This church, as the oldest religious building of Zakarpattia, belongs to the three most ancient masonry temples of the state. Interestingly enough, even for centuries that have passed since its building, it continues to reveal its secrets.
This is the place where Uzhorod was born. At least, no one has denied this theory. This place offers one of the best views of the Zakarpattia capital. And – the energy, which invites just to be present here. Keeping silent and reflecting. People say that His presence is felt here …
“Horianska Rotunda is one of the oldest architectural monuments of Ukraine of European significance. Located on the last hill of the Carpathians on the outskirts of Uzhorod. The origins and age of the rotunda are uncertain to this day”. This is a poor description of this place in Wikipedia. References are: Horianska Church of St. Anne (new name of the temple) is a hexagonal structure, in the walls of which six semicircular niches with three windows are carved (this is the most ancient part – the rotunda) to which the nave is attached. The name has a simple origin. Rotunda from Latin – a round structure. The form is one of the components of the uniqueness of the temple. Also, it has a special sacred significance due to the hexahedral shape, which is a pre-Christian symbol. So, there are many legends and versions about the rotunda, not all of which have true grounds …
We are looking for more truthful answers. It is believed, that the nave was completed not earlier than in a century after the construction of rotunda (although now Horianska rotunda is the name of the entire temple, which is the single unity). Some researchers include the beginning of the building to X and some to the XIV century. Talking about its origin, they say that it belongs to the Romanesque style, to the Byzantine school, and to the works of Slavic architects, and these controversies have lasted for decades.
Can we get answers? It was for this purpose that we went uphill on the outskirts of Uzhorod (someone says – no, it’s his heart!) with two men, for whom Horianska Rotunda is not just a sacred building. The parson Bohdan Savula is a priest here, and even a “taskmaster”. The priest, who studied in Rome during the conversation sometimes uses Italian terms and asks how it is in Ukrainian. Myhailo Priimych, art critic, leading researcher of the sacred art of Transcarpathia answers him. For both of them, the rotunda – is a delight, and still – a mystery.
Thus, Horianska Rotunda for centuries not only helps people communicate with God but also raises questions, that are now without answers. The story here – is the intrigue and it is not worse than the popular novels. Despite the fact, that the construction of the temple was no less than five hundred years ago, this religious building is hiding too many mysteries. Truth be told, sometimes the beautiful church shows some of its secrets …
Since 2015, restoration work has been held in a unique temple. Finally, after all the studies, examinations and permits, they managed to address the long-standing problem. During the Soviet era, the walls of the temple were unsuccessfully coated with plaster and turned the structure into a kind of “thermos”. Walls “absorbed” the excessive moisture. This caused the destruction of the church itself and, most importantly, destroyed the ancient murals. The ancient murals of Horianska Rotunda are living and vivid lessons from Medieval sacred art, which is very important not only for researchers. In short, it’s an invaluable treasure. And we note: at the moment the murals have been saved … Moreover, there is a project for restoration works, which do not foresee “repainting” of paintings – only their preservation.
But this is a matter of the future. And now, Bohdan Savula, the pastor of the church, which belongs to the Mukachevo Greek Catholic Diocese, clearly shows how to save the Rotunda. First, all the plaster was chipped of (it does not belong to the historical one, it’s a Soviet “improvement”, as the Soviets liked to affect the churches). So they gave the old temple plenty to “breathe”. “We just felt like the moisture, that was sprunging walls and “eating” frescoes, goes away. Water stopped collecting under the walls, and sometimes it was simply pouring. We are happy, that the researchers, whom we called for help managed to find a way to save the Rotunda. Of course, this process continues”, says the priest.
This ancient church can impress. In 1879, it already became a sensation in Europe: a worker who worked in this building, suddenly, chipping plaster, saw artistic paintings. Here is how Horianska rotunda was “opened” in modern times. Then these lands belonged to Austria-Hungary, and researchers from Budapest came here. But even in the present day, the rotunda gives us discoveries. Thus, during the restoration works the northern portal, which hadn’t been known was found.
Mykhailo Priimych says: “Usually southern portals were built, so we have one here too. And the appearance of the northern portal – is a mystery to me: how it appeared, why it was immured? By the way, it looks like there are two settings: newer and older one. What if there was a number of reconstructions since the church’s time as a castle chapel? Could it be rebuilt after the graves that were here? The substance, that bonds stones is waiting for its analysis to give us an answer”.
After the rotunda was “free” from the Soviet layers and after the necessary research was carried out, the building of the church was covered with new lime plaster – such as it was in ancient times, that “breathes”. “Do you see this difference by the ground? We left the open ground of the walls. And, of course, completed the spillway by developing a drainage system. All works were carried out according to a project developed by experts and approved by all organs of protection of cultural heritage. We are aware of the responsibility for this extraordinary building. I was surprised by the call, that took place a week after I was assigned to serve here: I was almost accused of “destroying” the rotunda. We had to not only explain what we were doing, but also to show all the documents that were needed to start the work and without which, we certainly would not have done anything. We started work on the project in 2015, and last week I brought papers to the police”, says Bohdan, who considers it a great honor to serve in such an exclusive temple. And yet the priest, it seems, really cares about the “economy” of Rotunda and all the nuances associated with the state of the building.
“For the first time I was here as a student. Actually, my first thought was: why is it not plastered? (laughs, showing the oldest and therefore not perfectly preserved paintings). Then, of course, after learning more, I realized how unique this place is and what is important here. There is an extraordinary energy. And there is the feeling of God’s grace, His presence. Having the joy to serve here, I open the rotunda myself every day”, Bohdan confesses. For the first time, about at the same age, it saw Mr. Myhailo: “I, being a student, had a colossal impression. And it doubled from the fact, that I understood the uniqueness of this place. And – from the fear of what is happening. There was water flowing, just below those walls. It was a feeling of desolation and decline, such as after the arrival of the barbarians in Rome. The greatness, but – destroyed and neglected. ”
“I am not a historian, but somehow I have a feeling, that Uzhorod could start from here. In ancient times the city was built on the mountain and around the mountain, because it was a protected place. The version, that there was a city fortification seems plausible. Not far from here, on Horianska street there are huge stones … they still have to be explored. Today it is a good tradition of the celebration the Day of Uzhorod – one of the oldest cities in Ukraine – right here, with a worship in the rotunda”, the parson does not hide a special attitude to the place of his allegiance.
The priest says: now it is time for the roof. The old shingle (a special wooden roof made of traditional technology, – the author’s note), have to be treated, in order to ensure, that the roof is strong and continues to protect the church and retain its appearance. And they want to restore the look of the dome. “Excuse me, only the sickle-hammer “is missing”. The top of the church is covered, as we say, with a “tin”, there is even a stigma – the 1991 year. As for me, it does not fit the rotunda. Let’s do what is appropriate to its beauty. Now we advise with art critics about what kind of cross corresponds better”, says the parson. (Whilst the material was being prepared, the dome was renewed, – the author’s note).
During the restoration works, archaeological research was carried out. It added information and, again, mysteries. “Burials were found, and in them – there were coins of the XIV-XV centuries, and historians say, that these are the upper graves, and under them are even more ancient ones. Near the bell tower, there is also a burial. Also, the directions of ancient walls, which are similar to the protective fencing around the building were found. So, it turns out, it was a big fortified complex. Of course, it is interesting what is the history of the northern portal. We left it open, so that it could be seen, it is very beautiful. No researcher has ever mentioned this portal. This is a discovery. So the restoration works really gave a fresh impetus to the church”, says Holy Father Bohdan.
He takes an excursion around the rotunda. Shows a beautiful setting of the portal, the place where the walls were laid, and an ancient wall, that holds the ground near the temple from the slide. From the old brick small steps are made, and now they dream to finally get rid of the remnants of the Soviet era. In particular, to remove the concrete slabs, from which they made a sidewalk near the temple, and even to deal with the Soviet gutters…
But let’s go to the main thing – to the heart of the temple. These are amazing paintings. These murals are a treasure of the European, more precisely, of world significance. “They are incredible. The most impressive for me is the Annunciation. And the mural, that is inside the rotunda, which is not so well preserved, but portrays the whole way of the Cross of Jesus Christ – from condemnation until the death on the cross”, says the parson.
Bohdan has been here for about a year, but has already taken visitors to the temple from Switzerland, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, Germany, Great Britain, who came to the rotunda to see murals.
It is classically believed, that nave was actually completed before rotunda in the XV century, says the researcher of sacred art Myhailo Priimych. But the latest archaeological research has given grounds to believe that it was a century older. “It is interesting, that in the sources of the XIV century, the tithe, which was paid to the temple in the Horiana, was already mentioned in, so we can say that this is not a castle chapel, as it was thought earlier, but already in the XIVth century – a parish church. It is in this century that Hungary is undergoing major changes, after the death of the Arpadovych family, the ruling dynasty changes to Anzha, and after it comes Druhety, which made a mark in Zakarpattia. Since then, many Gothic peripheral churches have been built, so Gothic comes to us, to which we can attribute this structure. The Gothic buildings of Zakarpattia are actually the XIV-XV centuries. The nave, the annex is more ancient. But the rotunda itself…
It dates back to the XIIth century on the basis of the fact, that the brick used for this building was already used in Germany. However, speaking about the structure on the periphery of the Hungarian kingdom, one can hardly be sure of such antiquity. The latest research I had here with Slovak specialists, and they say, that such structures are present in the territory of modern Slovakia. They were usually built not with a typical brick. It was not of the same shape and was usually made locally. These data make it possible to date the rotunda of the XIII century and approximately the same time – the nave. So we can say, that there is no long distance between our six-sided temple and the nave. This is very interesting, and if we now open the northern portal, and there is a tree in it, then the radiocarbon analysis could tell us more precisely. In my opinion, the XIII century is a justifiable theory, to some extent it coincides with historical events, which are also witnessed by written sources, in particular, the chronicle “Gesta Hungarorum”, which says that after the invasion of the Mongols of Baila IV rebuilt castles in the east of their possessions, which were of earth and wood, in stone and in brick. So the assumption about the middle of the XIII is quite appropriate”.
The researcher says: the rotunda is definitely interesting in the form, it reminds of the buildings, that were preserved in Hungary in the villages Kishzombor and Korchov. However, even more interesting than the temples is the structure of completion, which has a hexagonal so-called drum. “And this is reminiscent of the VI century building in Ani, which is in Armenia (now it is the territory of Turkey). This thing allowed some researchers to attribute the rotunda to the Byzantine style. On the other hand, some experts argue, that this is a Roman building”, says Mykhailo Priimych.
Once again, we are surprised: in 2018 year, after at least 5 centuries after its occurrence, it is still necessary to study the rotunda! Mykhailo Priimych answers: “The thing is, that the church was almost not investigated. The first stage is the 1890s, when paintings were opened. In 1911, the first clearings were made. Actually, this was the opening of the church. But these studies quickly stopped, moreover, the First World War began soon. The next stage – Czech archaeological research – took place in 1932. Unfortunately, we do not have those documents, we know that the paintings were partially cleared. Then in the 1960s and 1970s, when the church was changed to the museum, the clearing continued, certain map charts were made. And then such works almost did not last. The exception is the 1990s, when the Institute “UkrZahidProektRestauratsiia” performed the fixation of the painting: three compositions were worked out, and then no money was left and the work was stopped. The last thing, that happens here is due to the fact, that the eparchy itself took on such an initiative – to ask to remove the cement plaster”.
It was “a matter of life and death”. Mykhailo Priimych explains: The thing is, that the church is painted in a very interesting way: we have the paintings “alfresco” (on wet). And later – “alsekko” (on dry), because the Italians, in their school, just did the retouch like that. And this was done with distempers, which “attracted” moisture, so painting began to grow dark. And this danger – that all the paintings will crumble – was urgent. Having removed the Soviet cement, we “dried up” the building and returned its historical appearance. We emphasize: this is not a restoration, but a recovery work”.
It was believed, that the paintings inside the rotunda belong to the XIII century and the Roman style. Although in Europe it began to withdraw in the second half of the XII century, in the Hungarian kingdom it remained relevant until the end of the next one – says the art historian. However, the rotunda continues to be the place of discoveries. “The latest research by Hungarian restorers has provided information, that is very interesting to our rotunda. In the town of Longueau, there is the icon of Yurii the Dragon Slayer, very similar to ours. Maybe it’s newer, maybe older. But there is another composition, performed by the same artist – the Virgin Mother of benevolence. This is an image, that we call the Virgin’s mantle in our traditions, and in Western iconography known as the Virgin of Mercy (in English) and Madonna della Misericordia (in Italian). This image comes to iconography in the middle of the XIII century, when the Cistercian monk saw the Virgin Mother, who covers people with a coat, in the vision. So, we can not date it to the XIII century, and we are talking about the beginning of the XIV century because it is about the periphery”, believes the art historian.
Mykhailo Priimych explains: “Most likely, these our paintings are connected with Drugeth. After all, this family owned these lands, played a major role in the Hungarian crown, they occupied high positions, were judges of the kingdom, and themselves came from Naples. At that time, there reigns the Proto-Renaissance. And one can assume that the owners of such a level could afford to invite an artist to perform a piece of this level. Painting is unique, it is one of the most valuable monuments of Europe. Such a complex of monumental painting is the third most ancient monument in Ukraine – after Sofia, the XI century, and the Cyril Church, the XII century, also in Kyiv. Given the Mongols, the XIII century left us nothing, but our Horian Rotunda – is XIVth century”.
The monument is very valuable in the context of the whole Europe and Hungary in particular. After the loss of the Hungarians in the Battle of Mohács in the XVI century, the Turks came, and the conflict itself between the Protestants and the Catholics contributed to the destruction, so there were very few ancient sacral buildings, memorials of the Middle Ages in this country.
“Horianska Rotunda as a monument has a colossal value for the whole Central Europe”, said Mykhailo Priimych. And then he continues the story in time. The new portal belongs to the XIV century, and the painting has already been done over the portal. Further, the XVth century – the following are Gothic paintings, made here. “An interesting Annunciation with the images of the archangel, God the Father, God-Son, the Holy Spirit and Mary in white clothes, symbolizing purity. The Renaissance has already been different about the symbolism of color, got rid of it. And here we have Maria, who silences Jesus’ mouth with a finger, which is an element of sentimental and little characteristic of classical iconography”, says Mykhailo Priimych.
He concludes: “We are here, on these ancient walls, we have a clear course, a flow of art, such as it was in Italy. We have Late Roman forms, then the proto-Renaissance, and then we get Gothic. This way other than in northern Europe, it is a model of the Italian way of development. Live lecture on the history of European art. This is an incredible treasure”.
“What questions about the rotunda, most of all, I want to have an answer for? I would very much like to answer, when exactly these paintings appeared. We assume, that this is the 1360’s and 70’s. But if it was documented, it would be important. Yes, there are technologies of spectral analysis, but first of all, analyzes should be done in Italy and after that to compare it with our frescoes”, Mykhailo Priimych says.
The further research on the Horianska rotunda and the whole this hill on the outskirts of Uzhorod will not only give the opportunity to understand the history of sacred art in Europe. But also – finally will give the answer abot the origin of Uzhorod. Where was that Ungvár, fortification on the Uzh River, or just a castle on the water, or how else the old name of the main city of Zakarpattia can be deduced from the chronicles. The theory, that the first city fortification was exactly where Horianska Rotunda raise to the sky with its cross is at least not belied. Here were found the ceramics of the VI century, and the newly discovered old walls continue to hint at the wonders… So here you can come to answer a wider range of questions than the date of the appearance of frescoes in the legendary rotunda. It is the geographical location of the Horiany and this hill that suggests, that there was a castle, that controlled the entire Valley of the Uzh River. And again, we have more questions than answers…
By the way, the rotunda is obviously the oldest image of Yurii the Dragon Slayer in these lands, who is considered to be the patron saint of Uzhorod. “A warrior, the winner who embodies the victory of good over evil, which claims Christianity, is an image that is popular in the Middle Ages. Here, this painting in style resembles Roman paintings”, says Mr. Myhailo. However, the temple never belonged to St. Yurii: according to documents of various times, Horianska Rotunda was the church of St. John, St. Anne, the Church of the Virgin, Church of the Intercession and St. Nicholas Chrch. In Soviet times, it was a museum, which, incidentally, did not aim to show, and especially discover and preserve sacred art.
Will the rotund give answers to questions that still exist in the year 2018? Maybe, Mykhailo Priimych, who is waiting for the results of the research on the taken in the rotunda samples of plaster, matrix, that keep stones and actually frescos, and also seeks answers in the archives of Europe can get them… Maybe Holy Father Bohdan, who speaks here with people, but with God will find them? Or maybe the rotunda will answer one of us, who will visit it in order to touch history, art, and faith? Moreover, today the most ancient church in Zakarpattia is quite accessible both as a tourist object and as a site for scholars and as a temple… However, we possibly shouldn’t demand the answers from this place, but simply to honor as something extraordinary. And – reserve…
Text by Alla Khayatova
Photo by Serhii Hudak