Ukrainian Catholic churches at crossroads of Baroque and Byzantine styles

  • Transfiguration Church, Old Lviv, draws together Baroque and Byzantine elements.
  • Church of the Protection of the Holy Virgin, a century-old wooden Greek Catholic church in the village of Rakovest, Ukraine.
  • Praying in the side chapel of St. Peter and Paul Garrison church.
  • The new chapel of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic University is being built in a more deliberately Eastern, Byzantine architectural style.
  • Transfiguration Church, Lviv.
  • Banners in cross-stitched style are used on special liturgical occasions and have a distinctively Ukrainian style.
  • In the outdoor market in Lviv, vendors sell the cross-stitched traditional cloths that cover Ukrainian Easter baskets for their blessing. "Christ is Risen," they traditionally proclaim.
  • Icons for sale in the outdoor market in Lviv.
  • The outdoor market in Lviv also includes religious images for sale that are more Western in style.
  • Lviv's Bernardine Church.
  • Holy Saturday, St. Peter & Paul Garrison Church, Lviv, a baroque church that was once a Jesuit school chapel.
  • Church of the Holy Communion, originally the Dominican church in Lviv.
  • Church of the Holy Communion, originally the Dominican church in Lviv.
  • The baroque interior of the Bernardine Church, Lviv. Though it is Ukrainian Catholic, its baroque design derives from the Habsburg dominated era of the city.
  • Church of the Holy Communion, originally the Dominican church in Lviv.
  • The Church of the Wisdom of God, a village church from the Turka region of Lviv province. It was brought to Lviv during Soviet times to a park dedicated to showing the "backwardness" of pre-Soviet life. Today the church is an active parish again.
  • Iconostasis of the Church of the Wisdom of God, a village church from the Turka region of Lviv province. The church is an active parish again, led by Studite monks.
  • Exterior of a sub-Carpathian village church rebuilt in Lviv, used again for religious services.
  • At Easter, among other times, traditional pre-Christian embroidery is used to honor Christian images.
  • A village church from the sub-Carpathian region that was moved to Lviv in Soviet times to demonstrate the "backwardness" of village life. It functions as a church today.
  • In Transfiguration Church, Lviv, images of the Resurrection take center place on Easter Sunday among the icons of the Stations of the Cross.
  • Ukrainian Greek Catholics have been moving away from "Latinizations," among them statues and Latinized images of the Virgin, but in Lviv, many of these endure.
  • Sts. Volodymyr and Olha Church, Lviv, built since the return of the church in the 1990s.
  • Sts. Volodymyr and Olha Church, Lviv. The church was built just after the fall of communism to serve a large neighborhood of post-1945 apartment blocs.
  • Bright Monday service at Sts. Volodymyr and Olha Church, Lviv, Ukraine.
  • The iconostasis of the recently built Church of All Saints of the Ukrainian people, in a newer section of the city of Lviv.
  • Stations of the Cross at Novosilka, Ukraine. Many commentators describe Stations as a Latinization, but even in the time of Byzantinization in the Greek Catholic Church, new stations are being erected in many places.
  • Children's Christmas decorations in the church at Novosilka, Ukraine..
  • The Ukrainian Greek Catholic diocese built a new chapel near the top of the hill by the holy spring at Novosilka.
  • The Ukrainian Greek Catholic diocese has also installed a shrine to the Virgin Mary, and a place for petitions next to the sacred spring at Novosilka.
  • A Christmas crèche and nativity icon in front of the icon screen and altar at the Greek Catholic Church of the Transfiguration, in Old Lviv.

More than any other means, the visual, tangible element of Ukrainian Catholic culture bears witness to the Church’s “in-between” status, between Roman West and Orthodox East, at least in Lviv. The music chanted in churches is distinctively Slavic, and the form of the liturgy is distinctively Byzantine.1 Time is marked with a distinctively Eastern calendar of saints. But in Ukraine, particularly in Lviv, Western and Eastern legacies are very much visible, even after a period of Byzantinization. A visit to any of the major older churches of Lviv makes the difference apparent, and shows just how much Lviv was a crossroads of cultures. Extraordinary Baroque—quintessentially Roman style—churches, legacies of Polish and Austro-Hungarian rule, are decorated with the iconostasis screens and other elements that aim to mark them as Byzantine.2 The Gothic Roman Catholic St. Elizabeth Church has been re-purposed as a Greek Catholic church, with icon screens. Even the major Orthodox church there, the Dormition Church, has a Roman-styled interior and an iconostasis.

The Eastern, Byzantine tradition has its own very powerful aesthetic language. In keeping with the Byzantine tradition, Ukrainian Catholic church interiors are meant to inspire a sense of awe and even an image of heaven. An iconostasis, a large, resplendent, typically golden wall of icons, is typically the focal point of attention in Ukrainian Catholic churches. It marks a border between heaven and earth, between the sanctuary and the body of the church, and its icons provide a glimpse into the heavenly realm, an image of divine presence. At its center is a royal door, and its sides feature two smaller doors, for the deacons and acolytes. At the lower level it features images of the Theotokos, the Mother of God; Jesus; St. John the Baptist; and the Church’s patron saint. Icons are not merely decorations, but are regarded as windows to the divine.

Ukraine is also known for its distinctive wooden churches, tserkva, which precede that baroque tradition. Few survive today, though some have been copied in the diaspora. In a number of instances, the ones that survived lasted because they were made into small museums of atheism. In Lviv, many were gathered in a park as part of a Soviet folkways museum to showcase “backward,” pre-Soviet culture.  

The flatness of the iconographic style of Byzantine art is in marked contrast to the effervescent, flowing character of Baroque art. But in the course of Byzantinization in the Church in recent decades, the UGCC has opted away from Western artistic models toward Byzantine ones. One typically sees no statues and only icons in many newer churches. But even as the Church chooses the path of Byzantinization, not all believers want to let go of Western religious practices, and Western forms pop up with some frequency, e.g. at crèche scenes in churches and in Western-styled statues of the Virgin.

Icons play an important role in Catholic home life. In a 2015 survey, Pew Research Center reported that 94% of Ukrainian Catholics said that they had icons or other holy articles at home, 81% that they light candles in churches, and 74% that they wear religious symbols.3 On the latter front, at least, religious symbols were rarely visible on people during a 2017 visit to Lviv at Easter, but may more commonly be worn discreetly.

  • 1. The distinction here derives from the fact that Greek/Byzantine music is monophonic, whereas most Slavs moved to (Western) polyphonic music. In contrast to most of Western liturgical music, it remains solely vocal, without musical accompaniment.
  • 2. In Galicia many of the now Greek Catholic churches were once Roman Catholic ones, serving the large Polish population until the end of World War II.
  • 3. Pew Research Center, “Religious Belief and National Belonging in Central and Eastern Europe,” (May 10, 2017) 75, http://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/11/2017/05/15120244/CEUP-FULL-REPORT.pdf.
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