Russia Religion Monasticism Monastery Convent of the Dormition (Alexandrovskaya Slobodа)

Convent of the Dormition (Alexandrovskaya Slobodа)

The Convent of the Dormition is located in the town of Alexandrov in the north-west of Vladimir Region. Alexandrov stands on the main northern highway leading from Moscow in the direction of Yaroslavl. The town lies between the St Sergius Monastery of the Trinity in Sergiev Posad and the Old Russian town of Pereslavl-Zalessky.

Alexandrov officially became a town in 1778. Throughout the nineteenth century, it had five to six thousand inhabitants and was seemingly no different from hundreds of other small provincial cities. But the town was once the medieval residence of the grand princes and, as such, the site of several important events in Russian history.

Alexandrov is also the home of the Convent of the Dormition, which was founded in the middle of the seventeenth century. Although the community was extremely large, numbering over two hundred nuns, and the convent enjoyed the status of a first-class cloister, it never ranked among the top Russian monasteries.

The fame and importance of Alexandrov are linked to two important events in the sixteenth century. At the start of the century, a slobod? (an independent settlement exempt from taxes and duties) grew up around the hunting estate of Grand Prince Basil III of Muscovy. Then, in the second half of the sixteenth century, the slobod? became the capital of Russia. For seventeen years, it was the official residence of Ivan the Terrible, who suddenly left Moscow and settled there.

During this time, the life of the slobod? and its buildings belonged not to local history, but to the very fabric and heart of the nation. The intertwining and blurring of the boundaries between public and private, court and church, amusing and tragic, lent a special tinge to the events of the following periods.

The name of Alexandrov probably dates back to the thirteenth century, when this territory belonged to the princes of Vladimir-Suzdal and, more specifically, to Prince Alexander Nevsky. A slobod? with this name was known as early as the fourteenth century. In 1505, the ownership of these lands passed to the new grand prince of Muscovy, Basil III, who founded a hunting lodge a few miles from the old slobod?, on the rocky bank of the River Sera. This paved the way for the formation of a royal village – the new Alexandrovskaya Slobod?.

In 1509, after the completion of the new ensemble of palaces in the Moscow Kremlin, the foundations were laid for a Cathedral of the Intercession in the slobod?. This church was similar in size and decor to the Kremlin cathedrals and was quickly built. The prince’s court was rebuilt at the same time.

The Cathedral of the Intercession was consecrated in 1513. In the margins of a prayerbook compendium now in the library of the St Sergius Monastery of the Trinity, an unknown mid-sixteenth-century author writes that this event was attended by the grand prince and his court. Although the other royal buildings were made of wood, the outstanding architecture and composition of the Cathedral of the Intercession more than made up for this.

When making pilgrimages to the St Sergius Monastery of the Trinity or the more remote northern cloisters, Basil III often stopped off at his royal residence. Archive documents show that he visited Alexandrov in 1528, 1529 and 1533.

In 1547, Basil was succeeded by his son, Ivan the Terrible, who was the first ruler to be formally crowned as tsar of all Russia. Ivan was already familiar with the slobod?, which is probably what determined the subsequent fate of this place. Sensing the growing public anger at his despotic deeds, the cruel and suspicious tsar decided to physically isolate himself from the rest of the country, creating a separate state within the state known as the oprichnina (from the Russian word oprich, meaning “apart from”).

On 3 October 1564, Ivan the Terrible went to celebrate St Nicholas’s Day at Kolomenskoe near Moscow, accompanied by his family and a group of close friends. But this was no ordinary outing. The royal wagons were piled high with icons, crosses, vessels, garments, dishes and money. The entourage included an unusually large number of boyars, nobles and service people, protected by armed men “from every town.”

After visiting Kolomenskoe, the procession set off for the St Sergius Monastery of the Trinity, before unexpectedly stopping at Alexandrovskaya Slobod?. For a whole month, the rest of the country was left bewildered and in complete ignorance. On 3 January 1565, the tsar sent a messenger to Metropolitan Athanasius with a list of the treasonous acts of the boyars, ecclesiastic hierarchy and all his servants, explaining the reasons for his decision to abandon Moscow: “The tsar and grand prince, out of the great pity in his heart, and not wanting to tolerate their many treasonable activities, is leaving his state and will go where God so disposes.”

The sudden departure of Ivan the Terrible led to the complete collapse of normal life in the capital. Filled with dread and a sense of ill-boding, the Muscovites sent envoys to appease the angry tsar. Ivan was awarded autocratic powers to punish or pardon as he saw fit, the right to confiscate property and permission “to found in the state an oprichnina, and to make its court and all its customs special.”

In this way, Alexandrovskaya Slobod? suddenly became the new capital of Russia. The palace buildings were surrounded by a ditch, an earthen rampart and a wooden wall faced with bricks. All the services required by the court were constructed nearby, from stables to a printing house. Posts were erected two miles away, which no one was allowed to cross without the permission of the tsar. Supported by a group of slavish followers, Ivan the Terrible embarked on a policy of trials, executions and pillage. Prince Andrei Kurbsky defected to Lithuania, calling Alexandrovskaya Slobod? a “blood-thirsty town.”

Ivan’s reign of terror extended to religious matters, imparting an element of phantasmagoria to life at the court. The more the tsar sinned, the more exaltedly and demonstratively he later repented. The slobod? was transformed into something resembling a monastic community. The members of the tsar’s closest circle called themselves monks and wore black cassocks and caps over their gilded kaftans and weapons. The “abbot” was Ivan the Terrible, while the duties of sexton were performed by Malyuta Skuratov, the tsar’s odious henchman.

After a midnight service in the Cathedral of the Intercession, everyone was obliged to attend morning worship at four am. At eight o’clock, they sat down to eat breakfast. During the meal, Ivan the Terrible read the lives of the saints and ate separately. The rest of the day was spent in important business or ceremonies, ranging from the reception of ambassadors to the execution of prisoners. All acts and decrees contained indirect references to pious deeds and the holy scriptures. Every day ended with an evening service, meal and prayers.

From his base inside Alexandrovskaya Slobod?, Ivan the Terrible launched murderous attacks on the rest of his country. Tver and Torzhok were sacked and razed. In Novgorod, forty thousand people were killed in the space of three days in 1571. The town was littered with corpses and awash in blood. Plunder was carted back to the tsar’s court in the slobod? and hoarded in the palace chambers, cathedrals and stone cellars.

That same year, two royal weddings were held at Alexandrovskaya Slobod?. The tsar’s eldest son and heir, Ivan, married Eudoxia Saburova. Ivan himself married Martha Sobakina, the beautiful daughter of a Novgorod merchant. She became his third wife, but died shortly after the wedding ceremony.

The presence of the court in Alexandrovskaya Slobod? necessitated the reconstruction of the old palace and the building of new stone chapels – the Trinity and Dormition Churches. The Church of St Alexius of Moscow was rebuilt and transformed into a monumental belfry. The wooden palace (not surviving) stood to the east of the Cathedral of the Intercession. Following historical specimens and the example of the Moscow Kremlin, the new palace had a lower basement and upper state floors. Similarly, all the churches had vaulted basements, just like the utility and residential premises of the palace.

For seventeen years, Alexandrovskaya slobod? was the home of Ivan the Terrible. His reason for leaving this place was also ? tragedy. In 1581, in a fit of rage, he struck his eldest son Ivan on the head with his sceptre, killing him. Finally broken by this act of filicide, he returned to Moscow.

The abandoned palace quickly fell into disuse and frequently caught fire. In 1609, during the Time of Troubles, Alexandrovskaya Slobod? was occupied by the Lithuanian hetman Jan Piotr Sapieha. Although it was recaptured by Prince Mikhail Skopin-Shuisky, it was retaken by Sapieha in 1611, remaining in his hands until 1612.

After the final expulsion of the foreign invaders, the former royal palace lay in ruins or, as was written in the inventory of 1627, “broken rocks and mounds.” The Dormition and Trinity Churches stood abandoned and unconsecrated. Services could only be held in the Cathedral of the Intercession, which became the main place of worship for all the inhabitants of the slobod?. The status of former capital gave way to provincial neglect. Religious life began to die out, as there were no priests and not enough money or food.

In 1642, a monk called Hilarion from the Monastery of the Intercession near Uglich settled in the forest not far from Alexandrovskaya Slobod?. He took the name of Lucian and tried to build a new church and found a tiny cloister on an abandoned site near the Church of the Nativity of the Virgin. But religious intrigues and problems with the landowners led to the persecution of Lucian, who was imprisoned at the Monastery of the Miracle in Moscow. In 1650, after his third attempt, the patriarch finally gave his blessing to the creation of a hermitage not far from Alexandrovskaya Slobod?.

In 1649, two widows from Alexandrovskaya Slobod?, Fyodora and Anisia, came to Lucian and told him of their desire to become nuns. Two years later, Lucian was granted permission by Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich to open a convent at the Dormition Church in the former royal court – on the condition that they restore the building and “wash the dirt from the icons.”

The Dormition Church was in a state of ruin. The nuns settled in the ground floor of the northern side-chapel. The convent was cenobitic, with a common refectory, and the sisters attended services at the Cathedral of the Intercession. Although the tsar’s donations were more than modest – thirty roubles in 1651 and forty roubles in 1654 – they managed to build two wooden cells and a fence and to restore the icons. In 1654, the Dormition Church was finally consecrated. By this time, there were around two dozen nuns.

Despite these initial difficulties, the Convent of the Dormition began to slowly grow. In 1658, the hieromonk Cornelius was appointed the confessor and head of the cloister (he was also the abbot of the St Lucian Hermitage). The convent was so poor that the entrance halls in some of the wooden cells were made from plaited brushwood. There was not even anyone to conduct the church services.

In 1671, Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich presented the convent with seventeen sheepskin coats, tablecloths and seventeen axes. The number of nuns rapidly increased. In 1664, there were around fifty sisters, who were awarded a very modest annual salary (rhoga) from the state.

In 1670, almost a hundred elder nuns lived at the convent. By 1682, this figure had doubled. The vaults and domes of the Dormition Church were pulled down and rebuilt all over again. The side-chapel of St Nicholas the Miracle-Worker was dismantled and reconstructed as the side-chapel of St Mary of Egypt, the patroness of the elders. A refectory and a belltower were built to the west of the church. The new altars were consecrated in 1667.

During their pilgrimages to the St Sergius Monastery of the Trinity and the town of Pereslavl-Zalessky, the tsar’s family often visited the Convent of the Dormition. A wooden palace was built for the royal guests in the first half of the seventeenth century. The convent saved up its donations and was gradually awarded the entire territory of the former royal court. The nuns were also allowed to use materials from the old buildings for new edifices. A long block of cells and hospital wards were constructed, while the Trinity Church was rebuilt and expanded.

The loss of the sixteenth-century palace adversely affected the general compositional scheme. There was now an empty space in the middle, with the remaining churches scattered around the edges. This sense of emptiness can still be felt today, transforming each of the other churches into enigmatic buildings standing on their own, like separate chapters torn from the pages of a once great book. The buildings constructed in the seventeenth century and the local landscape went some way to joining them together in a new composition – different in scale and rhythm, yet attractive in its own way.

The Convent of the Dormition stands on the hilly slope of the River Sera. The road approaching the cloister from Moscow comes from behind the river. There are beautiful views of the convent both from the road and from the other side of the river valley. The Cathedral of the Intercession and the belltower form the centre of the composition. The tops of the Trinity and Dormition Churches slightly further back are rhythmically matches by the verticals of the new belltowers.

The jewel of the ensemble is the Cathedral of the Intercession. This building was largely inspired by the Trinity Cathedral at the St Sergius Monastery of the Trinity, although the scale and the decor reflect the tastes of a later period. The catholicon is more than two metres longer and wider than the Trinity Cathedral. The square beneath the cupola is almost equal in size to such monumental predecessors as the St Sophia Cathedral in Novgorod.

The large arched gables above the cubic volume and the decorative girdles in the middle of the facades, the ends of the apses and the dome-drum recall the early Muscovite architecture of the fifteenth century. Other decorative elements, however, reflect a slightly later period. The white-stoned girdles of ribbons, with their motifs of S-shaped volutes, crosses in circles and flowers (lilies) are supplemented by an upper girdle of Renaissance ovae on the apses and a girdle of ogees with an acanthus motif at the top of the dome-drum. These carry clear echoes of the Kremlin cathedrals built in the early sixteenth century, suggesting the participation of both Russian and Italian masters in the creation of the Cathedral of the Intercession. The capitals of the pilaster strips are similarly Italianate.

At the present time, the Cathedral of the Intercession has been greatly distorted by alterations made between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. The widened windows, the slightly swollen coverings of the galleries and the main quadrilateral structure, and the whitewashing of the whole building make the cathedral seem squat and friable. Originally, the main unit was distinguished for its structural clarity and strict and solemn forms. The cultural layer of earth conceals the true height of the ground floor and the open galleries on arcades surrounding the cathedral on three sides. On the eastern side, the galleries end in the single-cupola side-chapels of St Sergius of Radonezh and St Nicholas the Miracle-Worker.

The main volume of the cathedral rises up above the galleries, which acts like a pedestal. All the structural elements of the facades – basement zone, girdles, pilaster strips and the arches of the arched gables – were created from white stone. The walls, arched gables and dome-drum were made of unpainted brick. Only the joins in the cement were painted white. This bicoloured approach imparted definition and energy to the architectural forms. The western facade was the main one and the first to be seen when arriving at the royal court. The grand staircase in the centre led to the gallery and the richly decorated main entrance to the cathedral.

The decorative girdle in the centre of the western facade is interrupted by a large icon-case in a perspective “portal” frame. A fresco of the Intercession of the Virgin survives inside. The icon-case directly adjoins the portal. This common group is crowned by an arched window, creating an independent pyramidal composition. The portal itself is a unique work of art, displaying the clear influence of Italian models.

The profiles of the portal and the icon-case are covered in handsome Renaissance fretwork. Intertwining shoots of floral ornamentation adorn the elegant vertical panels of the portal pilasters and slopes. The wide perspective arch of the portal is decorated with large radial floral shoots with three symmetrical pairs of volutes. The semi-circular archivolts are covered in scaly ornamentation. The cavettos at the tips of the pilaster capitals and the external arch of the portal are embellished with acanthus flowers. Prior to restoration work, traces of blue and green paint were discovered on the background of the fretwork, while yellow paint was found on the actual fretwork.

The northern and southern portals of the Cathedral of the Intercession are more traditional. Their frames are formed from the alternating rectangular and semi-circular profiles. The engaged columns have thickenings typical of the early fifteenth century. All the profiles are covered in ornamental designs. The corner profiles have floral patterns, while the semi-circular ones are transformed into spiral plaits. The spirals of the columns down the sides of the apertures move in different directions, outwards, as if opening up the portal. The spirals of the archivolts revolve towards one another, joined in the middle by the same acanthus flower motif.

The western and northern portals act as magnificent frames for the doorways, which are genuine masterpieces of Old Russian art. The double-hinged gates in the western doorway are known as the Tver Gates. They were brought back from Tver by Ivan the Terrible in 1539, after he had ravaged the cathedral of that town.

The Tver Gates were commissioned by Bishop Theodore in the middle of the fourteenth century. The wooden bases of the doors are edged with smooth bronze plates. The only ornamentation on these large squares is the eight-petalled rosettes of the nails holding the sheets in place. Nevertheless, the austere segmentation and balanced proportions transform the doors into a masterpiece of decorative art. An engraved image of the Holy Trinity, dating from the late fourteenth century, survives on one of the plates on the inside of the doors.

The doors of the southern portal come from the St Sophia Cathedral in Novgorod. They were originally commissioned by Archbishop Basil in 1336 and removed by Ivan the Terrible in 1571. Semi-circular shafts divide each side of the door into two vertical series of seven compositions. The subjects are Gospel and Biblical events. The plates are attached to the doors by nails with large rounded heads. The points of intersection of the shafts are decorated with round rosettes. An image of John the Baptist, patron saint of Ivan the Terrible, was added to the centre of the large vertical shaft when the doors were removed from Novgorod.

The technique in which the images were applied – fire gilding – makes the gates even more precious. The deep black background imparts a special expressiveness to the shining patterns covered in gold. Several years earlier, in the 1560s, similar doors had been made for the Annunciation Cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin. The Godunovs also commissioned such works for the Trinity Cathedral at the Ipatiev Monastery in Kostroma. But instead of commissioning new works for his oprichnina residence, Ivan the Terrible simply removed the doors from the cathedrals in the towns that he had attacked.

The interior of the Cathedral of the Intercession exudes an air of calm and majesty. The mighty square pillars do not infringe upon the spatial unity. The mighty vaults and slightly raised arches beneath the cupola impart a sense of centricism to the well-lit space. This was the setting for church services attended by the oprichniki and the “tsar-abbot.” The frescoes covering the walls and vaults were painted in the middle of the sixteenth century.

Subjects from the life of the Mother of God enjoyed special importance among the wall-paintings. Compositions on this theme appeared on the vaults of the cathedral, while the large lunette above the central apse was decorated with an image of the Intercession of the Virgin. Although now concealed behind the later iconostasis, this was originally the main church composition, facing the worshippers when there was only a low stone screen in front of the altar. The cathedral frescoes were constantly restored. Between 1887 and 1889, they were touched up by an artel of masters from Palekh headed by Nikolai Safonov.

The Cathedral of the Intercession subsequently underwent major alterations. The open broad promenade gallery was transformed into a circular parvis on round pillars, which was completely closed. In the eighteenth century, this area was used as the sacristy and book repository. The side-chapels were partially rebuilt, while their cupolas were removed in the early nineteenth century. Nonetheless, the first church of the royal slobod? was always the main place of worship for the court, the convent and, from the late eighteenth century, the whole town.

The second most important building at the Convent of the Dormition – in terms of its architecture – is the Trinity Church. Probably built around 1571 as a palace chapel, the church now has an expansive refectory, belltower, porch and extensions to the north and south. Both the church itself and the south-eastern side-chapel date from the days of Ivan the Terrible.

The Trinity Church has a unique ceiling. In the corners of the main premises, which are extended in a transverse direction, a transition to an octagonal structure has been created with the help of squinches (in the form of halves of groined vaults). The form of this transversely extended small octagon is created by the cornice.

In the following tier, additional arches thrown between the squinches to the north and south form a regular octagon, which is transformed by the flat pendentives into a circle, visually underscored by the cornice fillet. On the outside, this tier remains an octagonal superstructure. It is surrounded by eight large corbel arches, two of which – the northern and southern ones – contain round windows.

Higher up is a low octagonal superstructure (both on the outside and on the inside) with narrow windows in the centre of the facets. The projection on the outside designates where the wall thins out, but the large profiles of the cornice restore the width of the foundation. The composition ends in a tented roof with a lantern cupola (the low height makes the tented roof look squat).

The facades of the Trinity Church repeat the colour scheme of the Cathedral of the Intercession – white-stoned ground floor, white-stoned panelled pilasters, cornices, corbel arches and red brick surfaces of the walls. Although the rhythm of the entire composition is slightly drier and more geometric, this could be linked to the rectangular units of the adjoining wooden palace and the surrounding wooden parvises. Even the south-eastern side-chapel looks like a closet. Inside, it is covered by a camber arch with deep cusps. An additional vault, crowned with a cupola, once rose above it.

The eastern wall of the church was crowned by a straight cornice. This wall did not have any apses, only a small rectangular chamber housing the treasury, covered in the same vaults as the side-chapel. In the main premises, the apses were originally only designated by the high and shallow niches in the eastern wall. This served to further underline the role of the church as a domestic chapel. The existing apses appeared during reconstruction work in the late seventeenth century.

When the Trinity Church was rebuilt in the late seventeenth century, the interior was covered with an additional dome, cutting it off from the tented roof. During restoration work, when the vault was dismantled, the original paintwork was discovered on the facets of the tented roof. The decorative scheme followed the usual composition of painted cupolas, supplemented by the celestial patrons of the Russian autocrats. The cupola contained images of the Lord of Hosts and cherubs. Lower, on the eight facets of the tented roof, the four archangels alternated with the four evangelists. Beneath them were prophets (two on each facet), forefathers (three on each facet) and medallions with princes (four on each facet).

The surviving western portals of the side-chapel and church are as unique as those in the Cathedral of the Intercession. The rectangular portals of the side-chapel are framed by a string of alternating “beads” and semi-circular elements, ending in a triangular pediment. The main element in the frame of the arched end of the portal is a mighty shaft. The cuts in the shaft transform it into a spiral plait. When it reaches the pilaster, it ends in large rosettes, the frames of which turn into a spiral leading towards the centre, rather like a mollusc shell. This likeness is transformed into a fantastic reality by the sculptural images down the sides of the rosettes.

Just as interesting as the architecture of the Trinity Church is its two-storey white-stoned ground floor. This is the only surviving section of the royal palace, offering a fascinating insight into the scale and character of this building. The ground floor has the same width as the church, while its two eastern chambers correspond to the outlines of the church and the treasury. The longitude wall divides the western compartment of the ground floor into two equal halls. The square part of the ground floor above them acted as the foundation for the solemn premises in front of the church, which the western portal faced.

The cellar in the basement exactly repeats the outlines of the ground floor. It consists of three chambers, as the western part formed a single square room. The large area (thirty to seventy square metres) and height (up to four metres) invest the chambers with a sense of grandeur. They are covered in groined and camber arches with deep cusps, which rest on capital-consoles. The tops of the vaults are marked by large white-stoned rosettes with holes for hanging chandeliers. The cellar was used to store ornaments and property stolen by Ivan the Terrible. The chambers in the ground floor could be used as a treasury, armoury, dining room or even a bedchamber.

In the late seventeenth century, the Trinity Church was adjoined on the west by a refectory and a tented-roof belltower. By this time, there were around two hundred nuns at the convent, necessitating the building of a large refectory. The two-pillared hall was 360 square metres in size, recalling the former existence – possibly in the very same place – of the throne room in the now destroyed palace. The high tented-roof belltower likened the Trinity Church to the Cathedral of the Intercession, helping to bring the whole spatial composition together in a single ensemble.

The same logic can be seen in the annexes built next to the Dormition Church, where the history of the convent began back in 1651. Like the Trinity Church, this small place of worship was adjoined by an expansive refectory and a tented-roof belltower in the 1660s. The refectory was two-pillared and appears to have served as the inspiration for the refectory of the Trinity Church. This building was constructed in the early years, when the convent was home to no more than fifty nuns, which is why it is only 180 square metres in size.

Around this time, the Dormition Church received new vaults and five cupolas, as was common in mid-seventeenth-century buildings. Not everything about the church, however, is typical. The western side has white-stoned tiers in the ground floor and a vaulted promenade gallery, while the eastern side has a high white-stoned ground floor and traces of a broken-off arcade dating from the same time as the promenade gallery.

As the former domestic chapel of the female half of the royal palace, the Dormition Church includes part of the sixteenth-century ensemble. The church portals, with their diagonal slants and panels, also date from the sixteenth century. Traces of the passageway joining the palace and the church survive in the north-eastern section of the ground floor. The two-storey annexe adjoining the church from the north was built in the seventeenth century and served as cells for the first elders. This building was also constructed over the two-storey remains of the royal palace.

Ever since the days of Ivan the Terrible, the main vertical of the ensemble has been the tented-roof belltower standing to the south of the Cathedral of the Intercession. The belltower was erected in two stages.

The Church of St Alexius of Moscow is a small pillar-shaped octagon. It was initially built on the same axis as the southern entrance to the cathedral, probably at the same time as the cathedral itself. The outside of the church was decorated with a two-tiered arcade on pilasters. The deep slopes, bases, panels and capitals likened the lower pilasters to the foundations of the western portal of the cathedral. Slightly higher up was a third tier – an octagonal superstructure with pilasters in the corners. The whole building ended in a protruding cornice, followed by several rows of corbel arches crowned by a small cupola. Inside, the vertical space reached the height of the two lower tiers and was covered by a groined vault.

After the palace was reconstructed and new churches were rebuilt during the reign of Ivan the Terrible, there was a clear need for a large-scale dominant. In the 1570s, the Church of St Alexius of Moscow was surrounded by eight sturdy pylons with deep arches, which reached as high as the two tiers of the old church. Further up, the pylons formed the short tier of an open arched gallery.

The three tiers of large corbel arches above the octagonal unit of the church end in an open octagonal superstructure, which probably originally housed a striking clock. The building has a high tented roof with distinctive ribs and a small cupola. This increases its height to fifty-three metres, making it twice as high as the previous church. The simplified geometrism of the panels, the columns sunk into the wall and the relief of the corbel arches add to the grandeur, scale and might of the building.

The octagonal pillar is currently adjoined on the south-west by a small belfry. This is only a small part of the monumental wall-shaped belfry of the 1570s. The bells were appropriated by Ivan the Terrible from the belfry of the St Sophia Cathedral in Novgorod and the Trinity Cathedral in Pskov.

The lower tier of the existing belfry contains four small chambers, which were once the rooms of tsarevna Martha Alexeyevna, half-sister of Peter the Great. In 1698, in the aftermath of the Streltsy revolt, the tsar incarcerated his first wife, Eudoxia Lopukhina, in the Convent of the Intercession in Suzdal. Two months later, Martha was banished to the Convent of the Dormition and forced to take the veil as Sister Margaret. Unlike Eudoxia, however, Martha was not deprived of funds, as Peter sent large sums of money for the upkeep of his sister (around 2,500 roubles a year).

In 1706, Peter’s son Alexis secretly visited his mother in Suzdal. He probably stopped on the way to visit Martha at the Convent of the Dormition, which lay on the road to Suzdal. On 19 June 1707, Martha died and was buried in a vault beneath the hospital church. In 1713, her sister Feodosia was laid to rest alongside her.

The most important act of construction in the 1670s was the building of the cells and the convent stockade. Seventy-seven cells formed a single L-shaped block running along the northern and eastern sides of the cloister. The total length of the block was 350 metres.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, part of the eastern block was dismantled, while a second floor was added to the remaining sections. In the most important chambers, the centres of the vaults are decorated with ornamental white-stoned rosettes, recalling the decorated vaults of the sixteenth-century chambers in the ground floor of the Trinity Church.

Hospital wards and the Church of the Purification were built into the line of cells on the eastern side. After a fire in 1858, when all the vaults collapsed, this block was covered in a bland sloping roof.

The shape of the new stockade was similar to a square. Only the western side above the river formed a sharp angle where it joined the southern side. The convent was slightly smaller in size than the old royal court. According to the inventory of 1627, the walls around the court were 530 sazhens (around 1,100 metres) in length. The convent stockade, by comparison, was only 452 sazhens (950 metres). Round towers with tented roofs were built in the four corners. The cupolas and steeples date from the second half of the eighteenth century.

The inside walls contain the shallow arcade of a military gallery with standard rows of arrowslits. The small dimensions of the walls – only one and a half metres thick and less than eight and a half metres in height – deprive the stockade of any defensive function. Although the walls do not have any merlons, the blind arcade running along the entire perimeter adds a sense of elasticity and transparency to the architectural forms.

The gateway Church of St Theodore Stratelates was built in the seventeenth century. The church has an open and welcoming appearance. The symmetrical, three-part composition, consisting of a higher central section and two lower sides, echoes the wavy outlines in the three entranceway arches (the southern arch was built later), the decorative arched gables, the blind arcades on the facade and dome-drum, and the small arches of the narrow windows.

During the reconstruction of the churches at the turn of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many of them were renamed. The Church of St Alexius of Moscow became the Church of the Crucifixion, while the Trinity Church was now the Church of the Intercession. In turn, the Cathedral of the Intercession became the Trinity Cathedral. The side-chapels were also renamed. Unfortunately, the reason and the exact dates of these changes are unknown.

No important events occurred in the life of the Convent of the Dormition in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The only new structures on its territory were a small octagonal pavilion over the well and a lodge at the southern gates. Amateur repair work and alterations led to losses and distortions in the existing buildings, lending the nunnery the air of an unremarkable provincial cloister.

In 1918, all the convent’s lands, buildings and property were requisitioned by the new Communist government. A year later, all the churches were closed, except for the Dormition Church, which acted as a congregational place of worship. On 13 February 1923, the convent was officially abolished.

Two years earlier, in 1921, the Alexandrov Museum of History and Daily Life had been created on the convent’s territory. The museum was awarded the property of thirteen different cloisters, including the Convent of the Dormition. On 14 April 1923, the written agreement on the use of the Dormition Church as a congregational place of worship was revoked, under the pretext that the building was needed for the new museum. The last church service was held on 19 May 1923.

While the catholicon and the Dormition Church were used to house the permanent exhibitions of the museum, the Church of the Purification was turned into a dairy farm. The territory of the former convent was renamed the “Dawn Settlement.” The residential constructions were occupied by various individuals and organisations.

The study and restoration of the convent buildings began in the 1920s. This process continued under the leadership of Pyotr Baranovsky in the 1940s and 1950s and Wolfgang Kawelmacher in the 1990s.

In 1946, the Trinity Cathedral (previously the Cathedral of the Intercession) was returned to the Russian Orthodox Church. From that time onwards, it functioned as a congregational church.

On 10 November 1991, nuns returned to the Convent of the Dormition. The Trinity Church, Church of the Purification and the gateway Church of St Theodore Stratelates were returned to the cloister, along with several residential buildings. The Dormition Church currently houses the Alexandrovskaya Slobod? Museum Complex of History, Architecture and Art.

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