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The Wooden Churches of Eastern Slovakia

text and photos by Jacqueline Ruyak

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Rich in scenic beauty, eastern Slovakia was long isolated and underdeveloped. However among its hidden treasures are the many wooden churches that dot its lovely countryside. Some of these wooden treasures are located in the 15-kilometer stretch between the Dukla Pass, near the Polish-Slovak border, and the small city of Svidnik, which was all but destroyed during World War II. In 1944 Czechoslovak and Soviet forces fought the Nazis in a bloody three-month battle at the Dukla Pass. Many of these churches were damaged or destroyed in the fighting. However after the war, most were rebuilt.

The majority of these churches were built by Greek Catholics, ethnic Ruthenians and Slovaks. Many date from the 18th century; a few date from the 16th. Some of these shrines are modest structures. Others, more baroque, are divided into three sections, each capped with a shingled cupola and onion dome.

Traditionally these sections were aligned on an east-west axis, which ascends in height from west to east. Each part has a specific purpose: the narthex, which is entered through the west door, is a portico leading to the body of the structure, the nave. An iconostasis, a screen of icons depicting Christ, the Mother of God, the saints, feast days and the prophets and apostles, separates the nave from the sanctuary. Even in these rural churches one finds iconostases of rich artistic and spiritual beauty.

Unfortunately, since the demise of communism and the subsequent opening of the borders, rings of international art thieves have been active in the area. Thus several churches have been robbed of these precious devotional images.

Last June I visited a handful of these churches. It was unseasonably hot and hazy and the air was redolent with the smell of freshly cut hay. Villagers everywhere were working in the fields, taking advantage no doubt, of the lazy summer day. Poverty, war and international thievery all seemed remote as I traveled from church to church, village to village.

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Tags: Icons Architecture Slovakia Carpatho-Rusyn Central Europe