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Žehra is one of the oldest settlements lying below Spiš Castle. Although it is a small village (on December 31, 1993 it had only 313 inhabitants), in the cultural sphere it is well known due to its parish church, the Church of the Holy Spirit. Its interior walls are covered by rare Gothic frescoes of world-wide recognition, which hundreds of visitors from all continents of the world come here to admire each year. The village lies not far from Spiš Castle itself, 4 km south of the main road No. 18 (E50), linking the towns of Levoča and Prešov. It is necessary to turn off this road past the town of Spišské Podhradie, and follow signs to the village of Hodkovce. From a distance the visitor's attention is captured by the white church's building, with its characteristic onion-shaped wooden tower cap, which sits up over the village on top of a small mound. To reach the church itself, it is necessary to climb 93 steps of unusual Spiš limestone, or travertine. Usually the church is closed on weekdays, so you have to stop by the priest's house of Father Krajňák, located right below the steps to the church. I have visited the church of the Holy spirit on two occasions in 1994 and both visits were memorable. Father Krajňák is a very nice person, helpful, going out of his way to explain in great details the history of the church and the priceless frescos.

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The history of the church begins in the 13th century. Count Jan of Žehra received permission to build a church in žehra from the "Venerabile Capitulum Scepusiense," (the Venerdble Chapter of Spiš) in 1245. The church was completed in 1275 in a transitional late-Romanesque to early-Gothic style. Over the course of the centuries it has been altered many times, thus gaining its present form. March 15, 1985, the parish church of the Holy Spirit in Žehra was proclaimed a national cultural monument and December 11, 1993, Spiš Castle and the cultural monuments in its vicinity-Spišská Kapitula and Spišské Podhradie-including the Church of the Holy Spirit in Žehra, were registered in the World Cultural Heritage List of UNESCO.

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Only the Romanesque sanctuary vault remains from the original, single-nave church. The nave had a wooden, square-paneled ceiling, but it burned down during the second half of the 15th century. After the fire, another vault was constructed, supported by an octagonal pillar, and from that time the church has had a double nave. This architectonic peculiarity is typical of several churches in the Spiš region, and as such may be considered as being unique in the world. The interior furnishings are mainly Baroque. The main altar with its relief depicting the Visitation of the Holy Spirit from the year 1656, is Baroque influenced by Late Gothic style. The side altar on the south aisle dates from 1677, although the statue of St. Nicholas and the wooden panel paintings are Gothic. "The Plague Altar" from 1663 on the north side is a gift from the parishioners as a memorial to the plague epidemic (Iues pestifera) which raged here in the years' 1644-45. The Gothic altar shrine from the year 1510 contains statues from the 14th century. The Baroque pulpit and font are also valuable. In the sanctuary next to the altar there is another pulpit, not in use today, in late-Romanesque style. There is one single Romanesque window in the eastern wall of the church behind the altar. The windows in the nave are Gothic, while that in the sanctuary has been widened, presumably because of a lack of daylight there. The present pews were put in during the 1950's, and the organ is new, installed in 1988-89.

The most valuable possessions of the church are its frescoes. They were painted onto partially-dried plaster (El fresco secco), in five groups:

Group 1: On completion of the building in 1275, the church was consecrated, and therefore anointed with sacramental unction. The places of anointing are indicated by consecration crosses. There are twelve markings on the walls, signifying the 12 apostles.

Croup 2: In the tympanum of the southern doorway (the original entrance to the church), there is a fresco from 13th century named Golgotha. The extension beside the doorway (the Lord's Tomb) was erected 100-150 years ago.

Group 3: The frescoes in the sanctuary (from the first half of the 14th century) reveal a Byzantine-Italian iconographical influence. They are found on the vaults, the walls and the lower parts of the triumphal arch.

The vault frescoes depict:on the eastern side, Christ Pontocrator,
on the northern side, the so-called "Triglav," which is a factually-incorrect, archaic designation for the Mystery of the Most Holy Trinity;
on the western side, the Theotokos-the Mother of God with the Child Jesus at her breast;
on the southern side, the Loin of Abraham.

The wall frescoes depict:
on the northern side, the Coronation of the Virgin Mary. It is worth noticing here a contemporary record concerning the development of stringed musical instruments from the first half of the 14th century-the angels are playing on "fiddles" (on both sides of the fresco). In the second row, there is the Last Supper, followed by the events in the Garden of Gethsemane.
on the eastern side (behind the altar), there is the Annunciation of the Lord. In the second row, Christ before Herod, then, below the window, Christ in the prison cell (popularly: in the well), followed by a fresco of the Scourging.
on the southern side, there are the patron saints of doctors and apothecaries, St. Cosmo and St. Damian, with some patients. In the second row, there is the Crucifixion and the Removal from the Cross.
Around the underside of the triumphal arch, there are vignettes of the prophets

Group 4: On the northern wall of the nave, there are two framed frescoes from the second half of the 14th century: a Pieta (the Seven Sufferings), and an Arbor vitae (Tree of Life), The latter is the more famous, a typical example of the "Bibliae pauperum" (the Paupers' Holy Scripture). The principal figures below the Tree of Life are the Synagogue, representing the Old Testament, and the Church for the New Testament. The fresco is full of symbols and symbolism.

Group 5: This is an assembly of frescoes from the second half of the 15th century on the northern wall of the nave. After the fire mentioned above, when the new vault was constructed with its pillar in the middle of the nave, a thin layer of fresh plaster was put on the northern wall that covered over two frescoes from the previous century (the Seven Sufferings and the Tree of Life), and then three rows of new frescoes were painted. The fresco on the front face of the triumphal arch also stems from this time.

In the top row can be seen the Death and the Coronation of the Virgin Mary. The second row portrays the Legend of Ladislav (in which the Hungarian king St. Ladislav rescues a Christian girl from the hands of the heathen Cumanians). In the bottom row, there is the Annunciation of the Lord, the Circumcision, and the Tribute of the Three Kings. On the front face of the triumphal arch, there is a representation of the Last Judgment.

This situation lasted until the end of the plague epidemic in 1646, when the hierarchy ordered disinfecting the areas in which people lived or gathered. For this reason, the whole interior surface of the church was whitewashed. The frescoes were only discovered again this century, in the 1950's, whereupon a group of experts led by Dr. Mária Marianová uncovered them fully, cleaned them (using cottage cheese) and reinforced them, though they did no restoration work. Once the frescoes from the 15th century in the nave were uncovered, careful probing was carried out, and then the 100 years older frescoes were revealed underneath, at the expense, though, of the more recent ones.

This is the history, in brief, of the early-Gothic church of the Holy Spirit in Žehra.

May hope, joy and peace be with you, parish priest of Žehra, and parishioners.





Published in the Slovak Heritage Live newsletter Volume 3, No. 4, Winter 1995
Copyright © Vladimir Linder 1995 
3804 Yale Street, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada V5C 1P6
The above article may not be copied, reproduced, republished, or redistributed by any means including electronic, without the express written permission of Vladimir Linder. All rights reserved.