Russia Religion Monasticism Monastery Snetogorsky Monastery in Pskov

Snetogorsky Monastery in Pskov

While Prince Vsyevolod was the patron and defender of Pskov in the twelfth century, Prince Daumantas won the recognition of contemporaries and descendents in the late thirteenth century. Daumantas was a Lithuanian military commander who led Pskov between 1266 and 1299, helping the republic to gain de facto independence from Novgorod. During his long reign, the Monastery of the Nativity of the Virgin was founded on Snetnaya Gora – a high rocky cape above the River Velikaya, to the north of the town.

The hill was named after a local fish called the snetok – a form of seabass found in large numbers in the River Velikaya. Interestingly, Pskov’s other monastery also reflects the importance of the local fishing industry, as the name of the River Mirozh is derived from the word for a fishing net (merezha). The Snetogorsky Monastery immediately became the town’s second most important cloister, adopting a cenobitic structure and enjoying the patronage of the prince.

In 1299, the Livonian Order laid siege to Pskov. During their offensive, Father Superior Joseph and seventeen monks were killed. In response to this attack, stone walls were constructed around the town in 1309.

The restoration of the Snetogorsky Monastery was also a matter of great importance. Despite the financial difficulties and the general rarity of stone construction throughout Rus at that time, a cathedral was built in 1311 and painted in 1313.

The Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin was a close and conscious copy of the catholicon of the Mirozhsky Monastery. Both share similar plans and have identical volumetric structures. The difference in lengths between the two buildings is only half a metre. The similarities are intended to indicate the close relationship and common cenobitic structures of both cloisters.

The parallels in the compositions of the two cathedrals make the differences in their architectural forms even more important. These divergences play an important role in the general impact of the building, reflecting the new attitudes and ideals of the early fourteenth century.

The most important difference is the reduced size of the middle space beneath the cupola at the Snetogorsky Monastery. The central cupola is narrower by almost a metre and equal to the depth of the arms of the cross. As in the Cathedral of the Transfiguration, the arch walls rest on consoles. The height of the slab-capitals in the abutments of the arches is identical.

The arms of the cross are visibly narrower in the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin. The movement of their space is more vertical and unstable, while the central cupola canopy has a less powerful impact. The arms of the cross have the exact same dimensions as the sub-cupola compartment, creating a sensation of the independence of the various spatial zones – unlike the grandiose unity of the interior in the Cathedral of the Transfiguration. Instead, the arms of the cross convey a sense of isolation from the main body.

The inner space of the Cathedral of the Transfiguration is determined by the arches and vaults. The size and role of the dome-drum and cupola are unusual, with the inner diameter of the cupola exceeding the sides of the square beneath the cupola. In the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin, the vaults play less of a unifying role. The proportions of the cupola are unremarkable and correspond to the vaulted ceiling, without attempting to dominate the composition.

Inside the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin, the walls look thin and disparate. There is a distinct sense of indefinite movement, hampering their visual perception as a single whole. The frescoes are located on the eastern walls of the side branches of the cross.

In the Cathedral of the Transfiguration, the figures of Mary and the Archangel Gabriel in The Annunciation highlight the otherwise hidden eastern pillars. The two large compositions of The Nativity of Christ and The Dormition of the Virgin were painted alongside. In the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin, the small verticals of Mary and Gabriel are hardly distinguished at all. Painted on the walls in horizontal rows, the various compositions turn the corner into a border between two independent surfaces, rather than a structural joint.

The passageways from the arms of the cross to the credence table and the deaconry are very close to the side walls. The sections of the walls between the passageways and the corners of the space beneath the cupola are visually transformed into transverse walls, as opposed to the corner sections of the overall cruciform interior. Above the passageways, the wall is whole but inert, passively limiting the arms of the cross.

The only structural division – different in zones and directions – is provided by the arch wall and vault. The reticent nature of the overall cruciform interior and the absence of any active movement create a special atmosphere inside the cathedral. Each spatial relationship seems to develop in a chance and natural direction.

The lighting is provided by the windows of the dome-drum and the narrow windows in the upper section of the apse and the arms of the cross. In the fourteenth century, the width of the windows was reduced from eighty to eighteen centimetres. The contemplative nature of the dimmed space evokes a sense of defencelessness, so that despite its size, the interior seems intimate.

The exterior of the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin is likewise extremely similar to the outside of the Cathedral of the Transfiguration. Once again, however, the slightly different structural relationships at the top set this building apart from its counterpart in the Mirozhsky Monastery.

Neither the central cupola nor the apse plays a dominant role. The forms are smaller and lighter, while the whole is more mobile and fractured. The cupola ended in a girdle of “broken arches.” The lacy girdles and brick soldier course further up were made when the cupola was extended in the sixteenth century.

The frescoes inside the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin are remarkable monuments of Russian art. Despite their varying states of preservation, they are the only surviving examples of Russian wall-painting from the first half of the fourteenth century. Careful restoration in recent decades has shed new light on the general scheme, offering a fascinating insight into the technique and genesis of these unique paintings. Like the Russian architecture of the same period, the frescoes were still largely based on the traditions of the twelfth century.

Although The Ascension of Christ in the cupola is orientated on the similar image in the Cathedral of the Transfiguration, the general compositional concept of all the frescoes in the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin is slightly different. While the Mirozhsky paintings concentrated on the grandiosity and original concept of the Christian cosmos, the Snetogorsky images aspired to directly involve the viewer in the dramatic tension and the interaction of the various characters and compositions. Because of the absence of a strict tectonic system, the scenes can develop in any direction and across several planes. The numerous subjects of Judgement Day in the western arm of the cross cover several walls, drawing the worshippers right into the heart of the action.

The main points of meaning are located in the frescoes in the eastern section of the cathedral. The central image is the Virgin and Child in the semi-dome of the apse. The key aspect is the gesture made by Mary, who draws the attention of the congregation to the appearance of God in Christ in Glory. The latter composition occupies the entire vault in front of the semi-dome of the apse.

The direct involvement of the believers in the appearance of the divinity and the role of the Virgin as the intercessor between man and God are conveyed with great emotional and spiritual tension. This defines the style of painting – the impetuous poses and gestures, the dynamic outlines, the stark contrasts between the darker and lighter sections.

No written typika existed in any Russian cloister before the sixteenth century and the Snetogorsky Monastery was no exception in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Instead of a single typikon, there were four types of written rules – prayerbooks; the behests of the founders; previous judgements and verdicts of the monastic community; other commandments and legends. The majority of Pskov cloisters were extremely small at that time, when as little as five monks were enough for the community to be considered a large one. All these fraternities were idiorrhythmic. The monks led separate lives and only came together to participate in common prayers and vows.

Sometimes, a monastery consisted of nothing more than a couple of friars who had settled next to a church. They ate separately, in their own cells, while the property was also individually owned. Anyone making a financial contribution to a monastery could take it back when he left. Such tendencies led to a general weakening of the cenobitic foundations in cloisters. At the turn of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Archbishop Dionysius of Suzdal, Archbishop Simon of Novgorod and Metropolitan Photios of Moscow all criticised the Snetogorsky Monastery for straying from the established guidelines.

This lack of a sense of community appears to have been a major factor in the economic decline of the Snetogorsky Monastery. Although the local princes chose the cloister as their place of burial in the early fifteenth century, they were not rich enough to make any major endowments. The monastery continued to rely solely on its former prestige and authority. In 1472, Sophia Palaiologina stopped at the cloister on her way to Moscow to marry Grand Prince Ivan III.

Although the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin was made of stone, all the other buildings remained wooden. A narthex was added to the catholicon in the fifteenth century and extended in the sixteenth century. In 1519, a refectory with the Church of St Nicholas was built to the south of the cathedral, right on the precipice, explaining the need for a firm two-storey ground floor with small vaulted chambers. The upper floor contained a large single-pillar chamber, which was approximately 230 square metres in size, reflecting the needs of the cenobitic fraternity in the early sixteenth century.

The Church of St Nicholas was a typical example of Pskov architecture. The building had an eight-hip roof, while the pilaster strips of the side facades formed a support for the three-strip decorative endings at the top. The cupola had a ceramic girdle with an inscription. The small interior (4 x 6 metres) was covered by a camber arch. The transverse vault and the additional stepped arches in the centre of the camber arch acted as the foundation for the lantern cupola.

The Snetogorsky Monastery suffered greatly during the Polish siege of Pskov in 1581. Even more damage was done during the Time of Troubles. In 1615, King Gustav II Adolf of Sweden led an army into Pskov, setting up camp in the cloister. In order to help the monastery restore itself after the invaders were expelled, the monks were granted a royal charter, liberating them from government taxes and normal jurisdiction.

In the second half of the seventeenth century, a porch was added to the western facade of the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin. Narthexes were built to the north and south of the porch, which was decorated with tiles. In the eighteenth century, the narthexes were adjoined from the east by symmetrical side-chapels. Wide arches were cut in the western wall of the cathedral, joining all these extensions together in one symmetrical space. Five gravestones with white-stoned carved slabs, dating from 1643 to 1671, survive in the narthex.

In the first half of the eighteenth century, a three-tiered belltower with a steeple was built to the north of the cathedral. The eight-sided composition recalled the pillar-shaped belltowers of the sixteenth century. The lower tier housed an octagonal gallery and the Church of the Ascension. Thirteen bells hung from the belfry (one was made in 1526).

By 1764, the Snetogorsky Monastery possessed two thousand serfs. After the confiscation of all its property during the reforms of Catherine the Great, the cloister fell into dilapidation. In 1790, the dwindling size of the fraternity meant that the refectory was no longer used. In 1805, the monastery was awarded to the bishop of Pskov, becoming his headquarters until 1920.

Following the handover, a new bishop’s house was built to the west of the refectory, above the precipice. The western facade looking onto the river was designed in the Neoclassical style, with a pediment in the centre.

After the central pillar of the refectory was dismantled, the building was transformed into the Church of the Nativity of Christ, using the altar of the Church of St Nicholas. The eight-hip roof was replaced by a pyramid one, while the old cupola with the inscription was partially dismantled and then reassembled.

The Snetogorsky Monastery endured many difficult days in the twentieth century. During the Second World War, the cloister was used as the local Gestapo headquarters – just as it had been taken over by the invading Swedish army in 1615. A concrete bunker was built to the north of the bishop’s house. After the war, the abbey housed a children’s sanatorium, before monasticism was finally restored in the 1990s.

In the post-war years, the frescoes of the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin were carefully studied and restored. All the original surviving fragments of painting were uncovered and reinforced. The cathedral now enjoys the unique status of being the only historical monument in Pskov dating from the early fourteenth century.

Although the Snetogorsky Monastery was included in a list of protected monuments of architecture in 1919, this was not enough to prevent the gradual destruction of the historical buildings. In the 1920s and 1930s, a rest home was opened at the cloister. In 1932, the upper tiers of the belltower were said to be in danger of collapse and subsequently dismantled in 1933 and 1934 (the ground floor and first tier still survive).

In 1993, the Snetogorsky Monastery was returned to the Russian Orthodox Church and reopened as a convent. In 1999, the cloister celebrated its seven-hundredth anniversary (the abbey is first mentioned in the chronicles for 1299). On 2 June 2009, the Church of St Joseph of Snetnaya Hill was consecrated in the still unfinished eastern block of cells.

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