Karel Kuča – Jiří Langer

Wooden Churches and Belltowers in Europe


In most European countries wooden churches and bell towers belong among the typical expressions of cultural and architectural development. However, recognition of their value has meanwhile lingered in the background of interest among the scholarly fields and in many countries these architectural monuments have received low priority by both worldly and ecclesiastical institutions in getting the care that would ensure their survival. Moreover, until this time the attention of experts who focus on wooden sacred architecture has been devoted to only a few regions in Europe, especially those that are attractive to tourists. The goals of this book are to offer an exposition of the basic forms of wooden churches and bell towers in territories across all of Europe and to appreciate the cultural interconnectedness among various parts of the continent. Wooden churches and bell towers, just like all cultural phenomena, not only possess aesthetic value, but are also a rich source of information about the way of life of our predecessors and about the development of their spiritual concepts. They show forms of woodworking, of building techniques, of creating architectural environments, and of painting and sculptural work.
The first section of this book, devoted to churches, is divided so that that the reader can look at the architecture of wooden churches from three points of view: 1/ of an investor who has clarified a functional working plan, selected patterns, and contracted with builders and artists to carry out work on a church; 2/ of an ideologue-theologian who has clarified and overseen the development of opinions on the liturgical function of the church with a view to the interests of the investor as well as the users of the church; 3/of a builder who has limited knowledge and practical experience in construction methods that are customary and have been handed for centuries down in the area where he or she is to work. All of them bring their own contributions toward creating the whole architecture of the wooden church. Of course we may consider the strength of tradition, older patterns and works of predecessors as an independent phenomenon that has influenced the three above-mentioned agents most of all.
European Christianity inherited conceptions of how to shape sacred space from the ancient buildings of the Near East and from Greek and Roman antiquity. The climactic Byzantine buildings became a direct source of instruction for Eastern Christian churches in the Balkan region and in the East Slavic lands. The genesis of the development of the building and architecture of wooden churches was more complicated and more interconnected with the heritage of pre-Christian cults. They derived from Roman antiquity, which portrayed deified politicians, and later, saints in statues. We find the symbols of pagan traditions marked on parts of architecture in Western Europe. The effect of the church on the faithful in Western Europe developed within the struggle against paganism by way of more concrete ideas than Eastern Christianity, which with its symbolic system led believers to more abstract thoughts. It arose from a multi-cultural environment into which the new principles of tolerance and of not returning evil for evil were introduced.
The use of wood in building churches was limited in Europe by where it was abundantly found. It was in the very countries where Christianity originated, from the Eastern part of the Mediterranean region through the Northern part to the South of the Alps, where most of the forests were used up by the end of the first millennium of our era. There, already in antiquity the practice of building from stone was expanding and the legions of the Roman Empire also brought it to Western Europe.
The genesis of the construction methods for Western Christian wooden churches was also more complicated. The integral synthetic recognition of this was introduced by Professor Claus Ahrens in his book on early wooden churches in Europe, where he brought together the results of archaeological research from nearly the whole Northwest third of the European continent as well as examples from other countries. He interpreted the development of church construction methods as beginning with palisade structures with walls formed by vertical posts that were dug into the earth developing into buildings with supporting members that bear the weight of the roof, and then to the discovery of the sill beam, which made it possible to build frame walls with supported panel fillings above the ground, first with studding on the inside made from hewn beams, and then later from planks. From this foundation the Northern tradition of stave churches (stavkirke) arose in Norway, whose roots had been assumed in the literature up till now to have been in England. The system of posts or staves on the continent was the foundation for the genesis of half-timbered construction, which was used as late as the 20th century in nearly all of Western Europe from England to Lower Silesia and Eastern Prussia. The roof was held up with interior posts, which then only after a long period of development became the main static weight-bearing element of the wall, upon which lay the structurally independent roof.
The flowering of Mediterranean building culture in the North in the 10th-12th centuries was connected with the Romanesque style and it advanced through Burgundy into Central Rhineland where it encountered a strong and still-developing native tradition. This tradition drew upon two sources: the Atlantic conception of “roof” buildings, formed only with curved timbers (crucks), and the Continental conception of box frame buildings that derived from palisade walls. The archaic styles of construction remained in use the longest in the Atlantic islands, including the British Isles and Iceland. Their pairs of crucks, spread apart below and connected above created an ogival arch. At the height of their eaves the arch was transected by a horizontal beam called a tie beam upon which the roof trusses were supported. According to recently-discovered but sparse archeological evidence this style of building spread along the West coast of Europe, and sporadically also into the continent’s inland regions, and clearly it was already in decline by the Middle Ages. Its advantage was in how it was able to span a larger space than either palisade or stave construction allowed for. No church has been preserved with the pure form of this type of construction, and only some few half-timber British and French churches made use of the system of curved timbers for a roof frame that replaces the ogival arch. They survived longest in Normandy and in the Champagne region. Similar elements can also be observed in British half-timbering with the thick vertical lattice of the walls and in the curved (arched) roofs of many stone buildings. Here the question arises of whether cruck construction did not stand behind the origin of the wooden Gothic churches in Western Europe that have not been preserved. Claus Ahrens only admits their influence in shaping Irish stone churches.
The synthesis of both concepts along with a certain amount of influence from the pattern of Romanesque basilicas from the 10th-11th centuries created the stave church (stavkirke) type, which has been partially preserved up until today in the southern half of Norway (up to Trondheim). Many of its elements are reminiscent of shipbuilding techniques (mortising posts into a sill frame, constructions suspended from a central mast, planks fitted into notches, etc.) and they fit perfectly into the traditions of Viking culture. Even the pre-Christian symbols of protection for the Christian society against demons, creatively formed on numerous structural elements (for example, motives of dragons and snakes on roofs and portals, Viking gods on the heads of columns in the nave, etc.) reflect this. Half-timber construction of the German type is, in the oldest preserved churches, only added onto through expansion with a stone foundation or by building a superstructure over the nave. Since the beginning of the 14th century we have evidence of small rectangular structures without a chancel. The roof was held up by posts instead of being supported by a tie frame, and the upper level was defined by medial wall-plates. With old half-timber buildings curved oak braces were used in the corners, and the wall frames created irregular panel shapes.
Ideological opposition within the Western Christian church was made manifest in the High Middle Ages with ideas of humanism among intellectuals and at the same time by revolutionary movements among the subject classes. The Czech Hussite movement became the harbinger of the reformation process in the first third of the 15th century. They created the first meeting houses (the stone Bethlehem Chapel in Prague, and the wooden church in Tábor were their prototypes) and their tradition continued uninterrupted in the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren. All the opposition movements about a century later eventuated in the reformation process that split the Church into the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant churches. The social and ideological vagaries of the Reformation created a tendency toward breaking architecture down into small and more internally articulated spaces south of the Hesse-Westphalia borderline and to building more massive forms in Lower Saxony, Brandenburg and all of Baltic Pomerania. The Protestants’ focus on an ethical reading of Biblical texts in the language of the worshippers and the limiting of ritual brought architectural features that were peculiar to their own tradition. The importance of the altar waned and the function of the pulpit grew, clerestories expanded along the southern and western walls, and the separate chancel no longer made sense and ultimately disappeared altogether. The rood beam with a sculptural group depicting Calvary also lost its original function as part of the tensile bracing of the building. The importance of the clerestories in the hall space (especially in Central and Eastern Germany) led to the elimination of the main posts and to the division of the building’s upper parts into tiers of clerestories. From the 17th century onward the carving and painting on the facades of the half timber buildings were increasingly ornate. On capacious buildings in the 18th and19th centuries the facades became more regular in their articulation of right-angled shapes. Protestant denominations were divided into those of the Lutheran type (where the altar with a theme limited to motifs of Christ with corresponding Masses of receiving bread and wine was retained) and the more radical followers of the teachings of John Calvin and Thomas Münzer, who in their houses of worship refused the altar altogether. In half timber architecture small remnants of medieval construction and artistic principles have only very rarely survived.
Log-built architecture was an original construction type all over the Northern zone of Europe and around the mid part of the first millennium it ranged from the Northeast to the Central and Southeast part of the continent. In the North it is possible to identify the Late Medieval so-called long type of church with high-pitched roofs that in Sweden (to the south of the mining region of Bergslagen, mainly in the provinces of Småland and Västergötland) overlaid where once older, small timber-framed buildings stood. In (at that time Swedish) Finland log constructions were not preserved, but in Northern Russia we can observe them in a few isolated buildings of what is known as the kletsky type of church, consisting of a three log-unit structure under three steep gabled roofs. These churches are found from Karelia and Veliky Novgorod to the Middle Volga region (differing only in the narthex/pronaos on the Western side). This is a singular example in Europe marking when the common tradition of architecture was being drawn upon by both the Western Christian and the Eastern Christian churches. The appearance of these wooden Orthodox churches was significantly different than the Byzantine central conception of the oldest stone churches in Russia, and they left their mark on the further development in the lengthwise disposition of spaces.
Likewise, in Norway there also existed a medieval tradition of full-timber architecture, which is borne witness by loft houses that have been preserved from the mid-13th century. Traces of timber churches from this period have remained only in legends and meager written sources. They have been preserved in the tradition of the hall type of church (in some places only in rudimentary forms in the architecture), according to Ola Storsletten mainly in the southwestern part of the country. We also find the same conservatism in the zone reaching from southern Sweden by the Norwegian border region up to the Gulf of Bothnia of the Baltic Sea. This South Scandinavian region is interrupted only by the economically more developed area around the city of Oslo. The post-Reformation modernization of churches in Norway, similar to Sweden, touched many areas with developing industry that brought foreign immigrants into the sparsely populated forest country (especially miners and metallurgists – in Norway Finns, in Sweden Finns and Walloons, etc.), who did not have a relationship to native traditions, so in the Swedish region known as Bergslagen (from Närke and Värmland to Southeastern Härjedalen and Eastern Jämtland) it is necessary when considering the appearance of wooden churches to classify Southeastern Norway with the north up to the southern part of the Trøndelag region. The increasing concentration of inhabitants and the need for larger churches inspired a simple technique for expanding them: the building was cut through the middle, half of it was shifted over and two new perpendicular transepts were built into the space between the halves. Thus the floor plan in the shape of a Greek cross originated, such as was being disseminated at that time by Dutch builders.
In the northern half of the continental heart of Europe where we meet with both half timber and log construction, in some places we find timber frame construction with a horizontally laid plank filling (bolehus) or a combination of log or half timber walls supported by a frame, etc. Certainly the combination of the frame and the log structure would also be evident in the Alpine countries if wooden churches had survived the Middle Ages and created a native tradition in architecture. This conjecture is supported only by the tradition of folk building in the northwest part of Switzerland.
Western Christian log churches in Central Europe did not give way to stone cathedrals in the territories lying from the Sudetes mountain range and the Western Carpathians to the north and northeast. Until the 15th and 16th centuries their builders generally maintained a floor plan with a square nave and a smaller right-angle terminated chancel with a lower roof, but already at that time they were building polygonal terminations of the chancel in some places. We may also consider the heavier sill beam rounds and the lighter timbers in the walls above it, or even the whole walls slightly angled upwards toward the center as remnants of older traditions. In Northeast Bohemia, Southern Moravia, Northern Slovakia and both the Czech and Polish parts of Upper Silesia the last remnants of what were once much more numerous wooden churches have been preserved, and these are some of the areas least affected by building innovations. Lesser Poland distinguished itself significantly with modern innovations. From the end of the 14th century urban carpenters working in the countryside introduced double-framed roofs at the same width as the narrow elongated chancel and they covered over the lower walls beneath the eaves of a wider nave with lean-to roofs underneath the end of the main roof. The church nave was thus gradually elongated into a rectangular shape. These novelties were kept in use, with local rural carpenters disseminating them. In Masovia wooden churches were visually adapted to conform to the models of stone churches. Greater Poland abounded with great innovative variety in architecture.
The Reformation overlaid all of Protestant Europe with new types of churches. From the beginning of the 17th century wartime Europe had to meet the needs of larger assemblies of worshippers (due to the concentration of military forces and workers in arms manufacturing), and therefore the need for larger churches. From the first experimental models in the Netherlands the type of church with the floor plan of a Greek cross crystallized and spread to Denmark, Norway, Sweden (in the industrial area of Bergslagen) and Finland. Theological and ideological criticism of the principle of cross-shaped churches then also necessitated other solutions for the central conception of the structure’s floor plan (elongated octagonal, polygonal, Y-shaped, etc.). It was necessary to adapt the interior space so that worshippers in every part (even in the transepts) did not lose visual contact with the altar and the face of the preacher during the expounding of Biblical texts. Another sign of the times was the introduction of clerestories by expanding the usual medieval western galleries around additional walls. Three-sided, four-sided (and in some places even two-tiered) galleries was also utilized in smaller German oblong half timber churches. The difference between the nave and the chancel gradually disappeared, and the church was becoming a prayer hall. The same Protestant trend in houses of worship was also found in Scandinavia, and crossed over to Estonia and Latvia. The Calvinist trend had similar effects in Central Europe (southeast Germany and the Alpine countries), and in Lithuania, northern Belarus, the Hungarian-Slovak borderlands, Transylvania and later also in the partially Evangelical Bohemia and Moravia. Within the Habsburg monarchy, Lithuania, and Western Belarus Protestantism was vigorously rooted out through recatholicization campaigns from the end of the 17th century. One very curious moment in the Protestant tradition was the transmission of the Reformation conception of the church’s spatial layout into the Catholic regions where Protestants after the Thirty Years’ War had gradually won for themselves a limited tolerance (in Hungary in 1681, and in Bohemia and Moravia in 1781) after the Thirty Years’ War. Extraordinary churches developed because they had to serve an extensive territory and they needed the capacity to serve a maximum of worshippers. Two unique, immense churches (so-called mírové) have been preserved in Lower Silesia, and four articular (artikulární) churches in Northern Slovakia, and one (of seven that were built) in northeastern Moravia (so-called toleranční; here the architectural plans were designed by Slovak preachers up until the end of the 18th century). Their builders found guidance mainly in Sweden where they made expeditions from Slovakia for financial assistance. Sweden in the 17th century became the political hegemon of the Protestant world in the 17th century.
The recatholicization in lands that had been affected by the Reformation reasserted Baroque elements in architecture in the 17th century, even though some Renaissance patterns were just at that time making their way into the disposition of interiors. Onion-shaped roofs, spires with lanterns, double-spired facades, decorative cornices with molded details (especially acanthus leaves), complex arches, and in the 18th century decorative painting in that period’s fashion became signs of the Baroque style. The consolidating tendencies of both sides of a confessionally divided Europe created two separate trends in the functional approach to church architecture. Protestants also used late medieval churches that they had taken over from Catholics during the Reformation. At the same time, Evangelicals in Catholic countries (mainly in Central Europe) felt the confessional limitations that were forced upon them by the state as a deep social humiliation, and as soon as the Josephine tolerance and other amendments mitigated the constraints, they began to return to their traditional layouts which up to that time had been typical only for Catholics. Protestant bodies of worshippers perceived this process as a sign of emancipation. It took place in the 19th century when they had abandoned the old traditions in building wooden churches and begun to employ the wide range of historicizing styles available for professional architectural creations, and the beginnings of individualistic modernism were just dawning.
Eastern Christian wooden churches derived from the clear-cut traditions of Byzantine stone churches. We may distinguish two basic lines of transmission: The Russian centrally planned structures and the Balkan-Carpathian with a longitudinal plan with tripartite division (narthex/pronaos, nave/naos and chancel/altar). The Russian line took the timber construction of the same kind of massive tower utilized in palisade fortifications of military camps and cities as the building’s foundation. These kinds of structures were used against raids by Tatar forces (the Orthodox nation lived up until the modern period under constant threat, as they were surrounded on a limited territory). On the eastern side a small chancel was connected to the steeple and on the western side there was a capacious vestibule (with the liturgical function of the narthex) underneath it, which in the far-reaching parish districts of the north served as a place to spend the night, for feasts held by extended families, especially for funerals, and for conducting community affairs including trials; it became known by the name of refectory (trapeznaya/трапезная). The worldly character of the narthex was expressed in its architecture with a low roof with a very slight slope, just like on residential homes. At the same time in Northern Russian areas as in the Swedish territories the tradition of log buildings under high-pitched roofs died out.
The Balkan-Carpathian line was influenced by the limitations caused by the Ottoman occupation and in the north up to the mid-18th century by Tatar Ottoman incursions from the Northern Black Sea region. Church builders had to adapt their exterior appearance to the other village structures and do without a steeple and bell. They were single log-unit or double log-unit buildings with a narrower chancel, but inside they were divided into three spaces with a partition and an iconostasis. Until recently such churches existed in Serbia, and even today many of them are still standing in Romanian Banat, Wallachia and Moldava including Bukovina (also in the Ukrainian part) and in today’s Republic of Moldova. Romanian Moldova with its great number of monasteries that were tolerated by the Ottomans is characterized by small steeples (belfries) on the entrance vestibules of wooden churches connected to the southern side of the narthex. Transylvania and the Romanian lands to its west and northwest (including the areas of Maramureş, originally also including the eastern half of what is now the Ukrainian Zakarpattia Oblast) form a transitional zone. There the archaic model of the building made from two log units with a tripartite floor plan remained and they erected a narrow steeple above the narthex based on the patterns of stone Gothic buildings in Transylvanian cities. Steeple building depended on the degree of tolerance of the local Ottoman administration, which after the Viennese defeat in 1683 slowly and gradually abandoned its power position in Hungary.
The Russian line took on many various innovative changes as a result of Nikon’s ideological reforms (1654–1656). In the north of the country the Orthodox Church was not able to keep out the architecture with one steeple, an eight-sided pyramidal roof and a large refectory underneath. The Moscow patriarch Nikon forbade refectories as a worldly element in churches and promoted the ground plan of a Greek cross and numerical symbols in the number of steeples with onion domes: the holy Trinity, Christ and the four Evangelists, the twelve apostles, etc. New regional variations developed entirely by chance and with a certain delay; mostly these were small spires around the main steeple with a dome vault inside and outside, standing on the high squared block of the nave. In Central and Southern Russia churches were also built with the ground plan of a Greek cross with short transepts and a stepped gradation upwards to the onion dome at the apex. The narthex in Russia (by contrast with the Carpathian and Balkan regions) gradually dispensed with its function of segregating women, it joined with the nave and the worldly function of the refectory was only rarely circumscribed. When the architectural canon was relaxed, elements from the Western Christian countries also appeared among the innovations, mainly at the beginning of the 18th century, when the Czar’s court was oriented toward Prussia. In the cities elements of Classicism were brought to facades of churches and high stepped bell towers that were attached to the western wall of the narthex, and above the nave developed a hemispherical roof over the dome vault, symbolizing heaven and Christ Pantocrator receiving the prayers of the faithful and bestowing his mercy upon them. These elements in places diffused all the way to southern Finland. For the Finns, Saint Petersburg as a center of innovations was in full effect in the 19th century when all of Finland belonged to Russia.
Both lines of the genesis of architecture of Eastern Christian wooden churches met near the ridge of the Carpathians and today’s Slovak-Polish-Ukrainian borderlands. In the North in Galicia churches made from three log structural units with a central steeple or a trio of stepped log constructions with the central one highest predominated. These forms crossed over the mountains to the south (originally as far as Mukachevo). From there the conception of the two log-unit church with a ridge roof and a steeple over the narthex was disseminated and likewise gradually gained predominance in the area of the Slovak Vihorlat mountain range.
We may also consider the longitudinal ordering of three log-built towers with the central one highest as one of the results of Nikon’s reforms. This form became widespread mainly in Ukraine. Their tall slim spires tower above the left bank of the Dnieper River (in some places there are three or five of them together with the central one highest, and the cathedral in Novomoskovsk has nine spires), but from the right bank of the Dnieper to the Carpathians their architecture is lower and more compact. Cross-shaped floor plans with one central steeple have been preserved on the right bank of the Dniester on the northeast side of the Carpathian bend. The whole right bank of the Dnieper belonged to Poland until the 1870s, and later the Galician part belonged to Austria. Conflicts of political interest between the bishoprics of Kiev and Moscow led to seeing possibilities for winning ecclesiastical autonomy for Western Ukraine and Belarus by establishing an independent patriarchate in Lvov. The result of doing this was the development of the new Eastern Catholic Church (also called Uniate, Greek Catholic, Byzantine Catholic or Oriental Catholic), which retained the Catholic liturgy and submitted to the authority of the Pope in Rome. It influenced the architecture of wooden churches in Belarus, Northwest Ukraine, and later also in the Transcarpathian region, Northern Romania and in the Slovak-Polish border area. The Eastern Catholic Church promoted an architecture featuring a high western tower with the three log-unit church according to the Roman Catholic model. In the westernmost reaches of Eastern Christianity this fundamentally transformed the silhouette of churches. The nave lost its dominance as the highest part of its symmetrical profile and instead of it the western tower was emphasized. With this the Christological symbolism of the nave was lost. When in the19th century the Russian occupation of Belarus and Eastern Poland renewed the Orthodox tradition, their new churches were also built with a highest western steeple. This was, however, a completely different type derived from the tradition of the so-called New Moscow style that was promoted as part of the Western European orientation of Czar Peter I. The political and cultural cooperation of the Czar’s court with Prussia opened the way for the East to classicist architecture.
Of the great number of wooden synagogues in Europe, none have been preserved. Anti-Semitic ideology caused their systematic destruction by arson in all the countries occupied by the German army in the Second World War. Most of them had stood on the territories of today’s Poland, Lithuania, Western Belarus and Ukraine. They were houses of worship with a large sacral space and multistoried vestibule. Their upper story served for the participation of women during worship services, and larger buildings had this upper area extended even to the side walls. However, visual contact between the two sexes was always rendered impossible. The architecture of synagogues in the 18th century attained a high standard. Their large buildings featured exquisitely rendered external stairways, rich roof variations on a high hipped end and complex arch structures inside. After the annexation of Galicia to Austria the position of the Jewish population worsened and many families left for Hungary (to Slovakia and then into the Magyar territories). Several wooden synagogues from Northern Slovakia have been documented because they perished after the war.
Mosques are mostly found in Europe in the Balkans where during the time of the Ottoman occupation a Muslim population settled and where some Christians converted to Islam. Therefore, until recent times wooden mosques and minarets were preserved in Bosnia, Montenegro, Kosovo and exceptionally also in Southeast Romania. These buildings ranged from miniature to vast depending on the number of worshippers. They had a square floor plan, a pyramidal roof and a division of internal space similar to that in the synagogues. An interesting compromise between Islam and Judaism is represented by the mosques of the members of the sect of Karaims. This Tatar population from the Middle Volga region was re-settled in the borderlands of Poland, Lithuania and Belarus. Two of their wooden mosques have been preserved in northeast Poland and one in Lithuania.

The second part of this book’s readership orients itself in the changes in the interior appointments of wooden churches, in the symbolism of the wall paintings and the Eastern Christian iconostasis. The parish priest, as the bearer of theological knowledge both of the popular religious conceptions and also of the official dogma of his church, had the task of designing the whole liturgical environment. Some educated priests created sophisticated iconological programs for the paintings inside their churches and for the altar, and some of them were able to implement designs that were faithful to the traditions that had been handed down for centuries among their parishioners. Painters (and in Roman Catholic churches also sculptors) mostly worked in stone churches and their creations were dependent on models given within established styles. The level of the masters’ instruction was various. It was usually the main master who took commissions, and in the area where he was to work he found assistants who already had some experience in wall painting. These assistants learned from doing this work and perhaps later accepted jobs themselves in less demanding locales. They used sketches that they had copied and enlarged and templates that the master protected against theft by his competitors.
In some places pre-Christian ideas about the functions of the church survived from the Middle Ages, and cosmological or mythological symbols were depicted. The northern side was considered to be the one most threatened by the activities of demons from outside, and it was therefore reserved for women, which was supposed to reinforce the idea of females as the bearers of original sin, etc. The eastern part emanated spiritual power and it was necessary to fortify the western with symbols that would prevent the intrusion of diabolical beings. Throughout history it is possible to track the progression from abstractly grasped symbols to the concreteness of narrative tableaux. The central thematic cycle in the chancel was taken from the life of Christ. It usually moves toward depiction of the Crucifixion on the east walls and on the tie beam in the triumphal arch. Gradually, themes of the Nativity, Resurrection, Transfiguration, etc. faded into the background. Byzantine Theotokos icons of the Hodegetria type (placed on the north wall of the royal doors of the iconostasis) became the precursor of Gothic depictions of Virgin Mary with Jesus in her arms and this theme developed into many different semblances especially in Roman Catholic areas. The illustration of subjects in round medallions derived from the Romanesque-Gothic traditions of England and later from French Gothic painting. In Central and Eastern Europe the predominant influences from Northwest Italy enriched a late Byzantine foundation with early Renaissance elements from the Quattro cento period. They left their mark on both the Byzantine tradition in Eastern Christian regions and also some Western Christian areas in the Eastern Alps and in the Carpathians. The Italian Renaissance had its greatest effect on Catholic Central Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. It supplied patterns and images that offered inspiration in composition and shape (painted and other graphic illustrations were disseminated by the evolving field of book printing), and where they went, they brought the colorful atmosphere of the era with them. Where once individual scenes and their cycles were divided one from another only with lines, in the 17th and 18th centuries entire walls were covered with compositions centered in richly ornamented frames and illusionistic paintings of Renaissance architecture. The motif of the Last Judgment had a particular importance (in both Western and Eastern Christianity), and it was put onto the western wall of churches. There, often naturalistically rendered scenes of the torments of Hell admonished worshippers leaving the house of God and re-entering the sinful world to eschew diabolical temptations. In the Lutheran Church (especially in northern Europe) this subject was engaged as the polar opposite of the Original Sin of Adam and Eve that was placed on the eastern part of the triumphal arch. Wall painting is not found in Calvinist cathedrals, in synagogues and in mosques.
It would seem that the Eastern Christian tradition covered the most extensive territory with wooden churches that drew upon a single architectural conception. However, with their own stratification of reform movements and overlapping cultural currents, in some areas a diverse mosaic of various kinds of building forms took shape. Additionally, alongside the Christian churches in many country towns they were also building synagogues and mosques, and structures were made of both wood and stone. Just like in the Western Christian world there the old traditions were also broken down and only some of their elements survived into the modern era of architecture. Wood as a building material did not lose significance even in the 20th century. Especially in Northern and Eastern Europe many architects used it and thanks to new technical methods for joining logs they created works of high aesthetic quality as individual designs. In the 19th century they drew upon traditional forms and in the 20th century they raised them up to vertical monumentality of spatial freedom, and the illumination was focused on the main symbol of the dominant eastern side. Thus was created a type of space that was mostly demystified, where people could concentrate as individuals on solving their own problems in life without barriers among the social classes - or even sometimes between spirituality and worldliness.

The third part of this section describes the jobs of the builders. The natural conditions that provided for the various species composition of timber trees were of great importance. Their quality influenced the manner of carpentry work, the construction of joints, the wood’s resistance to climatic influences or biological pests and thus also the durability of the churches. In some Central and East European environments repairs and reconstructions were frequent. In the north, in Scandinavia, they had wood that was dense, resinous, and easily workable and which had a significantly longer durability. This is borne witness by the Norwegian stave churches from the 11th –13th centuries. In the South Carpathian and Balkan areas they used mostly hard, heavy oak. From this material they hewed out lightened high and narrow beams which were actually more like planks, with which they were able to timber the walls of their churches. Only the sill beam round was usually made from a full trunk of significant girth. In the Northern Carpathians the wood most commonly used was massive pines and larches, whose durability was also considerable (they have commonly endured from the 15th century). Pine in the Polish lowlands just as in the north of the continent provided a high quality material, but beams made from it had a fairly small profile and in simple corner joints without any overhang there was a greater risk of destruction of the walls. Therefore they were usually pressed together with wall bonding ties, which are two vertical beams on either side of the wall that are bolted together. In Northern Scandinavia only low trees that produce short lumber grow, so it was necessary to somehow elongate the walls. Besides the not-so-sturdy lengthwise lap joints used in northern Sweden and Finland another method of configuring walls was with the help of log-box buttresses into which they carved joints to fit in the wall parts. Construction timber had been transported since the Middle Ages at great distances by floating it down riverways and – mainly – on ships (for example, from Norway to Iceland). In this way the direction of trade was also determined, usually from mountainous areas to plains, for example from Dnieper all the way to the Ukrainian Black Sea, from the Carpathian rivers to the lower watershed of the Danube and Tisza, and along the Oder and Labe to Silesia, Brandenburg and Lower Saxony, so that in the lowlands where in the Middle Ages they had already exploited the suitable stands of oak, they later utilized fir and spruce wood brought in from the mountains. When the material changed, they generally did not alter the tradition as it had been handed down: for example, corner overhangs, originally used when building with oak, maple or (probably as a substitute material) beech, which splinters too easily, continued to be used even when they were building with spruce, larch and fir.
In Western Europe there is a well-known tradition of deliberately training oaks so that the trees’ natural branches grow into equal-armed curves for use in constructions that require crucks or for corner braces on half-timber walls. Even carpenters’ tools were not the same throughout Europe. It seems that in the Middle Ages there was a subtle difference in the types of axes for various types of work. In some countries carpenters worked until recently with only a small bearded axe called bradatice. They got by with this tool on both cruck and half timber buildings, but in Scandinavia carpenters also hewed beams with it for timber constructions. Central European carpentry was distinguished by the use of a wide and heavy pole axe (širočina) with an offset eye that holds the haft at an angle, which makes it more suitable for working on massive tree trunks. The carpenter’s craft moved towards precision in hewing flat services on all four sides of the trunk. This was limited by the thickness of the beam, so that in buildings made from thinner material they hewed only contact surfaces (and in some places not even these) and walls were covered with panels. These kinds of arrangements gradually became the accepted practice for all timber churches in Europe from the mid-18th century. They likewise had aesthetic justification in the attempt to conform the appearance of wood churches to that of stone cathedrals.
Similarly to the painters, master carpenters also had various levels of knowledge and experience. They were usually trained when doing work for the privileged classes: on castles, palaces and monasteries. On stone buildings they executed only the roofs, courtyard galleries, or perhaps interior appointments. When they built a country wooden church they were given some local assistant construction workers. These men usually built their peasant homesteads from wood, but the way they finished, for example, beam joints was simpler than the way they were executed by professional urban carpenters. A particular specialty was stave or half timber buildings along the sea coasts. There, in practice, master carpenters’ work was heavily influenced by the field of shipbuilding, where the carpenters gained training and experience. We can observe this m most clearly in Norway in the construction of stave and mast churches. Likewise in Sweden various innovations to the simple methods for constructing medieval log-built village churches were brought into inland regions by masters from the shipyards. After the Swedes’ wars on the continent they founded the main shipyard for their naval fleet in the middle of the Western Finnish coast of the Gulf of Bothnia. It was in that environment beginning at the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries that most of the leading builders of Swedish and Finnish wooden churches were trained.

The second part of this book is devoted to wooden bell towers. In our conception of a bell tower we think of a specific kind of structure that serves only or primarily for holding the bells and for using them (ringing), and the structure is placed independently rather than being part of a church building. They do, however, stand nearby to the church or at least have a functional relationship with it. Cases may very exceptionally be found where a structure with the character and dimensions typical for a bell tower are found in a village where there is no church (though this rule of thumb is frequently broken in Dutch Friesland). The absence of a church is, rather, typical for community (or funeral) bell towers and – usually diminutive – community bells, which are widespread in many European countries.
Bell towers are a peculiar type of building, structures of a technical nature that stand on the border between sacred and profane functions; nevertheless, those functions connected with the church were always the most important ones. On the one hand they announced worship services and other ecclesiastical matters, and on the other hand they were utilized when defense for the area around the church (whether real or symbolic) became necessary. In these cases the belfry could be used as a defense tower or, at the same time, as a town gate; however, it could mainly serve as a watchtower. In civilian life the bell tower was significant chiefly as a source of acoustic announcement of information (the time) or of warnings (fire, enemy invasion). Mixing together or confusing the concept of the “bell tower” with church steeples that are a direct part of a church building is not appropriate, for thanks to its detached placement the function of the bell tower was broader (defense tower, town gate) than the function of the steeple, whether it was built at the same time as the church or was added on at a later time. Bell towers additionally very often differed from steeples not only in terms of their materials and architecture, but also the means of their constructional. There are, of course, some cases where a structure with the appearance and especially the proportions for a bell tower is added on to a church, most often to its front. But then we are speaking about “added on” bell towers. In order to get an integrated overview with all the relevant connections, the book discusses wooden and half timber bell towers and steeples added onto stone or half timber churches as well as independent bell towers that are partially made from wood or from stone, so long as they are typical for the countryside in a particular region.
The area where wooden bell towers can still be found today in Europe is not the same as the area where there are still wooden churches, but it also reaches into regions where wooden churches have already completely vanished, or perhaps where they formed a minority of ecclesiastical structures even in the Middle Ages. On the other side, wooden bell towers are not found in a great many regions where even in wooden churches are to be found even in the present day. In some areas wooden churches are characteristically unaccompanied either by bell towers or by steeples. In others again the construction of wooden church steeples (in combination with wooden, half timber or even stone constructions of the church itself) was preferred and we do not meet with independently standing bell towers at all, or only exceptionally and more often than not they were a temporary or makeshift solution.
The introductory part of this section treats the typology of bell tower construction and the interrelationships among construction, tectonics, and architecture. The structure of the bell tower must be capable of bearing not only the static load of its own construction and the weight of the bell, but also the dynamic strain that is produced when it swings (in Russia where they ring bells by moving only the clapper, this factor is irrelevant). The construction of a typical wooden bell tower therefore has two more or less independent component parts: the “construction”, consisting of the structural materials and the building’s outer covering, and the “bell bearing” part, which of course holds the bells. The range of building plans for European wooden bell towers is uncommonly wide; nonetheless it is possible to divide them into several basic types (with a great many subtypes). The first is a strut-framed construction with posts lined up in one row and buttressed (braced) by systems of oblique stays. Only this type of construction fully meets the needs of the bell tower. A second type is timber box-frame construction, where the foundation is made with four corner posts (sometimes also with more posts in the middle), mutually braced against one another. It is assumed that box-framed bell towers developed from wooden box-framed towers of a defensive type, which (for example, in Lesser Poland and Eastern Galicia) is reflected in the survival of an overhanging uppermost story with a machicolation. Box-frame construction enables the building of very high towers and belfries which can then fulfill the role of watchtowers. From the point of view of static engineering, however, this type of high edifice has less resistance to the dynamic strain caused by the bells ringing. There are also, of course, bell towers with a mixed box-and -strut-frame construction where both construction methods are used together on the same structure and they statically reinforce one another. However, in the case of prismatic bell towers with an embedded strut-brace construction both parts of the construction are separate. In Ukraine, Belarus and Eastern Poland bell towers are typically found with a log ground floor and timber-framed upper story. In Russia there are only log-built bell towers, which developed from log defense towers. They achieve a remarkable height, which was made possible mainly because the bells are not set to swinging when they are rung and dynamic forces therefore do not work upon the structure.
Although the construction of wooden bell towers has been significantly predetermined by their architecture, in the final analysis it is really a matter of making choices. The architectural shaping of the construction could, but did not have to respect this. Looking from the outside, we cannot recognize what form of construction has been used to build a bell tower. Bell towers that from the outside seem to be the same or very similar may in reality be entirely different in their internal bell-bearing construction. A rigorously tectonic architecture, which most fully meets the needs of the construction would be a hexagonal strut-framed bell tower, whether with an open bell-bearing story (in Bohemia) or without a plank facade (in Southeast Sweden). This type of bell towers also represents the European climax in the development of wooden bell towers as typologically and architecturally distinct structures.
Even the largest and highest bell towers can hold only a limited number of bells, which could be just as well held by a small, low bell saddle. The advantage of a higher structure is, from a purely utilitarian point of view, raising the place from where the sound of the bell carries, and therefore covering a greater range with their sound.
The development of bell towers of course was by no means contingent upon merely “utilitarian” functions. Among other reasons, this is because it was always part of the surroundings of the church, and aspects of ecclesiastical symbolism, but also the church prestige and renown and not least of all also its defense (hence the watchtower function) came into play. Regional architectural traditions also had a significant role in shaping them.
Efforts at compiling information on the development of bell towers, whether they are analyzed within the framework of Europe as a whole or within individual regions, have until this time come up against insufficient knowledge of them. This book is the first attempt at a detailed introduction to bell towers in all parts of Europe which is, however, limited by most of the bell towers not having been examined, let alone dendrochronologically dated. We are additionally limited by the fact that the majority of bell towers that still exist today come from the final phase of their development, mainly from the 16th –19th centuries, whereas from the 19th century at the latest wooden bell towers were a type of building that was already on the wane, increasingly replaced by masonry structures, especially church steeples. This process did not have the same intensity in all countries. Whereas, for example in Sweden, Poland and Ukraine a great many bell towers have survived into the present age, in England only a few last ones remain: those, of course, of exceptional distinction and age. They prove that even there the construction of bell towers must have been much more widespread in the past. The origin of bell towers as a type of building took place at the latest in the 14th – 15th centuries, but for this period we are able to locate only a handful of authentic sources. On a tapestry from a church in the locality of Skog in Sweden (Hälsingland), created in the 12th century, a wooden bell tower, probably of cruck construction, is fairly apposite, though schematically portrayed. There is thus no doubt that in the 12th century wooden bell towers were a well known type of structure in Sweden. Already at the end of the 12th century or the beginning of the 13th century the box-framed block of a bell tower that still stands to this day in the English village of (Kent), from the 13th century in Pembridge (Herefordshire) and in the 14th and 15th centuries a great part of those English wooden bell towers that still exist, including those that were added on to their supporting structures. Dendrochronologically dating provides for great hope, and can lead to unexpected discoveries. For example, it has been possible to push back the age of a bell tower in the city of Dorfmark in Lower Saxony from 1751 to 1518 and an added-on bell tower in Meinerdingen has been re-dated from circa 1500 to 1383.
The greatest share of space here has been reserved for introducing, so far as possible, all the types and the main variations of bell towers in individual historical regions of Europe. In the West, England represents a distinctive region for wooden bell towers, along with the northern French regions of Champagne a Normandy. Relatively few bell towers have been preserved here, however those that remain belong among the oldest. Friesland comprises an independent region. For Central Friesland in the territory of today’s Netherlands both small open wooden strut-framed bell towers and also trestle frame constructions (without central posts) are typical, as well as noteworthy brick bell towers whose core territory lies in the part of Eastern Frisia which is now part of Lower Saxony in Germany. This is the only area in Europe where stone bell towers copy the basic pattern of strut-framed wooden bell towers. Northwest Germany (Lower Saxony, Schleswig-Holstein) represents another independent region which also encompasses neighboring Denmark. Here large four-sided bell towers with battered walls form the majority, but we also find here remarkable open strut-framed bell towers. The island of Bornholm also belongs to this region with its stone or half-stone bell towers. In Northeast Germany (Mecklenburg, Western Pomerania, Brandenburg) and in regions of what is today Northwest Poland (Farther Pomerania) and farther east, besides smaller open strut-framed bell towers, they are almost exclusively massive added-on four-sided wooden steeples and bell towers that in Eastern Prussia reach extreme vertical proportions. Wooden bell towers appear (only to a small extent and on a limited territory) also in Central Germany (the Harz mountain range between Thuringia, Saxony-Anhalt and Lower Saxony). Another great territory is historical Poland, which is possible to divide into several historical regions: (Greater Poland, Kujawy, Masovia, and Lesser Poland) and the easternmost parts (Podlachia) where it borders with Lithuania and Belarus. Here, medium-sized fairly simple block-shaped bell towers predominate; only in Lesser Poland do we find large four-sided bell towers with an overhanging bell story and usually also battered walls. Lithuania is, in this regard, a very rich land, where bell towers have achieved a remarkable typological variety.
In Scandinavia the most important land is Sweden, whose influence is also reflected in Finland, though not in Norway, where bell towers on the one hand are hardly to be found, and on the other have an entirely disparate, rather utilitarian appearance and log construction. Swedish bell towers can be divided into several basic groups. Cruck bell towers are the most archaic, and they show the same line of descent as the Scandinavian cruck and mast churches. The modern application of a cruck foundation in the 17th and 18th centuries there developed a particular type of so-called Jämtland Baroque bell towers, whose creators are even mostly known to us. In Southeast Sweden, on the other hand, open strut-frame bell towers of extraordinary height are predominant, and their medieval countenance is often underlined by their steep Gothic roofs. In Southwest Sweden bell towers with strut-frame construction are also predominant, but they are generally smaller and usually externally timbered. Northern Sweden developed together with Finland. Although in Finland there do exist bell towers with strut-frame construction, since the 17th century their development was entirely subordinated to models of stone architecture in period styles. The stepped bell tower with a narrow upper story and with accentuated wooden arcades, which were often blind, became the characteristic type. Both parts of the roof gained Baroque shapes. The influence of this architectural style then led to the octagonal shape first of the bell-bearing story, and then eventually of the whole structure. Nowhere else in Europe was the overall architectural expression of wooden bell towers so significantly influenced by Baroque stylistic elements. In the 19th century a great number of wooden bell towers with rich classicist or historicizing wooden ornamentation on their facades were built in Finland.
In Silesia, which today lies mostly within the borders of Poland, built-on wooden steeples and bell towers are most typical, but here we can also find the last examples of independently standing bell towers, which were much more numerous in the past. Bohemia represents a noteworthy region from the point of view of the incidence of bell towers. Along with Swedish Uppland this is a region in which many more wooden bell towers have been preserved than wooden churches. Bohemia is characterized by great typological luxuriance and bell towers here reached one of their developmental climaxes. In neighboring Moravia, on the other hand, there are no wooden bell towers and even in the past they were not typical; though exceptionally here we may find a Renaissance attic wooden bell tower. A very significant area for wooden bell towers is to be found in the territory of historic Hungary. The first such region is in the south of today’s Central Slovakia reaching across the border onto the Hungarian side. Bell towers are fairly large here, and have a stepped form. Another area is the northeast Hungarian area of Upper Tisza river basin (which reaches into present-day Romanian and the Ukrainian Transcarpathian territories) and the ethnically Hungarian part of Romanian Transylvania. Here bell towers developed into a distinctive regional type. They have a box-frame construction, a stepped shape and above all, significant height with extreme verticality. One of their typical elements (along with the local, mostly Romanian Eastern Christian churches) is a steep roof with corner spires.
Another independent region is Eastern Galicia (Red Ruthenia) on the borderlands of Western Ukraine and Poland. Similarly as in Lesser Poland massive, high four-sided bell towers with battered walls and overhanging bell-bearing stories are typical, and the towers often have a notably defensive character. Some of them were later accessorized with Baroque additions, which further enhance their architectural attractiveness. High prism-shaped bell towers without an overhanging bell story and with four-sided stepped bell towers are also typical. In the adjacent mountainous areas of the Central Carpathians, on both sides of the mountain range’s divide bell towers influenced by the more recent forms of Greek Catholic cathedral architecture predominate, and this is manifested not only in their wealth of forms with an emphasis on pyramidal narrowing of their shape as they go up, but also in the vogue for octahedral shapes of the upper part of the structure. Their lowest level is almost always built from logs. On the northern side of the Carpathians a distinct type of stepped bell tower developed with a ground floor built from logs and a box-framed upper part with an overhanging bell-bearing story and the Ukrainian type of large bell tower with a log core surrounded by multi-storied open galleries also reached there. Bell towers typical for the Ukrainian Carpathians continue on in the direction of Bukovina and Moldavia, where their proportions become more horizontal and their shapes are more simplified, flatter, and bell towers with octahedral shapes are strongly predominant. In Moldavia as a result of the Ottoman restrictions on the construction of church steeples a specific type of bell tower above the narthex developed. Volhynia, Podolia and Central and Northern Ukraine also represent, from the point of view of bell towers a very interesting area, even though many of them perished during the course of the 20th century. Here Central and Northern Ukraine also represent from the point of view of bell towers very interesting regions, even though during the 20th century many of the structures perished. Bell towers with a log base and a stepped shape predominate. Here, similarly as in Belarus in the 19th century, the so-called New Moscow style was brought to bear, which gave the bell towers and steeples a significant height and a stepped form, with classicist or historicizing morphology.
Orthodox Russia represents a rather peculiar region, characterized by very tall and slender bell towers of log construction and either a partially or fully octahedral form. From the 18th century bell towers were often built on in front façade of churches and this trait is typical for the most recently built on bell towers and steeples in the New Moscow style. In Central Russia wooden bell towers were nearly superseded by masonry bell towers (which usually have the same shape). We can find preserved bell towers mainly in Northern Russia (especially in the Archangelsk area and in Karelia), but here also most of the structures perished during the 20th century.
This regional overview indicates that wooden bell towers are a typical element in almost the entire northern half of Europe, which includes areas that are traditionally Catholic as well as those that underwent the Reformation, and Eastern Christian territories. It is clear that in the various parts of Europe where high quality building wood was available wooden bell towers developed and evolved independently, as the most natural solution to a concrete functional need. At the same time, the choice of wooden construction cannot be understood as having been made from frugality or the pressure of necessity, for wood, thanks to its flexibility, is actually more suitable than masonry for the construction of bell towers. When they are regularly maintained wooden structures demonstrate comparable longevity with those made from bricks or stone and mortar. Therefore, it is no coincidence that wooden bell towers are found accompanying many stone churches. In some places bell towers remained merely utilitarian objects, but in others they gained the status of full-fledged structures with significance and architectural value alongside the church. In any case, bell towers as a particular typological species deserve further attention, which will enable us to recognize and understand them in the widest possible context.

Wood is a material that is very vulnerable. The number of wooden churches and bell towers has decreased not only for the natural reason of having been replaced by more durable churches constructed from masonry, but they have also often been destroyed in fires. These, unfortunately, are continuing even in present times, and we sometimes even encounter the deliberate destruction of the structures due to a deficiency in understanding the value that is hidden in these historical monuments. In the concluding part of this book an example is given of the losses from recent times in the territories of Poland and Western Ukraine; however, Russia has been marked by the greatest number of such losses.
Church space delimited by wooden walls usually subconsciously turns our minds to the natural pith of human events and to an intimacy in perceiving life’s questions. It strengthens the intensity of the effects of works of art. They also were similarly, but even more intensively and immediately by the past generations, for whom these churches were built. Let us try to grasp the genesis of the value of wooden churches and bell towers. This kind of understanding reveals a wide intercultural linkage among many parts of our continent and strengthens the feeling of sharing common roots and also mutual connectedness. May this book help to preserve one of the most vulnerable links in the cultural heritage of Europe.