A Christian Orthodox Wooden Church – Romanian wooden churches are a priceless national and international heritage. Until the end of the 20th century the Romanians had developed a “civilisation of wood” which was very rich, diverse and refined. Within this tradition, wooden churches reached their maximum expression. The first Christian communities of villages and towns were born here and around them, monarchic settlements. The wooden church of Leleasca is a characteristic structure typical of this area, and it is enclosed within a gate and wooden fence. Inside the courtyard, long tables called “the table of the dead people” are used for religious events and traditional mass. The church is still functional and the villagers attend religious services. It belongs to the Romanian Orthodox Church and is dedicated to the Assumption.
Region and Period – The wooden church of Leleasca is situated in southern Romania, in the northern part of Olt County, between hills covered by pine, poplar and oak trees at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains. The population of the area were poor peasants, who respected Christian and the Romanian traditions. At times in history during the Ottoman wars the village people needed to find a safe places to hide from raiders who killed many people, and those who survived, near the Romanian mountains and among the woods, found a good place to live. The wooden church of Leleasca village is one of the most representative wooden churches in the Southern part of Romania. Soon it will be a part of UNESCO’s historical heritage. This preference for wood in our country is due to the natural richness with vast forests and to a strong tradition in the art of carpenters. The oldest wooden churches in Romania may be built in the 13th and 14th centuries. The end of the 18th centrury and the beginning of the 19th seem to be the beginning of the construction of churches of bricks and stone. As well as the common features, the Romanian wooden churches demonstrate a variety in the technique of building and decoration. These kinds of churches may also be found beyond the Romanian borders, in the countries around us where there are ancient Romanian villages.
History of the building – Not too much is known about the building of this church, but is thought to have been built around 1549. This date appears as the earliest inscription found on the walls carved with a chisel and a hatchet. There are also names of the carpentry masters who built or repaired the church and the dates inscribed on the walls. A second inscription written in Cyrillic script, says that there were construction works in the period 1765-1766. This is the form of the church which can be found today. The third important inscription says that there were other construction works in the period 1792-1793 which were completed in 1794. The church was refurbished in 1942 and also in the period 2009-2010. The construction of wooden churches was exclusively reserved for the master craftmen who specialised in church building. The necessary knowledge for the construction of a church with smooth loops and straight walls was kept secret by the masters, working apart from the ordinary people. The local carpenters didn’t have the necessary knowledge to build churches. They could only assist the master ccarpenters who only shared their secrets with other master builders of churches from other parts of the country. They were considered an elite, and were supported by priests in their sacred mission.
Description of the structure – The wooden church building in Leleasca is rather small in dimensions, the height of the church being about 12 m, and much smaller than the churches from Transylvania. The building layout follows the traditions of the churches of orthodox tradition: a rectangular altar, rectangular nave and a narthex (reserved for women). The timber used for the construction was first and foremost oak, but pine was also used. Taking into account the big dimensions of the beams some very old trees were used. The roof is made of cleft softwood shingles fixed on wooden battens and pegged. The walls of the church are made of big horizontal beams, connected at their ends with the help of special joints, without any other additional bearing structures. There are many decorative carvings decorating the inside and outside timber elements. The nave is rectangular and the altar is unhooked with five sides. The belfry has a semi-closed turret or semi arbor and a spire with four slopes. The upper beam ends are extended at the church corners in the form of a bracket and provide a decorative function. They are carved in the form of the head of a horse, an animal which, in the popular tradition, can chase away evil spirits. These sculptures, curves, we find on the church make to this building a unique one. Almost each structural element is carved. Geometrical and zoomorfic elements on the beams, posts and doors have multiple significance, from the snake of the house which brings wealth, to the horse which keep away the evil spirits, to circles, diamonds, and a sun emblem which represent the cicle of life, for life itself.
Structural assembly – The church is built from oak and pine horizontally-laid beams. These beams are connected with double dovetail joints which is the most useful method of obtaining a structural strength, but also for decorative reasons. The porch is enclosed with a railing, with vertical battens which are joined using the technique “nut and feder”. The nave and the narthex are covered by transversal barrel vaults. The longitudinal beams which support the vault of the nave end in consoles are carved in the form of the head of a horse. The beams which form the walls are carved from big old trees, taking into account the their length and width in the structure of the church. Each beam was cut on all four sides. At the ends of each beam, a dovetail form was carved, in such a way that two beams one on the other, arranged on the lengthwise form the necessary cavity, the socket, for the pin of the beam arranged widthwise. The beams are also fixed between them using wooden dowels. The ends of the first beams which are put on the foundation of the church are half dovtail in order to make the the whole contact with the foundation, without holes. The dovetail joint is obtained arranging alternatively lengthwise and widthwise the beams. The dovetail is carved in a complex way, having different angles with the vertical and the horizontal. The opposite faces of the tail are not of the same dimensions and forms. The secret of the double dovetail joints is the angle of each cut. The nave and the narthex are covered by transversal barrel vaults. The beams which support the arches of the vault of the nave have a horse-head end. Concerning the roof, we can find the framework of the rafter put together with the help of collar ties and joints named birds-mouth. The roof is not supported by the vault, but by cantilevered top plates, the ridge-board, collar ties and gable wall studs. Nails are not used, but wooden pegs which are found in many parts of the church, including the walls, but especialy on the roof.
Joints: Dovetail joint – The upper and the lower sides are carved in a different angle from the horizontal point of view, they are not parallel, making this way, the vertical and parallel sides be of different dimensions. The angles of the tail are calculated in such a way that the end of a longitudinal beam will fit perfectly in the space created by two beams one on the other transversaly oriented. Between the beams, for a better joint, dowels are introduced. No nails are used. Each beam has only one tail or pin. The simple dovetail joints have many pins and sockets, and the ends of the tails or pins are of a square or a regulate rectangular section.
Joint: T-connection using mortice and tenon – This form of joint is highly resistant to tension. It does not need glue when assembling. The joint is formed by a vertical column which has a rectangular stub tenon and on the horizontal beam a perpendicular-oriented socket in to which the square tenon plugs. The horizontal bracket supports two roof rafters. Each rafter has a hollow cutout which is wedged in place for a better connection to the horizontal beam.
Joint: Horsehead cantilever – This type of joint, is which a cantilever supports the the arch of the vault of the roodf of the nave, but also supports the wall plate of the roof. The cantiliver stub end has been carved in the form of a of a horse’s head. The cantiliver is fixed both horizontaly and perpendicular on the wall. Then, the wall plate is fixedd, and then the arch of the vault of the nave is lowered.