Imagine you’re given a pile of wood, but no nails. You’re tasked with building a church on the outskirts of town so you can practice your faith, which is ridiculed by the highest-ranking member of the empire. Your entirely wooden structure must be inconspicuous, without a tower and main entrance, and must be completed within a year.
Seems impossible, doesn’t it? Yet somehow, from this hefty mound of restriction, a handful of congregations built the beautiful wooden churches of Slovakia 400 years ago, which I had the pleasure of visiting last month.
With gorgeous painted ceilings, intricately carved altars and maritime-inspired architecture, it’s hard to believe that these works of art, many of which still hold regular services, evolved from a very odd and oppressive law.
In the 17th century, Slovakia was the center of the Hungarian empire, ruled by King Leopold I. Roman Catholicism was the dominant religion, although Protestantism was starting to creep farther west.
To reduce religious friction while maintaining Catholic rule, King Leopold made a unique concession in 1681. He allowed Calvinist and Lutheran congregations to build churches within the kingdom, so long as they followed a bizarre set of rules: The churches had to be built of wood only without any metallic elements (no nails), the entrance could not face the main street, while the building itself had to remain on the outskirts of the village.
And then there’s the real kicker, a seemingly impossible demand: The churches had to be built within a year.
I imagine Leopold must have chuckled to himself as he penned this strange law. Surely he was confident he would either drive the Protestants out of the empire or make a national mockery of them.
But much to Leopold’s surprise, the restrictive article inspired remarkable creativity. To this day, the wooden (also known as articular) churches of Slovakia, most of which are protected UNESCO sites, are beloved for their stunning beauty and, of course, their quirkiness.
As you can imagine, a 400-year-old structure made entirely of wood is a fire hazard on steroids, so certain precautions have to be taken. The churches I visited in the beautiful central Slovak towns of Kežmarok, Leštiny and Istebne do not have central heating, so during the winter months, their congregations are usually bundled in thick woolen blankets. Electric candles are used in place of real ones, while winter baptisms are performed with hot water from the tea kettle as the baptismal pond is always freezing over.
Each church offers something different. In the remote town of Istebne, the articular church is hidden on a forested hill. However, the interior is extravagant and vibrant, boasting one of the most impressive wooden altars I’ve ever seen. In Leštiny, the church takes on the appearance of an inverted ship while the articular church of Kežmarok is topped with a ceiling painted to look like the sky.
I think most tourists discover, just as I did, that profound beauty has gumption and grit and a funny way of evolving from even the most oppressive of environments. And these church builders ended up having the last laugh, leaving a legacy that's lasted through generations, despite the odds against them.