Russia Religion Monasticism Monastery St Euthymius Monastery of the Saviour in Suzdal

St Euthymius Monastery of the Saviour in Suzdal

The St Euthymius Monastery of the Saviour was founded in Suzdal in the middle of the fourteenth century, when cenobitic traditions were being restored in Rus. The pious deeds and profound faith of such fraternities won them high authority, particularly among the appanage princes, who jealously competed to patronise cenobitic cloisters.

St Euthymius of Suzdal was a disciple of St Sergius of Radonezh. Born in Nizhny Novgorod in 1316, he was extremely religious, even as a child, and acquired a spiritual teacher in the form of a monk called Dionysius, who lived in a cave. In 1330, Dionysius founded a monastery, where he was joined by Euthymius.

In 1350, Prince Boris Konstantinovich of Suzdal and Nizhny Novgorod wished to establish a monastery and asked Dionysius to send him one of his monks. Dionysius gave his blessing to Euthymius, who founded the Monastery of the Saviour in 1352. Along with Prince Boris and Bishop John of Suzdal, he laid the foundation stone of the Cathedral of the Transfiguration.

Euthymius was made an hieromonk and raised to the rank of archimandrite, while the prince donated “miracle-working icons, Gospels ... and other many books, church ornaments ... and much gold and silver towards the construction of the cloister, the upkeep of the cells and all other necessary buildings.” The life of St Euthymius describes the great devotion and commitment of the abbot: “By day, he submissively fulfilled the obedience that was imposed on him, while praying constantly; by night, he went off to his cave where he prayed tearfully, sometimes not closing his eyes.” The saint’s hagiography also describes the strict cenobitic lifestyle introduced at the monastery.

In addition to the Cathedral of the Transfiguration, cells, other buildings and an expansive wooden refectory with a Church of St Nicholas were also constructed. According to the life of St Euthymius, which was compiled much later, the number of monks quickly reached three hundred. Although this figure may have been slightly exaggerated, the rapid growth of the cloister was undeniable.

Euthymius often visited the Monastery of the Trinity, where he conversed with St Sergius of Radonezh on spiritual and ecclesiastic matters. In Suzdal, at the request of the prince, he also founded the Convent of the Intercession, paving the way for the remarkable intertwining of the fates of the two cloisters. Euthymius died in 1404 and was buried in the Cathedral of the Transfiguration.

In the fifteenth century, the grand princes of Muscovy confirmed the property rights of the Monastery of the Saviour. The cloister was patronised by the local appanage princes, who made constant donations. In 1445, the monastery walls witnessed an important event in the series of wars fought between the khanate of Kazan and Muscovite Rus. Prince Basil the Dark was defeated and taken prisoner by the forces of Olugh Mokhammad, who overran the cloister, where they spent two days celebrating their victory.

The early sixteenth century ushered in a period of peaceful construction and development. The impetus was a terrible fire in 1501, which destroyed the wooden cells. Work immediately began on the construction of a new stone Cathedral of the Transfiguration.

When digging the foundation pit, the relics of St Euthymius were discovered. In 1521, when the building was finished, the saint’s remains were reburied inside the new catholicon.

The Cathedral of the Transfiguration was a pillar-less, almost square building, approximately five by six metres in size. The dimensions of the building suggest that there must have been no more than three or four dozen monks in the cloister at that time.

The orderly volume of the cathedral is underlined by the corner pilasters. The walls thin towards the middle heights and are crowned by two arched gables with a notched decorative girdle at their base. The middle pilaster is designated only at the top; at the level of the girdle, it ends in a stepped console, turning it into a hanging element. The central vertical is upheld by the lines of the only window in the facade and the portal. The high dome-drum of the cupola completes the elegant outline of the building. The cathedral probably had a small narthex on the western side.

In 1547, St Euthymius of Suzdal was canonised and his cult spread across the whole country. Throughout the sixteenth century, a stone refectory and a belfry were built at the monastery. As a result, the small cathedral ceased to play the main role in the ensemble.

The monastery continued to increase its wealth, helped by a series of donations from the princes of Suzdal and Starodub (including the Pozharsky family). The number of monks also grew, creating a clear need for a larger cathedral. The decision to build a new catholicon on a much grander scale was taken under archimandrite Levkius in the 1590s.

Like many other sixteenth-century cathedrals, the architecture and layout of the new building imitated the Dormition Cathedral in Moscow and the copy of the same name at the St Sergius Monastery of the Trinity. This explains the presence of five cupolas, austere forms, the pure and even surfaces of the walls, the major rhythms of the arched gables and the insertion of windows into the blind arcade.

Ironically, when the Dormition Cathedral in Moscow was built back in the fifteenth century, it had been based on the Dormition Cathedral constructed in the town of Vladimir in the second half of the twelfth century. This earlier building also inspired the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin in Suzdal, which was constructed in the early thirteenth century. So the Cathedral of the Transfiguration in the St Euthymius Monastery of the Saviour was continuing not only the national, but also the local tradition.

In the late eighteenth century, three narthexes were added to the Cathedral of the Transfiguration. They were inserted into the closed parvis (the western narthex and portal are well preserved). At the same time, the cupolas of the cathedral were given new and more powerful outlines, matching the outer face and scale of the rest of the ensemble.

The old cathedral was transformed into the south-eastern side-chapel of St Euthymius. The silhouette of the main church was completed in 1866, when the side-chapel of St Sergius of Radonezh was added to the north-east, symmetrical to the side-chapel of St Euthymius.

Inside the Cathedral of the Transfiguration, four sturdy and widely placed pillars act as a support for the vaults and the lantern cupolas. The well-lit space of the interior is calm and solemn. For a long time, the walls and vaults were not painted. The icons in their precious settings and the multi-coloured embroidered podea looked particularly handsome and bright against the white background. In 1689, however, a series of enormous frescoes were painted on the vaults and in the lunettes. The work was undertaken by an artel headed by the celebrated painters Gury Nikitin and Sila Savin.

All of Creation Rejoices in Thee in the semi-dome of the central apse is particularly majestic. Images of Michael and Alexis Romanov, the first two tsars of the new dynasty, were painted on the edges of the pillars facing the altar. The walls of the side-chapel of St Euthymius illustrated the saint’s hagiography, which was written in the sixteenth century. The northern wall depicted the founding of the monastery, including a picture of the saint holding a blueprint and directing construction.

In the early sixteenth century, in his quest to father a son and heir, Grand Prince Basil III of Muscovy was desperately looking for a celestial patron and turned his attention to the Suzdal cloisters. For two decades, the construction of new buildings proceeded almost uninterrupted at the Monastery of the Saviour and the Convent of the Intercession – first in one cloister and then in the other.

At the St Euthymius Monastery of the Saviour, this period began with the construction of the Cathedral of the Transfiguration and ended with the building of the belltower in 1530. The new belltower was dedicated to the Nativity of St John the Baptist, in honour of the birth of Basil’s son, the future Ivan the Terrible.

The pillar-shaped, nonagonal belltower is divided into several tiers. The high socle is decorated with a girdle of keel-shaped arches, elegantly intertwining on the north-eastern facet. The second tier contains a church and an internal staircase and is lit by both narrow and round windows. The bell tier has arches and originally ended in a tented roof.

The three-span belfry adjoining the belltower from the south was created in two stages. In 1599, the northern one-span section was attached at the commission of Diomid Cheremisinov. This was followed by the two-span southern volume in 1691. The sturdy, octagonal pillars act as a support for the wide arches and suspended bells, including four dating from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the largest of which weighs more than eight tons.

In contrast to the monumental power of the main vertical segmentations, the walls of the belfry were decorated with composite horizontal ribbons of keel-shaped arches, square coffers, terraced consoles and a brick soldier course. All of these devices were typical of the seventeenth century.

The top of the original belfry was altered when the tier of corbel arches above the belfry arches was crowned with a cupola. Between it and the arcade of the wall belfry appeared a quadrilateral turret-clocktower with an octagonal tented roof (two tented roofs previously stood above the arcade of the belfry).

The wealth of rhythms and plastic art of the belfry embellished the main monastery square in front of the cathedral from the east. On the western side of the square stood the more transparent and differentiated complex of the refectory. All the buildings have high basement floors.

The centrepiece of this complex is the Church of the Dormition, which has two small side-chapels of St John Climacus and St John the Baptist symmetrically adjoining from the north and south. The high faceted apse of the church faces the main square. The exterior decor is very similar to the worked edges of the belfry.

The church and side-chapels end in upwardly diminishing rows of corbel arches. The side-chapels are crowned by small cupolas, while the main volume is covered in a tented roof. The entire group of buildings has unusually beautiful and elegant silhouettes.

This small ensemble was adjoined on the west by the sturdy, transversely orientated two-storey building of the refectory, which had a spacious single-pillar chamber on the upper floor. Down below were the kitchens and the bakery. At the top, besides the main chamber on the northern side, were the premises of the sacristy and the library.

On the outside, the refectory looks like one big monumental volume. The sturdiness of the walls is underscored by the deep embrasures of the windows. The facades are segmented by pilaster strips, corresponding to the inner layout of the building. Composite decorative cornices, consisting of a brick soldier course and rail posts, run along the tops of the walls.

While the refectory is officially dated 1525, it was probably built in the late sixteenth century. The complex can also be linked to Diomid Cheremisinov, who commissioned the first annexe to the belfry. The keel-shaped ends on the niches of the apses of the Church of the Dormition recall the decorative girdle on the belfry.

The ensemble of stone constructions built in the sixteenth century was supplemented by numerous wooden residential and utility blocks. Although the stockade remained wooden, the main gates with the gateway Church of the Annunciation were possibly already made of stone in the sixteenth century.

The Time of Troubles was a difficult period in the life of the monastery. In 1608, the abbey was occupied by Aleksander Józef Lisowski, the leader of a ragtag band of mercenaries. They made the monastery their headquarters and built new fortifications. Archimandrite Gerasimus fled, while both the cloister and its estates were ravaged.

The movement for the liberation of Russia was led by Prince Dmitry Pozharsky, who was descended from a dynasty of Rurikid princes that had once ruled the town of Starodub-on-the-Klyazma near Suzdal. After finally expelling the foreign invaders in 1612, he marched to Suzdal to give thanks to the Saviour and St Euthymius. He also prayed at the graves of his ancestors, who were buried in Suzdal, where he himself was laid to rest in 1642.

The monastery inventory of 1620–30 mentions stone churches, twenty wooden cells for ninety monks and a wooden stockade. The gateway Church of the Annunciation with the side-chapel of St John Climacus, located in the line of the stockade, was probably rebuilt in those years. The two tented roofs were replaced by five cupolas at the end of the seventeenth century. In 1759, a new cupola was installed, which survives to this day.

The Church of the Annunciation now found itself inside the line of the stockade, adding an unexpected architectural accent to the main entrance. The southern side of the church faced the entrance, turning the parvis and the apses into sections balancing each other on both sides of the high middle quadrilateral structure, with the wide arch of the entranceway in the centre (a second entranceway was created beneath the parvis).

This composition, which probably dates from the second half of the seventeenth century, manages to be deliberately centric without seeming overtly staid. The three identical keel-shaped corbel arches add a sense of rhythm to the top. The smart window frames correspond to this triple rhythm. The two windows on the sides, which are almost identical in size, have carved frames. The central frame, located further down, did not decorate a window, but acted as an icon-case around a painting.

The monastery continued to expand in the seventeenth century. In 1633 and 1638, it was awarded vast new estates by the Pozharsky princes. By the 1670s, there were 118 monks. The cloister owned three thousand homesteads and more than ten thousand male serfs. The monastery also boasted a rich library.

By the seventeenth century, many of the cells located on the eastern side were made of stone. In the last decades of the century, they were joined together in one extended block. This consisted of fourteen chambers on two floors, grouped in sections of two or three rooms. Each section had its own entrance.

The various sections were divided by inter-floor staircases, which appeared when the block was reconstructed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. After restoration work, paying tribute to the fashion of the seventeenth century, the facades were segmented by pilaster strips corresponding to the transverse walls. The window frames had keel-shaped endings.

In the late eighteenth century, the wooden abbot’s apartments near the refectory church were rebuilt in stone. The pillar-less vaulted chambers – only the corner premises have a supporting pillar – formed an L-shaped volume. A heated passageway connected the apartments to the refectory block. A covered wooden gallery on stone pillars runs along the eastern facade, accessed via the porch on the northern side. The shaded welcoming space of the gallery is echoed in the small gallery-loggia on the second floor of the refectory, to the right of the apses of the Church of the Dormition.

Unlike the eastern side of the main square, which was influenced by the grandiose austerity of the cathedral and the plastic might of the belfry, the western section on the side of the refectory and the abbot’s chambers was more intimate. This cosy atmosphere is enhanced by the lacy rhythm of the corbel arches on the tops of the church and side-chapels.

In the late seventeenth century, attention shifted to the northern zone of the monastery, where a two-storey block of hospital cells was built. The smooth and even surfaces of the walls are divided up by the rows of windows in deep arched niches in the lower section, almost at the ground, and the small windows with frames and pediments beneath the roof.

The single-cupola Church of St Nicholas adjoining the hospital block has equally simple architectur?. The decorative frames of the portals and windows and the girdles embellishing the quadrilateral structure of the church are like elegant works of fine embroidery.

The major construction project of the 1660s and 1670s was the building of stone walls around the monastery. The wooden stockade with nine turrets was replaced by a stone wall with twelve towers. The total length of the new fortifications was 1,200 metres.

The main side of the fortress was the southern section facing the town. This side has three towers – two octagonal structures in the corners and one square turret with an entranceway in the centre. The central tower is particular large in size – 15 x 15 x 23 metres. Even more unusual, however, is its orientation.

The main tower is approached by the road leading from the centre of the town, directed towards the central ensemble of the monastery. Back in the sixteenth century, this road passed beneath the Church of the Annunciation, when the latter was part of the wooden stockade. While the direction of the new stone walls changed, the entranceway tower was still orientated on the axis of the old road, repeating the position of the Church of the Annunciation. That is why an unexpected break or bend occurs in the line of the new stone fortifications – so that the main tower still faced the town.

The sturdy walls of the lower section of the central tower have virtually no segmentations. The rusticated corners, icon-cases and small, round arrowslits add to the monolithic nature of the stone mass. The upper section, however, has a whole host of decorative strips – square coffers, arrowslits in keel-shaped frames, small square coffers for tiles, machicolations and the apertures of the upper gallery inside a blind arcade.

The two octagonal towers in the southern corners are also the highest. The edges underline their orderliness, while the round arrowslits, like an elegant dotted line, add an energetic vertical note. The low top tiers on the machicolations, which expand their diameter, are like crowns.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the highest walls and towers face the town, while the northern ones, which stand on a low hill, are not so high. The lowest walls run along the high bank above the River Kamenka. While defensive concerns undoubtedly played a leading role in this decision, the entire composition successfully combines with the view onto the town from the river landscape and the nearby Convent of the Intercession.

In the eighteenth century, after the transfer of the Russian capital from Moscow to St Petersburg, Suzdal was reduced to the rank of a provincial backwater. Life in the monastery gradually extinguished. The number of monks decreased from one hundred and fifty-two in 1700 to seventy in 1737 and forty-two in 1764. In 1764, the abbey was designated a “second-class” cloister and allotted an annual allowance for seventeen monks. In 1726, the monastery was asked to pay for the upkeep of the soldiers stationed there, whose number had swollen to sixty-eight by 1763.

Like many other cloisters in the eighteenth century, the St Euthymius Monastery of the Saviour was not only turned into a home for the weak and infirm, but also a place of incarceration and penance. In 1767, a prison for heretics was opened in the hospital block. By 1800, there were already sixty-three inmates – a number that had risen to three hundred and twenty by 1905. A third of them were members of the clergy, sectarians and Old Believers. The prisoners included Count Alexei Kirillovich Razumovsky, Selivanov (the heresiarch of a sect practising castration) and Metropolitan Paisius of Amman. In the second half of the nineteenth century, more prison cells were added to the line of hospital wards and the whole northern section was separated from the rest of the monastery by a brick wall.

The entire ensemble gradually fell into disrepair. Reconstruction work often distorted the original architecture, particularly the tops of the buildings. The stunning rows of corbel arches, cupolas and tented roofs, which we now admire today, are the result of years of painstaking restoration work in the second half of the twentieth century.

In 1722, the monastery library possessed 157 manuscripts. The most valuable works were transferred to Vladimir in the late eighteenth century. Many of them were later destroyed on account of their dilapidated state.

In the nineteenth century, an orchard was planted. Unfortunately, after temperatures fell to minus forty Centigrade in the winter of 1867/68, the fruit trees froze and the garden was not restored. An important historical event in the middle of the century was the rediscovery of the Pozharsky burial vault to the east of the cathedral. In 1852, the tomb of Prince Dmitry Pozharsky was solemnly restored.

The tragic pages in the history of the St Euthymius Monastery of the Saviour continued after the revolution. In 1919, the Suzdal Cheka opened its headquarters at the St Euthymius Monastery of the Saviour, ousting the inhabitants. In spring 1922, in the course of the campaign to seize church valuables, the silver shrine was taken from the tomb of St Euthymius. The saint’s relics were removed by the Soviet authorities and handed over to the local museum, along with the most valuable objects from the sacristy.

On 2 February 1923, the St Euthymius Monastery of the Saviour was officially closed down. From this time onwards, right up until the early 1960s, its buildings were used as a prison. The cloister was renamed the “Suzdal Camp of Special Purpose,” which was turned into an NKVD prison in the late 1930s.

During the Second World War, the monastery was an NKVD filtration camp for Red Army soldiers and then, from 1943, for captured enemy officers (a Catholic pastor even held a mass in the refectory Church of the Dormition in 1945). In 1946, a labour colony for young offenders was opened at the cloister, remaining there until 1967. In 2001, a permanent exhibition entitled Suzdal Prisons: Chronicles of Two Centuries of History was created in the seventeenth-century block of cells.

In 1958, the architectural ensemble of the St Euthymius Monastery of the Saviour was awarded to the Vladimir-Suzdal Museum of History, Art and Architecture. In 2007, the museum started renovating the chapel-mausoleum over the grave of Prince Dmitry Pozharsky, which had been built on public donations in the nineteenth century and destroyed in the 1930s. By 1981, nineteen bells had been returned to the belfry, which was also restored.

Ever since the turn of the millennium, an annual religious procession has been held on Easter Day. The procession starts in the town and ends with a liturgy in the Cathedral of the Transfiguration. Similarly, since 2005, a church service has always been held in the cathedral on the feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord.

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