>>>The island of wooden churches

The island of wooden churches

The wooden temples and houses of Kizhi Island, in the north of Russia’s Lake Onega, have won the battle against time, weather and history.
F
lying rapidly across the surface of Lake Onega, several hydrofoils carry tourists from Petrozavodsk to the Kizhi archipelago every day. The most famous islands of the 1,650 that are dotted around Lake Onega are home to over 80 churches and other wooden buildings. Some of them date back to the 14th century and others were moved here from various towns in the Russian region of Karelia, which borders Finland.
In northern Europe, the predominance of a building technique using wood and no nails created stunning churches like the one at Borgund, in Norway.

Other wooden churches

Featuring different styles, whether Catholic, Orthodox or of another Christian faith, beautiful surviving wooden churches can be found scattered throughout Norway, Russia, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, Poland, Romania and Chile. From the Viking stave churches of Urnes and Borgund, decorated with dragons, to the Gothic ones in Maramures and Malopolska.

The whole group of buildings is an open-air architectural and ethnographic museum protected by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. However, it is Kizhi Pogost (a parochial site) that most tourists who have disembarked after a crossing of over an hour want to visit. The 22 domes made of birch wood of the Church of the Transfiguration (Preobrazhensky) and the nine of the Church of the Intercession surprise visitors with the beauty of their carving and the grandeur of their architecture, which dates back to the 18th century. The unique decorative shapes carved in pine wood, the adjacent clock tower, the small cemetery and the collection of Orthodox frescoes and icons complete the charm of the visit. The reason why two churches were built side by side is purely functional; in winter it’s cheaper to heat a small church. That’s why some guides differentiate between them by calling them the summer church and the winter church.
Although they were restored several times during the 19th and 20th centuries, their survival seems almost magical. It’s no surprise that they are surrounded by legends. The most famous tells how the chief carpenter used just one magic axe to build the Church of the Transfiguration. Once the work was finished, he threw it into the lake so that no one else would be able to build an identical church. Since then, this Excalibur of carpentry has rested at the bottom of the lake.
The petroglyphs of animals and humans found on the rocks at Kizhi are between 4,000 and 6,000 years old.

The petroglyphs of Kizhi

The islands of the Kizhi archipelago, on Lake Onega, have been inhabited for thousands of years. 1,200 rock drawings have been found on the rocks that date back to the first quarter of the second millennium BC. The petroglyphs are carved in stone and represent human beings, animals, boats and geometric figures.

The temples of Kizhi were built on an island to protect them from incursions by its Swedish and Polish neighbours. Thanks to this isolation, they are part of one of the few examples that remain of architecture made from local wood in the rural areas of north Russia and Scandinavia. The abundance of wood and the lack of knowledge about Roman construction techniques using stone meant that this type of building became widespread. The predominance of a construction technique that didn’t use hammers or nails created beautiful examples of civil and religious architecture up to the 18th century. However, fires, vandalism and the abandonment during the Soviet era later condemned many of them to ruin.
Because it’s a very cold region in winter, the inhabitants used the small churches because they were easier to heat.
The island is a regular stop for cruise ships that sail along the channel between Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Visiting Kizhi is like immersing yourself in the life of 19th-century rural communities. As well as the churches, its six kilometres also boast cottages, mills, workshops, stables, barns, bell towers and saunas. All made of wood. If touching wood really does bring luck, then visitors couldn’t be more fortunate.

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