Capturing The Imagination – Buchach’s Ratusha (Town Hall): The Heights of Obscurity

The power of a great work of art lies in its ability to capture the viewer’s imagination. It creates a whole new world that the viewer suddenly inhabits. The rest of the world disappears momentarily, there is no such thing as time and everything else ceases to exist. There is only the viewer and the artwork interacting. The conversation that ensues – non-verbal, rife with emotion and filled with sensory experience – is a higher form of communication. If the artwork is powerful enough it might also call the viewer to action. That is what happened to me after viewing a photo of the Ratusha (Town Hall) in Buchach, Ukraine. I instantly felt a magnetic allure, something invisible, inexorably pulling me towards a new reality. At the time I was sitting several thousand kilometers, at least three flights and a long train ride away. This did nothing to impede my restless imaginings. It might take months or even a year before I get there, but I have to see the Buchach Ratusha in person.

Buchach Ratusha (Town Hall)

Buchach Ratusha (Town Hall)

Mystifying Intensity – A Rising In Buchach
Why did this building in an obscure, small western Ukrainian city come to suddenly mean so much to me? A combination of a love for obscure places and the building’s powerful aesthetic charms are probably the best explanation. My love of obscurity is a selfish desire. I need places to call my own. Paris, Venice and Berlin, all places that I have visited, no longer interest me. I am looking for somewhere that is way out of the way. Not just Eastern Europe, but deep in the forlorn backwaters of a region that rarely reaches the public consciousness. Buchach – 155 kilometers south of Lviv – certainly meets that qualification. Above all, the Ratusha at its center is a powerful expression of survival and architectural achievement on the eastern fringes of Europe. It looks as though it might collapse at any moment or stand forever. That balancing act, between degeneration and exoneration, gives the structure a mystifying intensity.

It is an elegant slice of soaring grandeur. The façade exhibits Rococo style architecture with stylistic flourishes that can still be discerned despite the wear and tear from multiple World Wars, a half-century of Soviet indifference and administrative neglect. The building is a product of genius, a singular architectural vision. That makes it all the more shocking so little is known about the architect, a man by the name of Bernard Meretyn. This fact attracts rather than repels me. I want to know everything about the man, though my information is limited to English language sources. To be a personal repository of Meretyn’s biography would be the height of intellectual obscurity.

Church of Immaculate Conception in Horodenka

Church of Immaculate Conception in Horodenka (Credit: Руслан Стражник)

The Invisible Man – Bernard Meretyn
Meretyn’s work has been given some recognition, most of which has to do with St. George’s Cathedral and the Lubomirski Palace in Lviv. He stands out only on the fringes, with nearly all of his work found in towns scattered across provincial western Ukraine.  He had trouble working in Lviv. He came into conflict with the powerful guilds of which he was not a member. Meretyn was forced to work outside their system. He was taken to court on occasion, but managed to avoid jail. Unfortunately after his death one of his sons was imprisoned due to the debts his father incurred. Meretyn was not alone during his productive years, as he teamed up with sculptor Johann Georg Pinsel, also a world class artisan.

The tepid acclaim for Meretyn has to do with both the geographical location of his work and a biography that is lacking in the specific details of his life. His place and date of birth remains unknown, but his ethnicity was almost certainly German. The churches he built, of which there are several prominent ones still standing today – such as the Church of Immaculate Conception in Horodenka – are done in the Austro-German late Baroque style. He came to the eastern reaches of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth looking for work and found wealthy aristocratic patrons such as the powerful Potocki family who commissioned several of his most famous projects. He arrived in Lviv in 1738 and worked throughout the surrounding region until his death in 1761. He left behind a wife, son and daughter. These paltry details are all that is really known about Meretyn’s personal life. His architectural work says more about the man than any written information.

Church of the Theotokos Assumption in Buchach

Church of the Theotokos Assumption in Buchach (Credit: Wikipedia)

In Stone & Style – An Architectural Biography
Meretyn’s biography is written in stone and style. In Buchach, Meretyn left behind a clutch of buildings both secular and spiritual that leave little doubt as to the power of his vision. The Churches of the Theotokos Assumption and the Theotokos Intercession are fusions of the late Baroque with traditional Ukrainian sacral architecture. Imagine the refinement of Mitteleuropa topped with an onion dome.  Then there is the Town Hall, first constructed in 1751, a monument to the power of noble patronage. Meretyn produced for the Potocki family a structure that continues to speak across the ages of aristocratic virtue, the flow of European civilization to the most far flung locales and a reverence for civic order. Pinsel added the sculptural elements, tasteful touches both exotic and elegant. It is a shame that Meretyn’s architectural ensemble at Buchach is not better known.

The Town Hall at Buchach is a representative example of an age when noblesse oblige and artistic refinement were intertwined. Even during the dying days of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth the Potocki’s were able to utilize Meretyn’s talents to build a monument to their wealth and power. At the same time, both the patron and the artist bequeathed to both present and future generations a vision of civic grandeur. Buchach’s Ratusha has managed to survive the region’s tumultuous history. The level of its artistic achievement can be ascertained from the fact that still today – even in a less than perfect state – the Ratusha manages to communicate some of its greatness to the viewer. This is a building that represents ideals of beauty, virtue, truth and justice. These timeless values are represented in a timeless piece of architecture. The Ratusha is a work of art that everyone should see.

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