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The beginning of construction of wooden churches in Lithuania should be considered the first half of the XVth c. There is no doubt that after Lithuania adopted Christianity at the end of the XVIth c. first churches were built of wood. It is thought that the first sacramental wooden buildings in the XV-XVIth centuries were modest and survived Gothic and Renaissance influences by their simplicity but submitted to Baroque that was beginning to prevail in Lithuania and which had a significant influence on our churches – it is abundant in the exterior and especially interior of churches.
The monuments of wooden sacramental architecture - the most fragile heritage of our ancestors‘ spiritual and material creation - are imperceptibly and implacably disappearing. There are many reasons for their disappearance: there has been no awareness to cherish them as marvelous objects of folk art and building, a lot of sacramental buildings were lost in the XIXth century. Nevertheless, we still have something to thank our destiny for – wooden churches, belfries and chapels can still be seen in the traditional Lithuanian countryside, we still have something to show our young people: buildings of cultural heritage, so nice and dear for local people and sometimes so unusual and unseen for travellers.
Wooden buildings are not only close, like brothers, guardians of the remaining harmonious countryside but also that part of our cultural heritage which has to be preserved most, since it immortalizes the natural bond of people‘s life and creation with the surrounding nature....
We are happy that Zarasai district is rich in examples of wooden sacramental architecture. We hope that the wish to discover peculiarities of the region and its people‘s creation will tempt you set off on a journey not that much to the past as to the present and future – what we are like now and what we will leave after us...
In Zarasai (then called Novoaleksandrovsk), in 1839 an Orthodox church (1) was built and called Priobrazheniya Gospodnya. There were quite a number of icons painted in the Greek style, a painting of Mother of God was kept, which decorated Uniate monastery in Suviekas and was considered to be miraculous and was worshipped both by Orthodox believers and Catholics. In 1869 after the visit of M. Muravjov‘s successor A. Potapov, it was decided to build a new brick chapel next to the old wooden Orthodox church. In 1885 the old wooden Orthodox church was moved to a newly located place of Orthodox cemetary (now Valstiečių Street) and it was dedicated to the All Saints. The church has remained in the cemetary till these days.
In Zarasai, Bajorų g. 14/9, there has remained a wooden house where there had been a Jewish synagogue till 1941 (2).
Stelmužė complex is an example of a unique, perfect combination of folk sacramental architecture and impressive wooden sculpture. This is not only one of the oldest ensembles of ethnographic construction of the feudalism period in Lithuania but also one of the most outstanding and authentic buildings of wooden sacramental architecture not only in Zarasai district but in the whole country as well. Stelmužė‘s mission Church of the Holy Cross (3) began its history in 1650. Then it was a mission of the church of the Latvian town Ilūkstė and belonged to Calvinists. An interesting detail in its history – the church was built in the middle of the XVIIth century, the period considered to be the beginning of prosperity of wooden sacramental architecture in Lithuania. It was built by Latvian craftsmen using only axe, without saw and iron nails; the exterior of the temple is characterized by monumental expression and heavy proportions, and the whole composition is dominated by a two-pitched roof of rafter constructions. In 1713 the church was reconstructed by the means of the owner of Stelmužė manor a German baron Folkerzambo. Then, at the beginning of the XVIIIth c., the architecture of folk traditions was indirectly influenced by Baroque, which was especially distinguished in interior solutions. The interior of the church is supposed to have been decorated by the present altar, ornamented by sculptures and pulpit, examples of which are found in Latvian Lutheran churches.
The belfry of Stelmužė church (4), in the western part of the churchyard, has been there since the middle of the XVIIth c. It is functional, expressive by its proportions, silhouette and simplicity of form and perfectly matches with the old Stelmužė church.
Demotic and classical church of Jesus the Crucifix (5) in Imbradas is the only example of a well-proportioned tectonic composition buildings in the district. It was built in 1786 – 1787 by the means of Pranciškus Molis, and in 1891, by the means of brothers Jonas and Pranciškus Prūsokai, it was decorated and renewed. Later, during the period of the first Independence of Lithuania, the church was renovated: the floor was lowered, painting works done, the interior decorated (the under ceiling, the High and side altars).
You will find the place of Revelation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (6) in Imbradas neighbourhood. In 2007 it was 40 years since the event that has made a small Imbradas parish in Zarasai district famous, as well as the forgotten village of Kvintiškės and wonderful Ilgis lake. Miraculous revelation near Ilgis lake happened on 30 June, late at night, in 1967.
The history of the church of Exaltation of the Blessed Cross in Aviliai (7) goes back to 1812 – 1818, when the owner of Aviliai manor Gertrūda Kaminskienė built a new chapel in the present location of the church. Only in 1875 priest L. Misevičius, having got a support from the owners of Vencavai manor Kruvičiai, rebuilt the chapel into a church: on both sides vestries were built and the building was prolonged. The architecture of the church has a typical traditional layout: a prolonged rectangular with a modest front without a portico. During the construction of Aviliai church in the wooden architecture there prevailed the Romanticism which reflected folk traditions where forms of various styles were repeated. So in the forms of folk architecture of Aviliai church characteristic elements of Classicism can also be seen. In the shrine there is an impressive High Altar in the centre of which Calvary is depicted.
It is thought that in the present location of the church of Providence in Antazavė (8), which is of typical Baroque style repeating the shape of a cross, in 1749 Counts Platers could have built the chapel of Mother of God. In 1780 when Count L. Plater built a new palace and set up a chapel there, the old chapel became unnecessary. The above mentioned chapels served only the purposes of the estates while serfs prayed at churches in Dusetos, Kriaunos, Obeliai. The permission to establish a parish and build a church in Aleksandravėlė (now Rokiškis district) assigning Antazavė estate and villages, was especially disliked by the landlord of Antazavė Kunigunda Plater: by her efforts on 22 October, 1789 the Nuncio acknowledged not only the rights of Aleksandravėlė, but also let Countess Kunigunda build a church in Antazavė and form one more separate parish. The church in Antazavė was built in 1794. Its layout is the shape of a cross, with high transepts whose triangular pediments are surmounted by small turrets with crosses. The interior space of the church is Basilic, the High Altar is a sample of late Baroque.
The Catholic church in Baltriškės was established quite late. Its construction and foundation is related with Zavadskai family. In 1913 in Baltriškės was built a temporary meeting-house and the present church of St Casimir (9) was built in 1920. Although the church was built in the traditions of folk architecture, it has typical features of Classicism – a rectangular layout and a turret. Now the church is ministered by the monks of Tiberiada Community from Belgium.
St John‘s the Baptist church in Vajasiškis (10) was built in 1863. Its traditional architecture is characterized by its cruciform layout, flat front wall with a triangular pediment without ornamentation, flat interior ceiling and thin columns of the nava. Only two low turrets built on the corners of the front give some „disorder“ to the architecture of the building. In 1912 the church was renewed.
Disagreeing with the church reform and willing to preserve the faith adopted back in 988 when Russia was baptized, Russian old believers had been settling down in other areas. That is why as early as the end of the XVIIth century they settled in Zarasai region and built the first meeting-house in the village of Gudiškiai in 1728.
The community of old believers in Raistiniškės is one of the oldest not only in Zarasai region but in the whole Lithuania, too. During the World War II the old believers of the village nearly escaped the tragedy of the village of Pirčiupiai: they were closed in the Orthodox church and would have been burnt alive for taking part in killing a German soldier. Fortunately, they were saved by Russian soldiers who took the blame of killing the soldier upon themselves. The same circumstance saved the Orthodox church (11) built at the beginning of the XIX c. by the old believers of Raistiniškės and which has remained till now.
The community of old believers in Minauka was established in the second half of the XVIIIth century. There has not remained any knowledge about the establishment of the first meeting-house in the village. The old believers‘ church (12), built in 1904, has remained till now.
According to archival documents the community of old believers in Rusteikiai was established in 1890. The old believers‘ church in Rusteikiai (13), built in 1908, has remained till now.
The church of the Blessed Jesus‘ Heart in Turmantas (14) was built in 1928. At first it did not have the rights of a parish and the service was not said in Lithuanian. Only in 1939 after Turmantas had been returned to Lithuania, the Lithuanian language was begun to be used in the church.
The wooden church in Turmantas is decorated with a tall tower. Its walls are plastered, doors and windows are rectangular. In the pediment there is a semi-arched window, on the left there is a low vestry. In the church there is one altar.
The construction of Turmantas old believers‘ Orthodox church (15) began in 1930 by the means contributed by believers and was finished in the summer of 1933.
The church of the Blessed Virgin Mary the Queen (16) in the village of Tilžė has a single nave, a rectangular layout with a small open turret above the pediment. Its walls are boarded up with horizontal planks. In the centre of the pediment there is a round window. The top of the nave windows is supported in the shape of a triangle. In the end of the presbytery there is a tall ornamented cross without base. In the church there is one altar.
The first chapel in Smalvos estate might have appeared in about 1600 – 1609. In 1674 the judge of Brėslauja region K. Podbereskis in the place of the chapel built a wooden church which was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary by the archbishop of Vilnius N. Slupskis. In 1750, when the Podbereskiai settled canons in Smalvos and the handling of the church was assigned to them, the church became a parish church. The church was rebuilt in 1766 by the efforts of Count Plater and parishioners.
The church of the Blessed Virgin Mary the Rosary (17) in the village of Smalvos stands in the middle of the village on the square formed by crossroads, in the nearly rectangular-shaped churchyard. The foundations of the church are made of stonework, walls of axed timbers which are reinforced with vertical supports from inside, and from outside boarded with horizontal planks. The rafter roof of the church is covered with tin. Facades are dominated by flat surfaces. In 1982 in the main southern facade there was built on an open two-storey porch with a two-pitched roof. On both sides of the porch there is a window with decorated rims. Above the triangular pediment there is a square-planned turret with a cross made from metal. Side western and eastern fronts of the church are divided by sparsely arranged rectangular windows with carved rims and top boards. The inside space of the church is unbroken. The organ choir rests on four pillars which separate it and the area under it from the naves; the pillars are joined by openwork wooden screen. The organ choir above is separated by a wall with three oblong openings: the middle, the biggest one, opening is separated by a wooden balustrade and the side openings, by low wooden fences. There are three Baroque style altars in the church. At the beginning of the XXth century Zaborskis decorated the interior with a colourful floral ornament.
(References: material of Honorary researcher of regional studies J. Nemanis and the worker of Zarasai regional museum I. Vaitkevičienė, P. Galaunė “ Lietuvių liaudies menas“ („Lithuanian folk art”), S. Kirailytė “Antazavės krašto istorija” („History of Antazavė region“), V. Baranovskis “Amžių šventovės” („Temples of times“), L. Raubiškienė “Zarasai laiko vilnyse” („Zarasai in the waves of time“), B. Kviklys “Lietuvos bažnyčios” („Churches of Lithuania“)).
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