Church) or Saint John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary with the child Jesus, Jesus Christ, and the patron saint of the parish church. The icon screen is pierced by two central ("royal") doors through which only clergy pass, and on each side by side ("deacon") doors through which servers pass. Most wooden Lemko churches contain at least two higher levels of icons, the first level showing the twelve main feasts of the church year with the Last Supper or the Icon-Not-Made-With-Hands in the center, the second level with icons of the twelve apostles with the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, in supplication to the enthroned Christ (the Deesis) in the center. If a higher level is present (in most wooden churches it is not, except perhaps in a reduced form), it contains icons of the Old Testament prophets with the Crucifixion in the center. The interior walls and ceilings are usually painted, with icon-murals (frescoes) or with decorative elements. Other interior features are icon lamps and chandeliers, free standing icon shrines throughout the church, wood carved candlesticks, and processional banners. Finally, due to western influence, most Lemko churches have pews (other Byzantine churches generally do not).
The oldest wooden church in the Lemko Region is the Church of Saint Jacob at Powroznik/Povoroznyk (Nowy Sacz county) built in 1612.93 The church was several times close to destruction but successfully restored. Once after a spring flood, it was moved away from the river to higher ground. (94) Most of the surviving Lemko wooden churches were built in the 18th and 19th centuries. Appendix V contains a selection of wooden church and church interior photos.
Return to Table of Contents