Russia Religion Monasticism Monastery St George (Yuriev) Monastery in Novgorod

St George (Yuriev) Monastery in Novgorod

In the early twelfth century, Novgorod was the second city of Kievan Rus and the seat of the heirs of the grand prince. The eldest son of Vladimir Monomachus, Prince Mstislav, occupied the throne of Novgorod until 1117, when he was succeeded by his own son, Vsyevolod. In 1125, following the death of his father, Mstislav became the grand prince of Kiev.

In 1103, while he was still prince of Novgorod, Mstislav commissioned the Church of the Annunciation at the royal residence of Gorodische on the left bank of the River Volkhov. The composition and construction technique suggest that the church was built by a team of workers from Kiev.

In 1113, Mstislav constructed St Nicholas’s Cathedral at his compound in the centre of Novgorod. The Cathedral of St Nicholas was built directly opposite the St Sophia Cathedral, which dates from 1050.

The two five-cupola cathedrals on either side of the River Volkhov still constitute the heart of the urban environment in Novgorod. From the high hill next to St Sophia, a remarkable view opens up towards Lake Ilmen in the south, ending with the Church of the Annunciation at Gorodische.

In 1119, St George’s Cathedral was built at the Yuriev Monastery opposite Gorodische. This monumental building was commissioned by Mstislav’s son, Prince Vsyevolod, and the abbot, Father Superior Cyriacus. The two pairs of churches guarded the entrance to Novgorod up the River Volkhov, creating one of the country’s most beautiful historical landscapes.

The cathedral and the monastery were both named in honour of St George (Yury), which was the Christian name of Prince Mstislav. There is a legend that the cloister was founded much earlier, around 1030, by Yaroslav the Wise, who was also christened George. Yaroslav had also been a prince of Novgorod and later conferred numerous privileges on the local population, after they had helped him to claim the throne of Kiev in 1019.

There is no concrete evidence supporting this legend, however. The first reliable record of the monastery is the building of St George’s Cathedral in 1119. The chronicles for that year even mention the name of the architect – “? master called Peter.” As the names of builders and artists were not generally recorded prior to the sixteenth century, this suggests that Peter’s talents were highly valued in Novgorod.

St George’s Cathedral is one of the greatest and most outstanding works of Old Russian architecture. A cross-in-square church, its arched gables correspond to the outlines of the vaults. The architecture was introduced to Novgorod from Kiev by the masters of Grand Prince Mstislav. The cathedral later served as the model for similar buildings constructed throughout Rus.

Even as far back as 1050, when the St Sophia Cathedral was built, the architecture of Novgorod displayed a clear tendency towards grandiose forms. St George’s Cathedral is possibly the most vivid example of this aspiration. The lesser bays take up three-quarters of the size of the central bay (and not half, as is usual). This imparts a greater sense of space to the interior and makes the exterior seem more monumental.

The cubic volume of the cathedral is embellished by the complex and unifying rhythms of the many curved outlines. The arched gables encircling the entire perimeter are supplemented by the arches of the numerous windows and niches, which are arranged in girdles. Their solemn rhythms are continued by the outlines of the three cupolas – two over the cathedral and one above the staircase tower.

The dome-drums of the cupolas end in the wavy outlines of small arches and a brick soldier course. The side facades have paired windows and niches in the centre, above the entranceways, underlining their non-centric compositions. The only elements incorporating the axial movements are the portals and the niches in the centre of the main arched gables.

The main western facade is deliberately symmetrical. The windows and niches in the middle of the facade are arranged in groups of three, in two rows. The architect employed an unexpected device, creating a square staircase tower at the north-western corner of the cathedral. The western wall of the tower is included in the general composition of the facade, adding a sense of scale and dynamism to the whole unit.

St George’s Cathedral is built from rows of plinths and rough-hewn stone. All the arches are formed from plinths with wide dividing stripes of pink solution (from the use of a brick admixture). The walls were plastered with solution. The masonry of the arches is repeated by the coat of paint (an excellent example survives on the northern portal).

The architectural forms were decorated with handsome paintings. Holy figures were depicted inside the niches. In the 1930s, during restoration work, several images were uncovered in the lower niches – The Almighty Saviour in the eastern niche of the southern wall, The Virgin and Child in the northern niche of the central apse, The Saviour on the Towel in the southern niche of the northern apse.

The choir loft is located inside the western part of the cathedral. The narthex beneath the loft is covered by a single, transverse, barrel vault. Three arches pass from the narthex to the main space of the interior, overriding the divisions of these zones. There are no inner walls inside the cathedral. The entire mass is transformed by the arches into a single structure permeating the entire space, creating one powerful, ascendant movement. The interior seems to come together right at the top, on the level of the choir loft running round the western arm of the cross.

Fragments of the original frescoes can still be seen on the walls of the staircase tower and its cupola, which originally housed a side-chapel. Ornamental paintwork also survives in the apertures of the southern windows. In the 1820s and 1830s, the main frescoes were destroyed and replaced by new images more in keeping with the spirit of the times. The oil paintings now decorating the walls were made in the course of further renovation work in 1900.

The scale and “oneness” of the interior reflect the cenobitic structure of life at the monastery. This factor was noted back in the royal charters of 1128–32, which granted large endowments of territory and property to the cloister. Those seeking a place of secluded prayer could avail themselves of the special niches in the walls of the staircase tower.

The Yuriev Monastery was always the most important cloister in Novgorod. St George’s Cathedral was the burial place of the local princes in the twelfth century and the ruling governors in the thirteenth century. In 1299, the abbot was elevated to the rank of archimandrite of Novgorod. The monastery possessed large holdings of land and saltworks, while the monks were liberated from paying taxes.

In the second half of the twelfth century, the Yuriev Monastery was surrounded by a stockade. The gateway Church of the Saviour was built in 1166. The stockade was strengthened in the fourteenth century. The Church of the Nativity of the Virgin was constructed in 1419, while a refectory with the Church of St Alexius of Moscow was built in 1540.

In the early seventeenth century, the belltower had a stone belfry with a tented roof and a clock. There was also a brewery for making kvass and beer. The stockade and the cells were still made of wood. During the Time of Troubles, the monastery was sacked by Swedish troops and never fully recovered.

The eighteenth century witnessed the destruction of the historical ensemble. All the old churches and the belfry were dismantled. The cathedral received a new pyramid roof and was surrounded on three sides by parvises and side-chapels (dismantled during restoration work in the 1930s).

In the middle of the eighteenth century, the monastery was surrounded by a low stone wall with turrets. A series of fires in the early nineteenth century brought the cloister into a state of further dilapidation. Cenobitic monasticism came to an end in the eighteenth century and was only revived in 1827.

In the 1820s and 1830s, Father Superior Photios completely transformed the cloister, constructing almost all the buildings now standing along the monastery walls. The archimandrite’s cells with the eighteenth-century Church of Our Merciful Saviour were rebuilt at the western wall. Cells and the five-cupola Church of the Exaltation of the Cross were erected by the northern wall. Cells and a visitors’ block were constructed at the eastern wall, while a hospital was built next to the southern wall. The Church of St Michael the Archangel was opened in a tower constructed in the 1760s.

The ensemble was completed by a high belltower designed by Carlo Rossi. Built between 1838 and 1841, it instantly became the principal vertical of the monastery. Fortunately, the belltower did not usurp the leading role of the twelfth-century cathedral as the main dominant of both the cloister and the surrounding architectural landscape.

The founding of the St George (Yuriev) Monastery paved the way for the formation of a unique ensemble over the following centuries. The city of Novgorod was surrounded by stone walls and the silhouettes of almost a hundred churches and dozens of other cloisters. At least nine of the latter were part of the general panorama of the Yuriev Monastery.

The fate of the St George (Yuriev) Monastery was typical of many historical, pre-Muscovite cloisters. At the turn of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Novgorod and Pskov were annexed by Muscovy, ushering in a period of ruin and decay. In the sixteenth century, Novgorod was a victim of the bloody excesses of Ivan the Terrible, while Pskov endured a prolonged siege by the Polish army.

These events were followed by fresh calamities during the Time of Troubles in the early seventeenth century. Both centres fell into terminal decline, becoming provincial towns whose former grandeur survived only in legends and a handful of historical buildings.

The land holdings of the St George (Yuriev) Monastery were nationalised after the 1917 revolution and awarded to the peasants of the nearby sloboda. Although the fraternity continued to exist, the monks were constantly persecuted by the Communist regime. In 1919 and again in the early 1920s, the church ornaments were seized, plundering one of the country’s wealthiest sacristies of valuables worth almost one million roubles.

In 1929, the monastery was closed down and the community was disbanded. The seven-tiered iconostasis, commissioned by Father Superior Photios in the 1830s and containing many historical icons, was destroyed during restoration of St George’s Cathedral in 1935. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Church of the Exaltation of the Cross was turned into a museum and picture gallery.

On 25 December 1991, the St George (Yuriev) Monastery was returned to the Novgorod diocese. In 1992, the first church service was held in St George’s Cathedral. Since 1995, monasticism has been fully operational at the cloister.

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