Secrets of an old wooden church of St. John the Baptist in the Upper Orava": historical facts, polychrome scenes, sculptures, organs and the amazing beauty of the religious past....
Orawka: Historical Background
Orawka is a little village located in Poland close to the border with Slovakia.
Although today the village may seem sleepy and forgotten, for centuries it was a busy place being part of an important merchant tract crossing Carpathians and connecting Krakow (Cracow) with Prague, Vienna and southern Europe.
Salt from famous Wieliczka mine, copper from rich mines in the vicinity of Banská Bystrica and millennium old amber trade for long were dominating exchanges between eastern and southern Europe.
Importance of this merchant tract was recognized well back in the 14th century when the Polish king Casimirus the Great established a custom chamber in the nearby village of Jablonka to collect taxes.
Orawka village is located in southern Poland close to the border with Slovakia on a busy road E77.
Geographically Orawka belongs to the Upper Orava, a region occupying today’s southern Poland and northern Slovakia.
Since the early time of 11th century the area was disputed by Polish, Czech and Hungarian Crowns often changing rulers’ hands. But frankly, it was mostly a deserted area of countless hills, valleys and forests.
Things quickly changed in the 16th century once the Upper Orava became a private domain of the bishop of Nitra – Francis Thurzo. Realizing huge potential of this territory he started its colonization founding numerous villages and settlements.
To read more about Orava and see photos of the amazing Orava Castle please follow the link: Orava Castle
In 1585 F. Thurzo founded the village of Orawka and following the rule “Cuius regio – eius religio” (what can be translated from the Latin as: “The one who rules, imposes religion”) forcefully introduced Protestantism. Indeed, the first parish church in Orawka erected in 1614 was a protestant one.
Since this area of the Upper Orava was inhabited by predominantly Catholic runaway peasants finding in this desolate area a refuge from the oppression of their landowners, Thurzo’s and his followers policy added only more oil to the already existing fire leading to resistance, further sectarian fighting and destruction.
Scenes from the life of St. John the Baptist on the walls of Orawka's church.
Not surprisingly, it did not take long for the local Catholic population to “counterbalance” the growing influence of Protestants. The first roman-catholic church in Orawka - St. John the Baptist, was established as part of the re-Catholicization process of the Upper Orava.
The idea was not only promoted by the local Polish nobility (like for example the family of Moniaks from Zubrzyca Górna) but also gained the support of the Emperor Ferdinand III (Habsburg) trying to counter the effect of the Protestant Reformation spreading across this part of the Europe.
The church of St. John the Baptist was built in 1651-1656 thanks to ceaseless efforts and an enormous dedication of the archdeacon and its first vicar Fr. Jan Szczechowicz.
The church was built from the top quality knot-free and rot-resistant larch timber (kind of eastern Europe "red-wood") using the horizontal log technique. Initially the church included one narrow nave structure with few small windows and a free-standing wooden bell tower (belfry) in front of it. For unknown reasons it was consecrated only in 1715, almost sixty years years after the construction was finished.
In 1728 the chapel of Lady of Sorrows was added to the church. Today its white-finished brick walls beautifully stand out against the dark wooden structure as you can see on the following pictures.
During the 19th and early 20th century church underwent further modifications – the major one connected the nave to the bell tower giving the final shape to the church – one we can witness and admire today.
Initially the bell tower had three bells – all donated by Emperor Ferdinand III and Ferdinand IV. Only one survived subsequent wars – it has an inscription:
“Donation of Ferdinand IV – King of Hungary and Czech to all Catholics of Orava – 1652”
The tower with slanting walls also covered by wooden shingles is crowned by the pyramid-shaped helmet flanked by four corner turrets dated from the 1900-1901 modifications.
Today, Orawka’s church is the oldest existing wooden church in the Upper Orava. It represents an outstanding example of medieval sacral structures in Poland.
Walking into the church
The interior of the church is one of the most beautiful in the area of southern Poland. All walls and ceiling are entirely covered with original polychrome paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries. The most magnificent is a set of 14 paintings dating from 1711 and depicting scenes from the life of St. John the Baptist.
The ceiling of the church includes polychrome panels depicting Zacharias’ Annunciation, Nativity of St. John the Baptist and St. John in the forest. The remaining part of the ceiling is richly ornamented with rosettes.
The balustrade of the gallery shows themes from the Ten Commandments illustrating various life events common to those days. Interestingly, authors of these biblical scenes used backgrounds and folklore from the Upper Orava instead of those from the Holy Land traditionally portrayed on such occasions. You may recognize on these paintings people wearing mountaineers clothing typical to this part of Europe!
Today it may seem odd to us, but let’s keep in mind that due to the widespread illiteracy at those times, this type of “looking- familiar” pictures was the only “language” easy to understand and accept. I guess the concept of the biblical events in the reality of the Middle-East landscape and customs was too far from everyday’s experience of peasants and possibly too abstract to be convincing ….