Carving God Out of Rock: Ukraine’s Rock-Cut Church

In Europe, men raised their churches knowing many would never see the climax of stone and mortar. In the desert, men came upon their cathedrals at dawn or in the moonlight. Weather built these shrines on dangerous peaks with turrets like elephant’s toes close to the sun. Drawings fade into rock like the apparitions of sleep around the world and in the village of Busha in the Land of Vinnychyna, a certain cave in a rocky gorge still speaks mystery.

Once used as a church or perhaps a pagan shrine, the rock-cut ‘church’ boasts 10 foot by 3 foot reliefs on the cave walls. The scene depicted remains a mystery since its discovery over two hundred years ago. A leafless tree. A rooster on one of the branches. A kneeling woman in profile with her hands clasped in prayer. A deer. Were the authors of these images intending to communicate a spiritual or a seasonal life? Is the tree a symbol of the underworld or the Tree of Life? The rooster may symbolize the soul of the dead and with its juxtaposition with the woman and the deer, some believe that the wall’s story depicts the cycle of life and death. No one is certain of the meaning.

The date of the relief itself provokes debate. Some say the drawings date from pre-Christian times while others are not so certain. Faded text, scrawled into the walls of the cave, has produced different interpretations as well.

An inscription on one side of the gorge dates back to 1824 and claims discovery of the cave in Polish: “This cave was discovered by Romuald Ostoja Owsiany in the year 1824,” but the drawings themselves dispute this assertion.

Local folklore about this mysterious site abounds. One story suggests that villagers rose up against a cruel landlord in a nearby village prompting the target of the people’s ire to flee to the cave where he lived until his body was reported to have been found hanged between the walls. As with many places around the world, Ukraine’s rock-cut church records ancient peoples with culture and traditions that endure across the centuries.