Russia Religion Monasticism Monastery Convent of the Intercession in Suzdal

Convent of the Intercession in Suzdal

The founding of the Convent of the Intercession in the middle of the fourteenth century was the direct result of a promise made by Prince Andrei Konstantinovich of Suzdal and Nizhny Novgorod. Sailing down the River Volga from Nizhny Novgorod to Suzdal, he ran into a terrible storm and vowed that, if he were saved, he would found a convent as his way of giving thanks to God.

Prince Andrei survived the storm and joined forces with Bishop John of Suzdal. The two men approached St Euthymius, who selected a place on the bank of the River Kamenka, opposite his cloister, on land that he himself owned. In return for the land, the prince donated a large sum of money to the Monastery of the Saviour. In 1364, with the blessing of Bishop John, he founded the Convent of the Intercession and built a wooden Cathedral of the Intercession.

The side-by-side existence of a monastery and a convent was not unusual in Rus. Perhaps unsurprisingly, their architectural history also developed in tandem. This was a result of both their physical proximity and their identical authority in the eyes of their patrons. Both cloisters enjoyed a golden age of stone construction in the early sixteenth century. A stone cathedral was built at the monastery between 1507 and 1511 and at the convent between 1510 and 1518.

During this period, all construction work at the Convent of the Intercession was linked to a tale of love and drama in the family of the grand prince. In 1505, Basil III married Solomonia Saburova, who was unable to fulfil her royal duty and provide him with an heir. As part of his desperate prayers to God for a child, the grand prince sponsored the construction of a number of churches at the convent in those years – the Cathedral of the Intercession, the gateway Church of the Annunciation and the refectory Church of the Conception of St Anne. Although Basil also built a number of churches at the St Cyril of Belozersk Monastery, most of his attention was focused on Suzdal. This continued for two decades, right up until the birth of Ivan the Terrible in 1530.

The Cathedral of the Intercession was built on a much grander scale than the catholicon of the nearby monastery, which suggests the presence of an even larger community of nuns. The four-pillar cross-in-square church had three apses and stood on a high ground floor. The cathedral was surrounded on three sides by two-storey galleries, which were closed on the first floor and transformed on the second floor into a handsome arcade encircling the central volume.

The calm rhythm of the wide arches was continued and developed in the pointed arched gables of the galleries and the cathedral itself, the circular corbel arches around the central dome-drum, and the outlines of the three cupolas. The pure planes of the walls provide the background for the clear outlines and rhythms of the arched openings, a blind arcade, the icon-cases of the central arched gables, the decorative girdles of the rail posts and the brick soldier course at the end of the apses and the dome-drums of the cupolas.

When creating the blind arcade, the masters working at the commission of Basil III were clearly orientated on the Dormition Cathedral in Moscow. But this form of exterior decor had already existed for around three centuries in Suzdal – on the facades of the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin. The original form of the town’s cathedral, which had three cupolas, provided the inspiration for the catholicon of the Convent of the Intercession. After the former building acquired five cupolas, it served as the model for the Cathedral of the Transfiguration at the St Euthymius Monastery of the Saviour. So the two neighbouring cloisters built cathedrals that were artistically different, but genetically similar, once again demonstrating their common history and architecture.

The outside of the Cathedral of the Intercession exudes a remarkable sensation of balance and wholeness, reflecting its additional role as a burial place for important nuns. The burial vault is located in the lower tier. The walls are interspersed with the deep arches of a few windows and entranceways. An unexpected note is the round arrowslits beneath the windows of the side apses.

The western sections of the gallery have archways at the bottom, which rest on round corner pillars and lead to staircases to the upper floor. The exact location of the circular arched gallery was largely determined by the handsome views that it provided. The pillars of the gallery have a socle and very original capitals, while the corners of the pillars take the form of small round posts.

The elegant segmentations echo the plastic expressiveness of the carved portals and the socle running along the bottom of the cathedral walls on the gallery. Fragments of the original image of the Holy Mandylion (early 16th century) survive above the western portal. The porches on the western and northern sides of the galleries and the pillars decorated with tiles were added in the late seventeenth century.

The austere interior of the cathedral was deliberately intended to focus the minds of worshippers. The walls, pillars and vaults were not painted. Their white surfaces contrasted with the floor, which was paved with black ceramic tiles. The small niches running along the bottoms of the walls were used for prayer belongings and were called pechury (“little stoves”).

An octagonal belltower stands to the south-west of the cathedral. The two-tiered lower section was built in 1515. The first tier contained a burial vault, while the second housed the small Church of the Procession of the Venerable Wood of the Cross.

On the outside, in the lower tier, the sturdy corner pilaster strips impart a monumental air to the small volume of the belltower. The corners of the pilaster strips, which recall the pillars on the galleries of the cathedral, are adjoined by round fillets. Higher up, the pilaster strips disappear, and only the round fillets divide the even surfaces of the facets. The windows in the deep niches are located in the centre of the facets, while small slit-like apertures light the inner staircase. The staircase passes through the walls of the second tier and probably originally led out onto the belfry tier.

Consisting of an open octagonal superstructure and a tented roof with two rows of lucarnes, the existing belfry tier is the result of reconstruction work at the end of the seventeenth century. In the middle of the eighteenth century, the belltower was joined to the cathedral by a two-span Baroque passage. The belfry still has a bell dating from 1589.

The refectory was built to the north of the cathedral and was originally made of wood. The attached church was dedicated to the Conception of St Anne.

Although the cells and the stockade were still wooden, the main entrance gates were already made of stone in 1518. The gates were crowned by a miniature Church of the Annunciation. The lower tier had a wide driveway and a narrow passageway. The upper tier coincides with the lower tier along the perimeter. The tiny chapel is enclosed on three sides by arched galleries; the fourth side is formed from the four apses and the southern side-chapel in the same row.

The very small dimensions of the Church of the Annunciation mean that the apses hardly protrude from the walls, looking instead like a single wave-shaped surface. The semi-circular vertical fillets between the apses copy the forms of the Cathedral of the Intercession. Their rhythm echoes that of the apses, contributing to the sensation of a merging of all the forms.

The three keel-shaped arched gables on the facade and the corbel arches at the base of the cupola also imitate the forms of the large cathedral. Even the three cupolas are repeated, although the small side cupolas are not above the church, but over the side-chapels. This miniature ensemble seems to prepare visitors for the larger and more expressive catholicon.

The architecture of the Convent of the Intercession is clear and harmonious. The open and welcoming air of all the buildings reflected the grand prince’s hopes and prayers for the birth of a son, which also explained the names of the churches. But this happy atmosphere was overshadowed by tragic events in the early sixteenth century – events which were to repeat themselves in the history of the cloister.

In 1505, Basil III married Solomonia Saburova

In 1551, the refectory was rebuilt in stone. The rectangular two-storey main unit was placed parallel to the cathedral (to the north) and covered in a gable roof. The facades are segmented by pilaster strips, while the paired windows in their deep niches make the walls seem particularly massive. The diamond-shaped crowning pattern of red bricks adds an unexpectedly light touch to the smooth white walls. Similar decorative elements can be seen in Polish Late Gothic constructions, suggesting that the refectory was commissioned by the royal court and built by Polish masters invited to Muscovy by Elena Glinska.

In accordance with the established tradition, the first floor of the refectory contained the pantries and the bakehouse. On the second floor, the single-pillar dining hall was adjoined on the east by a small church and, on the west, by the bursar’s apartments. The refectory is now entered from the annexe, at the north-western corner. It is inaccessible from the side of the cathedral, where there is a rather divisive space between the two buildings.

The refectory was probably previously entered via the staircase running along the facade on the side of the cathedral, close to the main square. Its importance is underlined by the hexagonal chapel and tower attached to the south-western corner. This had a bell which was rung during Lent and a chiming clock.

These stone constructions formed the heart of the architectural ensemble. The wooden cells appear to have been arranged in a chain along the walls. By the late sixteenth century, there were around forty cells, while the number of nuns reached 150. The size of the community remained constant right up until the middle of the eighteenth century.

The Convent of the Intercession came through the Time of Troubles unscathed. The cloister’s prestige was greatly enhanced in 1650, when Solomonia Saburova was canonised by Patriarch Joseph as St Sophia of Suzdal. The wealth of the convent also grew and, by the eighteenth century, it owned over seven thousand serfs.

The walls were rebuilt in the eighteenth century, although part of the old stockade and the tower on the northern side were preserved. The original seventeenth-century walls have a military gallery on arches and a parapet with arrowslits. The towers have two tiers – lower quadrilateral units supporting squat octagonal superstructures with blind stone tented roofs. The octagonal towers built in the eighteenth century are more inviting. They have windows in their upper tier, adding a circular rhythm. The low white walls have ten uniformly located towers, surrounding the convent like a precious necklace.

In 1682, the Convent of the Intercession was visited by Tsar Feodor III and his daughters – Sophia, Maria and Feodosia. In the late seventeenth century, Suzdal was a small and flourishing town, whose inhabitants engaged in agriculture or commerce and built many beautiful churches. The major events of Russian history did not disrupt the quiet flow of life in this peaceful backwater. But, at the very end of the century, the convent once again became a place of royal incarceration.

In 1698, Peter the Great divorced his wife, Eudoxia Lopukhina. She was banished to the Convent of the Intercession, where she was forced to take the veil as Sister Helena. Eudoxia remained there as a prisoner for twenty years, visited only by a small circle of friends.

Solomonia Saburova had once worshipped in the south-eastern side-chapel of the gateway Church of the Annunciation. Eudoxia Lopukhina chose the north-eastern side-chapel as her place of private prayer. Wooden chambers were built for her near the convent wall, on the northern side of the gates, so that she could leave her rooms to go to church whenever she wanted, unseen by anybody.

But even this was not punishment enough for Peter the Great, who deliberately deprived his ex-wife of funds, forcing her to eke out a miserable existence. Eudoxia’s problems were compounded in 1718, when her son, Alexis, was accused of plotting against his father, arrested and executed. After a search of her premises, Eudoxia was transferred to a more secure convent in Ladoga and later imprisoned at Schlüsselburg Fortress. She remained there until 1728, when her grandson, Peter II, ascended the throne and immediately released her. The former the former tsarina returned to Moscow and was allowed to keep her own court at the Novodevichy Convent until her death in 1731.

As the size of monastic communities declined in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the practice of using convents as a place of exile and imprisonment became more widespread. The seventeenth-century Intondant Chamber, which included a dungeon only 2 x 4 metres in size, still stands at the northern walls of the Convent of the Intercession, not far from the entrance. In 1752, the tiled stove from the dismantled palace of Eudoxia Lopukhina was transferred to this building, which housed a prison in the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century, the bakehouse beneath the refectory was turned into a prison for female schismatics.

Construction work virtually died out at the Convent of the Intercession in the nineteenth century. Only small blocks of cells and a home for invalids were built beyond the Holy Gates, on both sides of the road leading to the cathedral.

When the convent was closed down by the Soviet government in February 1923, it was home to around one hundred nuns. Following the seizure of religious valuables, only those objects from the sacristy which found their way into the local museum have survived to this day. The museum took over several of the cloister’s buildings, while the cells were used by the Communist authorities to house new inhabitants. In 1931, the entire territory of the convent was occupied by a “base of special purpose” and, from 1936, by a children’s home.

Thanks to the personal efforts of the prominent preservationist Pyotr Baranovsky, who spent many years studying and inspecting the Convent of the Intercession, the ensemble was included in the list of historical and architectural monuments to be restored after the Second World War. This work began in 1954, continuing in the 1960s. Permanent museum exhibitions were created in the renovated premises, while the cathedral was reopened as a concert hall. In the 1980s, small wooden huts were built along the perimeter in the style of traditional log cabins, as part of a tourist complex called the Intercession Hotel.

The Convent of the Intercession was returned to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1992, becoming the first cloister to reopen in Suzdal. On 24 April 1994, the catholicon was consecrated. The Cathedral of the Intercession now houses the convent’s most precious object – the shrine with the remains of Solomonia Saburova (St Sophia of Suzdal), which were recovered in 1995. In spring 2008, the Intercession Hotel closed down and presented the wooden huts to the cloister. At the present time, they are being used as nuns’ cells and a home for young girls.

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