Searching for the national style in the architecture of the Belarusian Orthodox churches

Dmitry Ostroumov. 2017.
The report was read at a meeting of representatives of the Belarusian Orthodox Church and ministries and departments of the Republic of Belarus, November 15, 2016.
Храм Покрова Пресвятой Богородицы. Минск><meta itemprop=
Protection of the Holy Mother of God church in Minsk
Today, the national self-determination of the Belarusian culture plays an important role in the development of our society. Looking into the future, it is of crucial importance to focus on the historical, moral and spiritual traditions of the people. This is what has always helped to crystallize the true images of our culture.

Belarusian church architecture is one of our main orientation points. It expresses the focus of the spiritual and socio-cultural foundations of the Belarusian people. And now, perhaps more than ever, it is necessary to have a clear image of the Belarusian temple. It has always been and remains an important symbol of the national culture. The definition of this image goes together with the national idea and the course of the society's development.

I am going to talk about Orthodox temples. Agreement on cooperation between the Republic of Belarus and the Belarusian Orthodox Church says the following: "The Church is one of the most important social institutions. Its historical experience, spiritual potential and centuries-old cultural heritage have had a great impact in the past. They are currently exerting a significant influence on the formation of the spiritual, cultural and national traditions of the Belarusian people". And the temple, as you know, is the repository and focus of these traditions. They are expressed in its architectural environment and iconography. It can be said that the image of the Belarusian Orthodox church is the image of the entire Belarusian culture. So, understanding this image is very important for understanding our culture and its development. This is all the more relevant knowing that for a modern person visual perception is more and more important than verbal. The Church is called to maintain stability, unity and peace on our Belarusian land, and to preserve our spiritual and cultural values. But it can do it not only in the verbal, but also in the figurative and symbolic field. Its center is the Orthodox temple.

The development of the Orthodox art and, in particular, church building, doesn't only mean an increase in the number of churches. Sometimes the quality of new churches leaves much to be desired. There is a need for educational programs in the fields of science and the development of historical and cultural heritage. This is the way to increase interest in Orthodox art and provide the state and the Church with educated professionals. And this is important, because, as in icon painting, in designing churches it is not enough to know the rules and regulations. The artist has to be involved in the life of the Church. It is interesting that graduates of theological schools in icon painting are considered clergy of the Church. The temples are also the spatial icons. But they are sometimes designed by people who are far from Church life. Often these architects do not understand the theological foundations of church building. But we hope that this area of church art will develop. By the way, I would like to quote the words of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill. At a meeting with abbots and abbesses, held in September of this year, he said that "it is necessary to educate both architects and icon painters". He mentioned that a lot of work is being done with icon painters in theological schools. At the same time "there's not much going on with architects yet. But temple design is a new and very important trend in our architectural community". The Patriarch added that "if this trend continues, we will need to think about theological education for architects." I would like to add that it is also important for clergy to understand the basics of Christian art. Those who order the design of new churches are usually the priests. But the churches, like icons, are not a matter of the customer's taste (or the lack of it). They are among the main symbols of the nation's culture.

In this context, Belarusian Orthodox Church and state structures can think of some joint activities. It can be the creation of methodological manuals and educational programs, the holding of conferences. They can reflect the recommendations and principles of church building in Belarus. Both the clergy and the architects and artists can take part in such activities. And of course, the work of the diocesan art committee is very important here, besides its main functions.

So, what are the genuine examples of the Belarusian churches? What traditions of church building should be followed in the Belarusian sacred architecture?

I would like to begin with one remark. It is clear that church architecture should develop, that it is appropriate to apply some modern architectural ideas in it. But let's say that this development should be rooted in tradition. The traditional architecture and its best examples are the foundation on which the modern church can be built. But, in following the tradition, simple copying and thoughtless quotations from the past should be avoided.

Today I am not going into the theological problems of church building. But let us define several directions of the search for the image of the Belarusian church.

The first one focuses on the image of the pre-Mongolian period churches. This includes such Belarusian landmarks as the Transfiguration church of the Polatsk Monastery or Saints Boris and Gleb church in Hrodna. Although unique, they are close in style to some churches in Chernihiv, Kyiv, Smolensk, Novgorod and Pskov.

Спасо-Преображенский собор. Полоцк. Реконструкция. Первоначальный вид.><meta itemprop=
Transfiguration church. Polatsk. Restoration. Original appearance.
Спасо-Преображенский собор. Полоцк. Современный вид.><meta itemprop=
Transfiguration church. Polatsk. Modern appearance.
Пятницкий храм в Чернигове.><meta itemprop=
Saint Paraskeva church in Chernihiv.
Храм в честь Архангела Михаила. Смоленск. Реконструкция><meta itemprop=
Saint Archangel Michael church. Smolensk. Restoration.
Пятницкий храм в Новгороде. Реконструкция><meta itemprop=
Saint Paraskeva church in Novgorod. Restoration.
Борисоглебский храм. Гродно. Современный вид.><meta itemprop=
Saints Boris and Gleb church. Hrodna. Modern appearance.
Борисоглебский храм. Гродно. Реконструкция.><meta itemprop=
Saints Boris and Gleb church. Hrodna. Restoration.
Борисоглебский храм. Чернигов.><meta itemprop=
Saints Boris and Gleb church. Chernihiv.
Михайловский собор. Киев. Реконструкция.><meta itemprop=
Saint Archangel Michael Cathedral. Kyiv. Restoration.
In some ways the restored image of Saint Sophia Cathedral in Polatsk can also be attributed here. Today it is not easy to come to an unambiguous conclusion about its original form. In any case it can be regarded together with the Kyiv and Novgorod Saint Sophia Cathedrals. The mentioned Belarusian churches have much in common with the 11th - 13th centuries churches throughout Old Rus. This indicates the common principles of church building during this period. Modern Belarusian architects can focus on that period. Doing so, it is worth considering the churches in the mentioned regions of nowadays Russia and Ukraine too.
Софийский собор в Полоцке. Реконструкция. Макет.><meta itemprop=
Saint Sophia Cathedral in Polatsk. Restoration. Model.
Софийский собор в Киеве. Реконструкция. Макет.><meta itemprop=
Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv. Restoration. Model.
Софийский собор в Новгороде.><meta itemprop=
Saint Sophia Cathedral in Novgorod.
However, the Transfiguration Church of the Polatsk Monastery is truly unique. It is an irrefutable symbol of the early Belarusian church architecture in the early Christian Rus period.
Спасо-Преображенский собор. Полоцк. Реконструкция.><meta itemprop=
Transfiguration Church, Polatsk. Restoration.
Let's discuss another direction in the search for the image of the Belarusian church. It is connected to the idea of a temple-fortress dating back to the 14th-16th centuries. These churches combined liturgical and defensive functions. This had not only a practical, but also symbolic justification. Starting from the 11th century, in European architecture there is a trend to build churches with four towers. These towers allowed the church to be used as a castle during the siege. If one tower is not taken, the whole church is not yet conquered. The territories of modern Germany are the birthplace of such buildings. The best that there was, that is, high-quality and durable material was given to God for the construction of the church. And in times of war local people could find protection inside the church.
Архангельский собор в Хиндесхайме. Германия. 1033г.><meta itemprop=
Saint Michael's Church, Hildesheim, 1033
Архангельский собор в Хиндесхайме. Германия. 1033г.><meta itemprop=
Saint Michael's Church, Hildesheim, 1033. Restoration.
As you know, after the 16th century Greek Catholicism began to spread. The Western influence on the frontier territories of the Russian lands was often expressed not at all in diplomacy, but in aggression. It is known that at that time a lot of the Orthodox in Belarusian lands suffered from the Uniates and Catholic military orders. Then, as now, the Orthodox constituted the majority of the population. The temples-fortresses were conceived as both spatial and ideological refuge. Their image carried a symbol of the impregnability of faith, the preservation of the traditions. They also guided the thoughts towards the Heavenly City. Today it is also possible to draw some parallels with those times. We know the importance of preserving one's culture, history, religion, socio-cultural, spiritual and moral paradigms that determine the healthy development of society. Thus, the symbol of the temple-fortress must be taken into account when talking about the image of the Belarusian church. Three main Belarusian historical buildings can be the examples. The first is Saint Archangel Michael church in Synkavichy. The second is the Nativity of the Mother of God church in Muravanka. The third is the slightly later Transfiguration Church in Zaslauje. It may seem that the church in Ishkaldz is like them too. However, it rather belongs to Western Gothic models with its buttresses and pointed-arched portals.
Храм Архангела Михаила в Сынковичах. Беларусь.><meta itemprop=
Saint Archangel Michael church in Synkavichy. Belarus.
Храм в честь Рождества Божией Матери. Мурованка. Беларусь.><meta itemprop=
Nativity of the Mother of God church in Muravanka. Belarus.
Преображенский храм. Заславль. Беларусь.><meta itemprop=
Transfiguration Church in Zaslauje. Belarus.
Without going into much detail, let's mention some other directions in the search for the image of the Belarusian church. They happen at the aesthetic and secular levels, rather than cultural and spiritual. This is because they focus on the examples of the 18th - 19th centuries, marked by a certain secularization of spiritual culture. This was the period of spiritual shift towards Europe and as copying Western models. This significantly diminished the originality and purity of our culture and faith. Thus during the era of European humanism, the corresponding models of architecture came to our lands. There were copies of ancient Roman architecture with its orders, pediments and entablature. There was often the return to the basilica or pillarless type, instead of the traditional cross-domed structure. The image of the palace replaced the spiritual image of the church. The motifs of the earthly palace and of secular architecture in general were transferred to churches. This detracted from their liturgical meaning a lot. In Baroque and Neoclassicism, allegorical scenes from Classical mythology could be actively used. There was even some theatricality and excessive decorative embellishment. This was in serious conflict with the traditional Orthodox view of architectural iconography. Thus, in the 18th - 19th centuries, the sacred content of the architectural image of the temple was largely lost. We should not ignore the significance of the churches of that period. We should preserve them carefully. But I would like to note that they cannot in any way act as true guidelines in our research.
Римский пантеон><meta itemprop=
Roman Pantheon.
Characteristic churches and other buildings:
1. Unrealized project of the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow.
2. Palace of Rumyantsev and Paskevich family. Homel, Belarus
3. Church in the city clinical hospital. Moscow.
4. Resurrection Cathedral of the Smolny Monastery. Saint Petersburg.
5. Saint Nicholas church. Mahiliou, Belarus
6. Dormition Cathedral. Zhyrovichy Monastery, Belarus.
7. Nativity of the Blessed Virgin church. Slauharad, Mahiliou region, Belarus.
8. Protection of the Mother of God church. Streshyna, Homel region, Belarus.
Of course, it is impossible to abandon this cultural heritage completely. However, in search of the national style of an Orthodox church, orientation to such examples is undesirable. It distorts the Orthodox spirit of the Church and refers to the West or Antiquity.

Around the middle of the 19th century there was some return to the search for national roots and traditional spirituality. This was also reflected in church architecture. Neoclassicism was replaced by a different stylistic orientation. The architects turned again to historical prototypes, not copying, but rethinking them. In this retrospective, one can also see the possibility of searching for a national style in Belarusian church building. At that time the former cultural integration into Western Europe was opposed by the rediscovery of the roots of local culture. Orientation to traditional architectural patterns formed a new specific type of churches. They created the synthesis of the original Russian and Byzantine church architecture. This revived and determined some new national features of the Orthodox culture of our lands. First the neo-Byzantine style of church buildings appeared and later neo-Russian. The development of these styles was interrupted by the Revolution.

There are the following examples of the Belarusian churches of that period:
  • Memorial church in Liasnaya village, Mahiliou region. By the way, it has some resemblance to temples-fortresses;
  • The chapel and family vault of the Paskevich, Homel;
  • Exaltation of the Cross Cathedral in the Polatsk Monastery;
  • Our Lady of Kazan Cathedral in Myasnikov square. It was destroyed in Soviet times;
  • Saint Alexander Nevsky church at the Military Cemetery.
Казанский собор. Минск.><meta itemprop=
Our Lady of Kazan Cathedral, Minsk.
Храм-памятник в д. Лесная. Могилевская обл.><meta itemprop=
Memorial church in Liasnaya village, Mahiliou region.
Часовня-усыпальница Паскевичей. Гомель><meta itemprop=
The chapel and family vault of the Paskevich, Homel.
Крестовоздвиженский собор. Полоцкий Спасо-Евфросиньевский женский монастырь.><meta itemprop=
Exaltation of the Cross Cathedral in the Polatsk Monastery.
Храм в честь св. Александра Невского. Военное кладбище, Минск.><meta itemprop=
Saint Alexander Nevsky church at the Military Cemetery, Minsk.
However, these churches do not reflect the genuine Belarusian church architecture. They are among many examples of similar architecture of that period throughout the Russian Empire. This differs them from the Transfiguration church in Polatsk, for example. It stood on a par with other churches of Old Rus but had its own unique features. Belarusian Orthodox temples-fortresses are unique and rare for other regions.
Храм в честь Архангела Михаила. Сынковичи. Беларусь.><meta itemprop=
Saint Archangel Michael church in Synkavichy. Belarus.
Speaking about the churches as symbols of the modern Belarusian national culture, it is important to note one thing. The architects and artists should not bring in their human vision. Instead they should try to reflect with their talent the stylistic features and the culture of their land and theological truths. This should be the foundation for creativity, but this is sometimes lost. Often the author's vision, far from being of the best quality, comes to the fore. This interrupts the continuity of cultural heritage and theological foundations of church building. This principle is well reflected in the position of the Seventh Ecumenical Council on diataxis (i.e., composition, invention). It states that it is not the master who produces the image, but the indestructible law and tradition of the Orthodox Church. Only the execution belongs to the master. Modern architects often lack this understanding, having no education in theology and art history. Sadly, the priests also often believe that art history is something that does not concern them at all and that everything is just a matter of taste...

Thus, we can now name the undeniable examples for Belarusian church architecture. That should be the Transfiguration Church in Polatsk or the medieval temples-fortresses. The Transfiguration Church reflects the Orthodox tradition and culture most of all. Temples-fortresses can act as some idea that can be reflected in a more traditional way. The defensive function of their architecture is not so important today and is rather symbolic. But this idea is also very appropriate, considering that Belarus is, in a way, an outpost of Russian Orthodoxy. Let's note that for all their defensive image, they have a step structure, developing upwards. The different expression of the same step structure can be seen in the Transfiguration Church in Polatsk. Thus, the Transfiguration Church and the temples-fortresses can provide a synthesis for a true image of a Belarusian church. This is the theoretical basis for architects. The later architecture can hardly be used as a guideline. The only exception may sometimes be the church architecture of the Byzantine and neo-Russian styles of the late 19th century.
Спасо-Преораженский собор. Полоцк. Реконструкция.><meta itemprop=
Transfiguration church. Polatsk. Restoration.
Храм в честь Архангела Михаила. Сынковичи. Беларусь.><meta itemprop=
Saint Archangel Michael church in Synkavichy. Belarus.
And finally, I would like to note one very important detail. This detail bears a symbol of unity, peace and striving for higher principles. I mean such a traditional form of Orthodox architecture as a kokoshnik. And it is noteworthy that the Polatsk Transfiguration Church is probably the first where kokoshniks appear. Now they are hidden under a pitched roof of the 17th - 18th centuries. It can be said that the architects of this church made a kind of revolution in the architecture of Old Rus. They emphasized the vertical aspiration of the chuch with a new kokoshnik-shaped form of zakomara. The sharpness of forms increases from the bottom to the top of the church. The lancet kokoshniks appear under the tholobate. This building was studied by the famous researcher of Old Rus architecture Pavel Rappoport. He considers it the first example of a "solemn pillar-shaped temple".
Кокошник><meta itemprop=

Кокошники.><meta itemprop=

 Спасо-Преображенский собор. Полоцк. Современный и первоначальный виды.><meta itemprop=
Transfiguration Church. Polatsk. Modern and original appearance.
 Спрятанный под скатной кровлей кокошники Спасо-Преображенского собора в Полоцке.><meta itemprop=
The kokoshniks of the Polatsk Transfiguration Church hidden under pitched roof.
To conclude, let's say that when searching for the idea of a Belarusian church, it is best to focus on these architectural examples. Let's think about synthesizing two ideas - a temple-fortress and step structure with kokoshniks. Let's reject the orientation to later examples, alien to our spiritual heritage and cultural identity.

This is all the more relevant considering that today Belarus acts as a peacemaking country. It creates an image of the unity of the Slavic world and the defense of traditional values. And the kokoshnik, as you know, with all its multifaceted symbolism carries this idea of unity. The etymology of the word "kokoshnik" derives from "kokosh". "Kokosh" means a hen gathering chicks under its wings in the nest. With its upward aspiration and helmet-like appearance, it points towards God and the image of a spiritual fortress. Here I would like to quote the words of Saint Euphrosyne of Polatsk. After the construction of the church she wrote: "Behold, I gathered you together, like hen gathers chicks, under my wings". This echoes the words of Christ addressed to Jerusalem.

In conclusion, let me note once again that by focusing on ancient samples, we mean their symbolism and imagery, and not copying. We support the idea that sacred architecture needs to develop. It is now necessary to search for solutions for low-budget churches, which is a topic on its own. It is possible to apply some modern methods and architectural ideas. However, the focus on the true traditions of church building and the education of architects and clergy are necessary. Without it modern churches will look, at best, divorced from the national spiritual culture. At worst, they will be either some strange remake, or the low budget simple houses with icons of different styles and a cross on top. This has little to do with the true image of an Orthodox church, and with our culture.
Современный пример. Часовня для Полоцкого монастыря. Мастерская "Прохрам"><meta itemprop=
Modern example. Chapel for the Polatsk monastery.

Prohram Studio.
Современный пример. Храм в честь св. княгини Ольги. Мастерская "Прохрам".><meta itemprop=
Modern example. Saint Olga church.

Prohram Studio.
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