Russia Religion Monasticism Monastery St Anthony Monastery in Novgorod

St Anthony Monastery in Novgorod

The history of Russian cenobitic monasticism begins with the Kiev Monastery of the Caves, which developed out of the eremitic activities of St Anthony of Kiev. But the Monastery of the Caves was then patronised by the grand princes of Kiev. Soon, other princes followed their example, founding and supporting priories in other towns.

Princely cloisters constituted the dominant form of Russian monasticism in the second half of the eleventh and early twelfth centuries. One example was the St George (Yuriev) Monastery in Novgorod. The nearby St Anthony Monastery, on the other hand, revived the tradition of independent cloisters arising out of the ascetic deeds of lonely hermits.

According to legend, the monastery was founded by St Anthony the Roman, who was born into a family of Orthodox Christians shortly after the Great Schism, which divided the Church into Eastern (Greek) and Western (Latin) branches in 1054. When his parents died, Anthony gave all their property to the poor, except for a small collection of valuables, which he placed in a barrel and threw into the sea. He himself joined a small community of Orthodox monks, until the persecutions of the Roman Catholic Church forced him to settle on a large rock at the edge of the sea, where he spent over a year in solitary prayer.

On 5 September 1106, a violent storm lifted the rock up and carried it across the sea. Anthony was transported up the River Neva and across Lake Ladoga, before coming to rest on the banks of the River Volkhov on the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin. A passing Greek merchant who knew Latin told the saint that he was in Novgorod, which was governed by Prince Mstislav and Bishop Nikita.

St Anthony prayed in the St Sophia Cathedral and was sent the miraculous ability to speak Russian. He was introduced to Bishop Nikita, who gave him a warm welcome. He built a cell and a small Church of the Nativity of the Virgin, in honour of the day on which he had arrived in Novgorod.

Anthony wanted to go further and open a monastery. One day, some fishermen pulled a barrel out of the River Volkhov. It turned out to be the one that the saint had thrown into the sea in Italy. He sold the contents and used the money to buy a plot of land.

Anthony’s plans had to be put on hold following the death of Bishop Nikita in 1109. The saint does not seem to have had any contacts with Nikita’s successor, Bishop John. In his spiritual testimony, he claims that he “did not accept any property from either the prince or the bishop, only the blessing of Bishop Nikita.” Although Anthony continued his endeavours, constructing new buildings, he was only appointed abbot in 1131, after Bishop John retired and was succeeded by Bishop Niphon.

The Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin was built from stone between 1117 and 1119. The only construction artel operating at that time was the team of workers belonging to the prince, which carried out all the building work in Novgorod. This explains why the cathedral has the exact same composition as the catholicon of the Yuriev Monastery.

The Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin is a cross-in-square, six-pillared church with a narthex and a staircase tower at the north-western corner. The building is crowned by three cupolas, while the facades end in rows of arched gables. The similarity to St George’s Cathedral is so great that some even suspect the hand of the same architect – the master known as Peter. Although this cannot be confirmed, the cathedral was clearly built by the same workers, employing the general structure and construction techniques already used at the Yuriev Monastery.

The Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin incorporates the local tendency to exaggerate the vertical dimensions. As a result, this small place of worship creates the impression of a large and grandiose building. A series of other features betray the special nature of this project and the specific circumstances surrounding its realisation.

The Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin was the smallest of all the churches built in Novgorod in the early twelfth century. The catholicon of the Yuriev Monastery is one and a half times larger than its counterpart in the St Anthony Monastery. The fact that construction took place in several stages reflects the financial constraints facing the latter cloister.

The cathedral was originally intended to have only four pillars, before the two-storey narthex and adjoining staircase tower were added just as the building was nearing completion. The desire to save money can also be seen in the construction technique. Besides thin plinths and squared stones (4-5 centimetres), the walls were also built from thick slabs of limestone and long rectangular bricks (8 x 12 x 30 centimetres).

Although the windows on the side curtain walls are arranged in girdles, there are no niches segmenting the facades. There is one window in each of the upper tiers of the middle curtain walls, which combine with the two lower windows to form a pyramidal composition of three windows. This was the first example in Novgorod of this decorative device, which was popular in the local school of architecture in the following period.

The pyramidal compositions cannot be seen at the present time. The upper windows were extended in the nineteenth century, while the lower sections of the walls were hidden by various extensions added between the 1670s and 1690s – the side-chapel of St John the Theologian, the side-chapel of St Anthony the Roman, the western narthex with the side-chapel of Our Lady of Georgia.

The interior of the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin is also extremely original. Unlike the single space of St George’s Cathedral, there is a distinct division into different zones. A wide central arch was cut through each tier of the original western wall, joining the narthex and choir loft to the inner space of the church. The side sections were left blind at the bottom (but later cut out), while the original windows still survive at the top.

The pillars of the central bay beneath the cupola are not identical. The western pillars are octagonal, while the eastern piers are ?-shaped. The wide planes of the eastern piers separated the worshippers from the altar. The original iconostasis reached as high as the frescoes painted on the pillars – The Annunciation and the four half-figures of holy healers.

The choir loft was intended for the prince and his courtiers. The distinct social division of the congregation at the Yuriev Monastery gave way here to a sense of the common bond between all the believers standing before the altar. The centric nature of the cupola, bringing the entire space of the church together around the cross of the vaults, is only apparent when looking upwards.

The western pillars end in thick cruciform slabs, giving them the appearance of ancient capitals. Such close associations with classical architecture suggest the possible influence of St Anthony the Roman. The niches for private devotions in the walls of the staircase tower also betray a personal touch. The top of the tower originally housed a side-chapel, later dedicated to St Onuphrius and St Peter the Athonite.

The templa and icons in basma settings have survived from the original iconostasis of the 1560s, which was replaced by a carved wooden icon screen in 1716. Many fragments of the original frescoes painted in 1125 can still be seen in the eastern section of the cathedral (all the other paintings date from 1898).

Right from the very start, the St Anthony Monastery was cenobitic. The communal refectory was built in 1127. A stone gateway Church of the Purification was added to the refectory in 1365, followed by a pillar-shaped, octagonal belltower in the fifteenth or sixteenth century (the foundations were discovered during excavations to the south-east of the cathedral). None of these constructions has survived.

Although the St Anthony Monastery was the second oldest and second most important cloister in Novgorod, it never enjoyed great wealth. On two occasions, the abbey was set alight by the local population, when Novgorod was threatened by Muscovite armies in 1386 and 1471.

By the sixteenth century, cenobitic monasticism had virtually died out at the cloister and was only restored following the intervention of Archbishop Macarius in 1528. This event seems to have provided the impetus for the construction of a stone refectory with the Church of the Purification in 1537.

The refectory stands in the line of buildings to the west of the cathedral at the River Volkhov, although its axis is not parallel, but perpendicular to the water. The refectory and the church were built over a ground floor with camber arches. The refectory is a single-pillar chamber (12 x 13 metres) with camber arches and cusps.

The Church of the Purification is one of the most original buildings constructed in Novgorod in the sixteenth century. The church does not have an apse, while the small rectangular volume on the second floor is covered by a blind cupola on squinches. The facades of the refectory have elegant cornices and keel-shaped niches, forming a light network of flat forms decorating the even surfaces of the walls and running around the perimeter. The profiles betray the influence of Muscovite architecture. The top of the building was later concealed beneath a pyramid roof.

In the sixteenth century, the St Anthony Monastery received endowments from Grand Prince Basil III in 1524 and Ivan the Terrible in 1573 and 1580. The cloister was sometimes even accorded the status of a lavra or “great monastery.” But after the Massacre of Novgorod, Ivan the Terrible launched a wild attack on the abbey in 1571, when twenty monks and the abbot were murdered. In 1592, Tsar Feodor I financed the gradual rebuilding of the cloister, only for it to suffer fresh destruction at the hands of the Swedish army during the Time of Troubles.

Although the St Anthony Monastery was not poor, it lacked the resources to engage in any meaningful programme of construction. In the middle of the seventeenth century, the cloister owned two hundred homesteads (by comparison, the Yuriev Monastery owned 532). In 1651, the abbot was raised to the rank of archimandrite.

In 1629, the monastery was surrounded by a small stone wall. Forty-three years later, the stone gateway Church of the Beheading of St John the Baptist was built on the southern wall. In the early eighteenth century, cells, a hospital with the Church of St Alexander Nevsky, a kvass brewery and a bathhouse were constructed in the western and southern sections. Almost all these buildings were reconstructed in the following period in the life of the cloister, beginning in the middle of the eighteenth century.

In 1740, a religious seminary opened at the monastery. All the buildings running along the River Volkhov to the west of the cathedral and the two-storey blocks built or rebuilt by the early nineteenth century – the shoreline block (19th century), abbot’s and treasurer’s cells (1699 and 1808), bursar’s cells, refectory with the Church of the Purification – were joined together in one line. A gateway belltower (upper tier dismantled) was built near the southern walls.

The eastern facade of the original section of the abbot’s cells facing the cathedral was decorated with composite frames. The stone porch of the cells and the staircase leading to the second floor have also survived. Together, they form a low horizontal composition, allowing the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin to remain the dominant landmark in the northern panorama of the River Volkhov.

Although the religious seminary constructed new buildings to the north and east of the cathedral, they did not distort the view of the monastery from the river. The hospital and the library were located to the east of the cathedral. The latter building was constructed in 1780 and was a rare example of the mature Baroque style in Novgorod architecture. The library housed the book collection of Archbishop Theophan Prokopovich, one of the founding fathers of the Imperial Academy of Sciences, which had been moved to the religious seminary from the St Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St Petersburg.

A three-storey block was constructed in place of the seminary buildings in 1890. The spatial composition and three risalits were inspired by the Baroque devices of the mid-eighteenth century, while the decorative features were stylised in the forms of seventeenth-century architecture.

Although the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were a period of significant expansion, these years also witnessed many negative changes to the existing ensemble. The seventeenth-century gateway church and the even earlier pillar-shaped belltower, which collapsed in 1804, were both dismantled.

A new pyramid roof enlarged and distorted the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin. The helmet-shaped cupolas were replaced by onion domes. The new silhouette of the catholicon reflected the changes taking place in the scale of the ensemble and the general development of the nearby town. As a result, it was decided to keep the existing roof when the cathedral walls, frescoes and iconostasis were later restored.

The St Anthony Monastery is now almost right in the centre of Novgorod. Prior to the twentieth century, it lay outside the town – five-hundred yards from the defensive fortifications. The limits of the city were designated as early as the fourteenth century, when the earthen ramparts and stone walls were built. Back then, not all of the territory was built up. Several cloisters appeared within the town precincts, before being swallowed up by urban development in the following centuries.

Most monasteries were built outside Novgorod, where the broad floodlands provided a perfect setting for their handsome architectural ensembles. The St Anthony Monastery had several neighbours, including the nearby Derevyanitsy Monastery and other cloisters on the opposite bank of the River Volkhov – the Zverin Convent of the Intercession, the Monastery of the Holy Spirit and the St Nicholas Monastery.

The St Anthony Monastery was closed down in March 1920, several months after the abolition of the religious seminary. The Soviet government turned the cloister into a settlement for homeless children, although the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin was, for a time, allowed to continue functioning as a congregational church.

The premises of the religious seminary retained their educational functions in the twentieth century. The building housed a pedagogical college, which was turned into the Novgorod Practical Institute of National Education in October 1919 and a branch of Novgorod University in 1932. The former seminary continued to act as a college after the Second World War.

Plans are currently underway to return the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin to the Russian Orthodox Church with the status of a congregational church of Novgorod University. The feast day of St Anthony the Roman is celebrated every year at the monastery on 3 August.

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