Model of a Ruthenian ‘Wooden Church’ from Máramaros

Krisztina Sedlmayr

The wattle-and-daub-walled, wooden-shingled wooden church is a type of building that has marked ecclesiastical architecture in the Ruthenian Greek Catholic villages of Máramaros County for centuries. In terms of floor plan, such churches followed the medieval pattern of division into three parts—an eastward-facing sanctuary, a central nave, and a narthex, or antechamber reserved specifically for women—divided by icon-decorated board walls with doors. Though traditional in construction inside and out, the churches of the region nonetheless reflected a great deal of variety in their adaptation to local needs and tastes.

Around the turn of the 20th century, in the wake of a newly emerged trend toward replacing this style with larger buildings made of brick or stone, there commenced a process of surveying and documenting the churches, including the deposit of some of their furnishings in museum collections to save them from destruction. 

One method employed in their documentation and museum interpretation that enjoyed particular popularity in the early 20th century was that of the scale model. This miniature representation of the 18th-century Greek Catholic Church of Saint Michael from Taracújfalu (found today in the Ukraine) is the work of a local peasant farmer and jack-of-all-trades.  The set to which it originally belonged, which included a Ruthenian home, stables, pigsty, corn crib, well, and barn, was purchased locally in 1909 by the Reverend Elek Vaszkó, who then sold it to the Ethnography Department of the Hungarian National Museum.  The Museum of Ethnography’s Ethnology Archives still preserve a letter by Vilibald Semayer dating to December of that year, in which the director arranges for the payment of 100 crowns for ‘Ruthenian home models’.  It may be presumed, in fact, that the reverend actually produced his distinctive Máramaros rural building ensemble at the museum’s specific request.

In his 1906 work On the Organisation of Ethnography Museums, Zsigmond Bátky writes specifically on the principles of museum model-building:  ‘Thus, we should construct models (or where this is not possible, make drawings or take photographs) only of objects that cannot be moved, such as buildings, mills, bridges, etc.; or that are excessively massive, as in the case of trunks, various types of agricultural baskets, cages, coaches, etc.; or that are such that their essences are hardly affected when included in a collection in miniaturised form, to be determined on a case-by-case basis.  It should, however, waft forever before our eyes that a model is born of necessity only, as no more than a visual aid.’  (Bátky 1906. 10-11.).

During the 1910s, the Ethnography Department acquired a number of additional models of houses and churches when it absorbed the collection of the Academy of Oriental Commerce, the supervision and expansion of which material was entrusted to István Györffy.  During the time of the First World War, Russian soldiers languishing in the Monarchy’s prison camps frequently spent time on carving projects, producing, among other things, miniature representations of the buildings typical of their homeland.  Among them, inventories of the academy collection list several dozen models of churches and synagogues.  Unfortunately, a Museum of Ethnography commission set up in the 1950s judged this material to be of negligible importance and had it destroyed.  The church model listed in the discard memorandum as the specimen the commission wished to retain as a representative example is without a doubt not one of the works of a Russian prisoner, but the maquette purchased from the reverend in Taracújfalu.

Though the original Greek Catholic church in Taracújfalu burned down in 1928, a surviving archive photo preserves an adequately detailed image of the building.  The single-nave, carved-wood church features an entranceway marked by a striking porch with ornamented wooden pillars and, above it, a slender tower and pyramidal helm steeple.

The model itself is made of carved wood pieced together into a largish structure with a single nave, circular sanctuary, and high roof using the slotted joining technique typical of archaic Hungarian carpentry.  Its entranceway opens onto a porch lined with carved wooden pillars.  On either side of the nave are narrow, horizontally disposed windows; below the wooden roof on the lateral and entranceway walls is an eaves trough constructed of three rows of shingles.  In place of the church’s distinctive high steeple, which is not visible on the maquette, is a low, shingle-covered stump.  In the course of restoration, it was suggested that the tower might be reconstructed, but for curatorial reasons, the idea was ultimately rejected.

Museum of Etnography 2019.68.1