Kizhi Pogost - Multi-storey, Multi-cupola, Single-block Masterpieces

16 January 2011

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Almost three hundred years ago the Russian inhabitants around Lake Onega decided that they needed two new churches – the old ones had burned down in a fire. 

It was decided that the island in the middle of the lake, Kizhi, would be the ideal place for their new place of worship. 

So began the construction of a pair of what have become two of the oldest exclusively wooden churches in the world. All who see them agree - they are multi-story, mutli-cupola, single-block masterpieces.

Now in the Republic of Karelia (part of the Russian Federation) the island was not chosen as the site of the church for aesthetic reasons – although that may have been motivation enough.  The time in which it was built was one of conflict between Russia and its neighbors.  Kizhi island was chosen to make the church safer from Swedish and Polish incursions in to the area.

The name Pogost includes the whole community area inside a fence which in this case includes the two churches, resplendent with their domes.  Pogost literally means enclosure – and the one on Kizhi is on a narrow strip of land at one end of the island.

Kizhi Pogost is an exceptional case in point of architecture typical of post-medieval orthodox settlements in meagerly inhabited areas of Russia, yet is one of the few to survive the centuries.  Here this far-flung Christian community had to deal with harsh neighbors and an even harsher climate

The larger of the two places of worship, the Church of the Transfiguration has no less than twenty two domes.  The smaller, the Church of the Intercession has nine.  Yet why build two such churches together? Why not combine efforts and create one large church? The answer is in the climate.

This part of the world gets cold in the winter – to say the very least.  As such the Church of the Transfiguration is not heated. Services could not be held there in the winter as the congregation would quickly freeze. Yet it is the most remarkable structure on the pogost, its altar being laid in the summer of 1714. The faithful would ride from the outermost regions of the community to be present at services.

The names of the builders were never recorded yet legends remain.  It is still said that the master builder used a single, magnificent axe for the duration of the entire project.  When construction was finished he threw it, Excalibur-like, in to the lake, uttering “there was not and will be not another one to match it".

The tools and skills used were incredible – the Church of the Intercession is undoubtedly an amazing structure and a tribute to those anonymous builders.  It has stood impassively for almost three hundred years, mostly made of pine with the domes covered in aspen, while history has changed the world around it irrevocably.

The sight of it seems almost implausible given its isolated location, as does its height – a lofty thirty seven meters.  As such it is one of the tallest wooden buildings in the Russian Federation. This notwithstanding it is a masterpiece of a multi-storey, multi-cupola, single-block structure.

How many nails do you imagine were used in its creation?  The answer is none – the whole structure was created without the use of a single nail. This followed the Russian traditions of carpentry at the time where interlocking corner joinery was used instead of nails.  The logs were fitted with scribes (both round notch and dovetail) and were slotted in to place.

The base of the structure is octahedral in shape with an accompaniment of four two-stage attachments known as prirubs. The one on the east side of the church is a pentagonal shape and that is where the altar is kept, being laid in 1714.

The domes run from the top to the sides.  Although the 1950s saw some of the church decorated with batten (thin strips of in this case steel, here used for decorative purposes) the original design was re-established in the 1950s.  The church sits on a stone base without a foundation of much depth.

Next door is the Church of the Intercession.  This is where services are held from the beginning of October each year until Easter time.  It is known as a winter church as it is heated.  Although work was begun on it as early as 1694 it has been reconstructed in the eighteenth century.  In 1764 it was rebuilt in to what we can see today – with 9 domes echoing the 22 of its much larger neighbour.

It is five meters shorter than the Church of the Transfiguration even though one might imagine it to be smaller still. The belfry is decidedly juvenile in age, being built to replace on older one in 1862. Resting on a rubble foundation it reaches thirty meters in height and is topped with a wooden cross.  The belfry is built with the same kind of wood as the churches, pine, aspen and some spruce.

In 1990, the Kizhi Pogost was included in the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites.



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