Russia Religion Monasticism Monastery St Sabbas of Storozhev Monastery

St Sabbas of Storozhev Monastery

The St Sabbas of Storozhev Monastery is one of dozens of abbeys founded through the efforts and initiatives of the disciples of St Sergius of Radonezh. Yet, while part of this tradition, the cloister also owes its direct origins to the will and patronage of a royal prince.

This was Prince Yury (George) of Zvenigorod, the second son of Dmitry Donskoi. He was born in Pereslavl-Zalessky in 1374, with St Sergius of Radonezh as his godfather. As he grew older, the prince found great solace in the sermons of one of the saint’s followers – a monk called Sabbas. Encouraged by Sabbas, Yury decided to found a monastery near his official residence at Zvenigorod.

The patronage of monasteries was extremely prestigious in the late fourteenth century, when the various appanage princes eagerly followed the example set by the grand prince of Muscovy. Yury chose a site a couple of miles from Zvenigorod and invited Sabbas to examine it.

The proposed location made a favourable impression on the saint, whose life story describes it as a veritable “garden of paradise, planted with fragrant flowers.” The hagiographies of the founders of Russian monasteries invariably mention their search for a bleak and secluded place, ideal for an ascetic way of life. But Sabbas sought a green and beautiful spot that would be a “joy unto the angels.”

The monastery was founded on a terrace above the River Moscow. The floodlands on the opposite bank and the wide bend of the stream make the site visible across the whole valley. The cloister seems to offer itself up for contemplation to the whole of the surrounding countryside, including the trees, meadows and riverbanks.

At the very top of the hill, Sabbas constructed the wooden Church of the Nativity of the Virgin. Several cells were built nearby and surrounded by a wooden fence, which the saint’s hagiography compares to a “royal crown.”

After defeating the Volga Bulgarians in 1399, Prince Yury returned home with rich plunder, which he used to launch a period of ambitious stone construction in Zvenigorod. He built the Dormition Cathedral at his residence of Gorodok, reviving the traditions of the aristocratic architecture of the Vladimir principality in the twelfth century. Even today, this orderly white-stoned building, still standing among the earthen ramparts of the now deserted fortress, reflects the elegant tastes at the prince’s court.

Yury then turned his attention to the monastery that he had helped to found: “He ordered a stone church to be built and for it to be decorated with beautiful works.” The white-stoned Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin was probably completed before the death of St Sabbas on 3 December 1406.

St Sabbas was buried inside the new cathedral. Before his death, he had introduced cenobiticism at the monastery. He himself wrote the rules, which covered every single detail of the religious and daily life of the fraternity.

The Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin is physically similar to the Dormition Cathedral in Gorodok. Both buildings have the same four-pillared, cross-in-square structure, with arched gables at the ends of the facades. The proportional harmony and laconic architectural forms of the catholicon, however, suggest a more religious orientation. The squat proportions make the building seem monumental and severe. Engaged columns are only present between the apses; elsewhere, they are replaced by flat pilaster strips. The three-part ornamental girdle intersecting the pilaster strips and the lowered apses add to the thickness and weight of the building.

At the same time, the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin is extremely elegant. The pure and exact lines, surfaces and compositional rhythms reflect the great mastery of the architect. The pilasters have complex two-part ends, rather like capitals and imposts. The original portals have perfect proportions and outlines. The diagonal arched gables and those at the base of the cupola create a complex and differentiated ending to the main volume of the building. The rhythmic structure and the centric nature of the cathedral correspond perfectly to the strict regulation and spiritual focus of the monastic community.

The inner structure of the cathedral carries the clear imprint of a communal place of worship. Ever since the days of Kievan Rus, a choir loft was built in churches. This was a second floor in the western area, reserved for separate side-chapels or a privileged group of worshippers. A choir loft was built in the Dormition Cathedral in Gorodok. The Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin, however, is the earliest surviving example of a Russian church without a choir loft. There was no need for such a structure at the St Sabbas of Storozhev Monastery, where joint church services and common prayers were an essential part of a humble and selfless cenobitic lifestyle.

Another special feature of the interior is the stone altar screen, running along the line of the eastern pillars and forming the lower tier of the iconostasis. The surviving frescoes of St Paul of Thebes and St Anthony the Great were painted slightly later, in the second half of the fifteenth century. They were possibly made by students of Andrei Rublev, whose light and spiritual art corresponded perfectly to the lofty ideals of the cloister.

In the following centuries, no extraordinary events took place at the St Sabbas of Storozhev Monastery. The monks continued to enjoy the favour of the local rulers and the grand princes of Muscovy. Both Ivan the Terrible and his son, Feodor I, visited the cloister in the late sixteenth century.

In the early sixteenth century, Prince Yury of Zvenigorod, the third son of Ivan III, awarded thirty-nine villages to the monastery. In 1521, the prince gave the monks permission to begin exploiting his stone quarries. This was the signal for the start of wide-scale stone construction at the cloister.

Entrance gates with a gateway Church of St Sergius of Radonezh and adjoining single-pillar refectory were built to the north of the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin (their lower sections were uncovered during archaeological excavations). Slightly later, after the canonisation of St Sabbas in 1547, the side-chapel of St Sabbas was added to the south of the cathedral. This extension had a single cupola and single-storey open narthexes on the southern and western sides.

The Time of Troubles brought death and destruction to the monastery. The abbey was sacked by the army of the False Dmitry, when “Father Superior Isaiah and the fraternity were plundered and set on fire.” In 1618, the cloister was occupied by the forces of Crown Prince Wladyslaw of Poland, who had briefly been elected tsar. But after the foreign invaders were finally expelled from Russia and the Romanovs had consolidated their hold on the throne, the abbey enjoyed a much happier fate.

In the middle of the seventeenth century, the St Sabbas of Storozhev Monastery enjoyed the special attention of the royal family, who made numerous donations to the sacristy. The roof of the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin was repaired and the current top of the cupola was fashioned. In 1649, the interior was painted by a team of royal masters headed by Stepan Ryazanets and Jacob Kazanets.

The theme of most of the frescoes is the Akathist to the Theotokos – as might be expected in a cathedral named after the Nativity of the Virgin. The lower walls depict images of the ecumenical councils. The paintings are distinguished for their lavish colours, dynamic compositions and rich ornamental motifs. Unfortunately, the frescoes currently enjoy varying states of preservation. Although restoration work continues, not all of the later brushstrokes have been removed.

After creating the frescoes, the same masters painted icons for the new iconostasis between 1650 and 1652. They filled the four top rows – the Deesis, festival, prophet and forefather tiers. All the icons had gilt basma settings. These works are distinguished for their detailed subjects and their elegant and rich tones of ochre, red and green.

After making a series of generous donations to the sacristy, Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich turned his attention to the monastery’s architectural ensemble. In less than a decade, the cloister was completely transformed and virtually created anew. Construction was carried out by the country’s finest masters, who were working not only for the monks, but also for the tsar.

After the various calamities associated with the Time of Troubles, the main concern was the fortification of the monastery. The territory was expanded, particularly to the north. The old white-stoned gates with the gateway church and refectory were dismantled. In 1650, the tsar commissioned “Nikita Mikhailovich Boborykin and the scrivener Andrei Shakhov to build a stone town.” Work was carried out by masters from Muscovy, Vladimir, Suzdal and Belozersk. By 1654, they had built seven towers and walls stretching a total length of 760 metres.

The new fortifications were like a necklace, adorning and framing the whole ensemble. Even the series of inclined arrowslits and machicolations, created to defend the walls, were transformed into a handsome girdle of consoles joined by arches. Similar girdles decorated the tops of the towers, infecting the pilaster strips in the corners with their rhythms. The wooden coverings of the walls and the towers were recreated during restoration work in the 1960s.

Although the ensemble seems wide open when viewed from distant points in the east and south, the main entrance is actually hidden away down the slope of the hill. In the seventeenth century, the monastery expanded beyond the upper zone and down the narrow gulley, placing the low relief in the middle of the eastern side facing Zvenigorod. This was where the main and highest turret was built. Known as the Red Tower, from the old Russian word for “beautiful” (krasny), it is hidden by the trees and only emerges at a close distance, enclosing the road winding between the slopes.

Although the view onto the Red Tower and the fortress walls is generally symmetrical, each section is very different. The wall to the right of the tower is higher than the wall to the left, as the northern zone of the monastery is located slightly further up. The two arched passageways are different in size, explaining the unequal division of the facade of the tower by the pilasters. Several elements of the exterior decor repeat themselves – the cases for icons or frescoes above the passageways, the pairs of windows in the middle tier, the rows of machicolations and arrowslits in the upper tier. The Red Tower ends in a high pyramid roof with a widened upper part, a small octagonal superstructure and a cupola.

The arches of the passageways are decorated with consoles, while panels have been cut in the foundations. Further up, the pilasters are transformed into pairs of widely arranged engaged columns, while the rectangular high attics above them are framed by small low pillars. Their lower sections take the form of sheaves of round plaits, bound in the middle with a semi-circular roller, while the attics have Baroque compositions carved in relief.

A special feature of the front entrance is the close relationship between its solemn forms and the unexpected architectural accents further down the road. Passing through the tower, visitors enter the narrow transverse space between the turret and the gateway church. Like the Red Tower, engaged columns frame the arched passageway in the lower tier beneath the church. The socles are also decorated with white-stoned fretwork and sheaves of plaits.

A white-stoned staircase rises up in front of the arched passageway. Leading to a similarly white-stoned area, it adds an imposing touch to the composition. An even narrower arch can be seen in the perspective with steps leading to the darkened following zone.

This air of solemnity is underlined by the magnificent decorative frames of the passageway leading to the first zone – jug-shaped pillars with a scaly surface framed by fantastic volutes, consoles and rosettes. The carved decorations appear to be inspired by drawings from European architectural albums published in the seventeenth century.

On the upper landing, the path veers sharply to the left, and the steep staircase leads out onto the main zone of the monastery. The supports of the open porch have barrel-shaped pillars with profiled bases and ends. The pillars are located between the smaller decorative pillars in the corner.

A view opens up from the porch onto the main, southern part of the monastery with the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin in the centre and the two royal palaces on both sides. This route is without equals in Old Russian architecture in terms of its wealth of perspectives, unexpected angles, pauses, repetitions and decor.

The composition of the gateway Church of St Sergius is equally stunning. The church was designed by Ivan Sharutin between 1650 and 1652 and renamed in honour of the Holy Trinity in 1825. The building ends in a small octagon with pediments above each facet and a tented roof with a small cupola. The church was originally adjoined on the western side by an open arcade, which was replaced by a refectory in 1807, when the southern side-chapel was also added.

Besides the main entrance to the monastery, there was another one, leading to the northern utility buildings. The smaller right-hand arch of the Red Tower led to a narrow staircase to the right of the gateway church. Unfortunately, during reconstructions of the Trinity Church and the construction of its northern side-chapel in 1857, this passageway disappeared.

During the reign of Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich (1645–76), the St Sabbas of Storozhev Monastery led two parallel lives. Monastic life continued alongside the regular visits of the tsar’s court, which sometimes included as many as five hundred people. New buildings were needed to solve the various problems associated with hosting the sovereign, explaining the unusual appearance of the resulting architectural ensemble.

Two new palaces were built on either side of the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin – the Tsar’s Palace to the west and the Tsarina’s Chambers to the east. They stood parallel to one another, with their main facades addressing the cathedral. Because the land on which the palaces were built was not levelled out, the ground beneath them slowly began to sink, increasing the relative height of the small church on the central hill. This put the cathedral at the very heart of the ensemble, as if demonstrating the pre-eminence of the religious over the secular.

Both palaces were constructed between 1652 and 1654. The Tsar’s Palace on the west was extended in the 1670s, increasing its total length to one hundred metres. Because of the slope of the hill, the single-floor building was actually two-storied in the south. The palace was divided into four sections, each consisting of three vaulted chamber with an entrance hall and an independent porch-entrance.

The upper wooden floor was rebuilt in stone by the regent Sophia in the 1680s. The rooms were laid out as an enfilade, while the ceilings were flattened. External staircases led to the second floor. A second storey was added to the parvis on the south-western side of the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin, which was joined to the upper floor of the palace by a covered passage.

In 1729, a devastating fire destroyed the interior decor and the ceilings on the upper floor. During restoration work in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the upper storey was radically altered. The external staircases were removed and part of the northern section was dismantled.

The exterior decor of the lower floor largely survives on the seventeenth-century facades. The outer walls are segmented by pilaster strips corresponding to the inner walls. The entrance hall has one window, while the windows of all the other rooms are arranged in groups of three. The windows have identical frames – porticos of engaged columns and triangular pediments. The tsar’s apartments have more decorative windows, while the entrance is embellished by a handsome portal.

The facades of the Tsarina’s Chambers are more striking. The rooms of this one-storey building have high ground floors on account of the steep inclination of the cathedral. The ground floors are visible from the fortress wall, from where the palace seems to have three floors. But the main facade is one-storey and contains the richest decor. In the centre is a four-span white-stoned porch with intricate jug-shaped pillars, double arcades and hanging capital-pendants.

Like the Tsar’s Palace, the Tsarina’s Chambers consist of three groups of rooms with an entrance hall. The windows and pilaster strips on the facades are arranged according to the same compositional principles. The only differences are the windows of the apartments of the tsar’s wife, Maria Miloslavskaya, where the triangular pediments are replaced by three-strip ones with denticulated frames.

The carved white-stoned portal leading out onto the porch has a double-headed eagle at the top. The bright paintwork on the facades creates a rich and exuberant atmosphere typical of the seventeenth century. Inside the palace, the various chambers are joined together by an enfilade running along the longitude axis. The passageways leading to the main chambers are framed by solemn portals.

The area to the south of the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin is enclosed by a block of monastic cells. The cells are located in the lowest section of the ensemble and enjoy a particularly beautiful view onto the cathedral. They were built in 1667, slightly later than the royal palaces. This one-storey building was composed of entrance halls with two cells on each side. Each group had a separate entrance with a wooden porch.

In the nineteenth century, the western wing was dismantled and replaced by a new building. A second floor in the Neo-Russian style was built onto the remaining cells. Restoration work has helped to uncover the original architecture of the first floor.

A belltower with unusual outlines stands to the north of the main courtyard. The silhouette and decorative elements recall the fantastic buildings depicted on icons and frescoes in the mid-seventeenth century. The belltower has a symmetrical composition, consisting of a large central tower and two smaller side turrets, which end in quadrilateral structures, octagonal belfries and tented roofs. A clock chamber and a turret with a small tented roof were installed above the south-western corner of the central tower, making the general silhouette more intricate and dynamic. The lucarne windows are decorated by frames with triangular pediments, introducing unexpected outlines and rhythms at the top of the composition.

A white-stoned staircase and a two-storey porch-loggia on the south-eastern side lead to the second floor of the belltower. The Church of St Sergius is on the top floor, with the vaulted premises of the monastery library underneath. Until 1941, a bell cast in 1667 and weighing thirty-four tons hung from the belltower. The bell in the clocktower has a Latin inscription, stating that it was cast by Kylianus Wegewart in 1636. The clock and the bell came from Smolensk and were a gift from Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich.

The northern facade of the belltower adjoins the refectory chamber with the Church of the Transfiguration. The refectory was constructed in 1652 and is an extremely original building. The upper floor contained an enormous two-pillar chamber, which was over six hundred square metres in size, making it the largest hall in the whole of Russia, including the Palace of Facets in the Moscow Kremlin. The bakehouse in the lower floor warmed the premises by sending hot air through the internal heating ducts. In 1806, the vaults of the refectory collapsed and new flat ceilings were built in their place.

The portal in the eastern wall of the refectory leads to the Church of the Transfiguration. The church was built in 1652, at the same time as the belltower and refectory, before being reconstructed in the 1690s in the Naryshkin Baroque style. The top was relaid and octagon windows were created in the facades, while the windows on the southern side facing the Red Tower were framed with multi-coloured tiles.

The north of the monastery was occupied by utility buildings. This was the home of the friars’ kitchen and bakehouse, the hospital wards with the Church of St John Climacus (dismantled in 1782), the treasurer’s chambers (reconstructed) and the guardrooms.

The entire complex of buildings displays a rare stylistic homogeneity. This is a true artistic ensemble, with many common motifs and devices. None of this would have been possible without the generosity of the tsar, who made numerous donations to the sacristy throughout the seventeenth century.

The fate of the monastery changed after the imperial court moved to St Petersburg in the eighteenth century. Although the cloister was often visited by the Russian empresses during their trips to Moscow, development of the architectural ensemble ceased. Many buildings fell into a state of dilapidation and disrepair. As there was not enough money for their upkeep, such structures as the Northern Tower were simply dismantled.

Under Peter the Great, the St Sabbas of Storozhev Monastery was subordinated to the Department of Foreign Affairs, before being transferred to the jurisdiction of the Holy Synod. A religious seminary was opened at the cloister in 1800.

During the early years of the Soviet regime, the monastery continued to function as an Orthodox cloister and even became a centre of resistance to the anti-religious actions of the new government. On 15 May 1918, the monks sounded the alarm when Red Guards attempted to steal the remains of St Sabbas. The local inhabitants responded to the summons and, in the subsequent clash with the authorities, a Communist commissar was killed. The town was gripped by a wave of popular unrest, which was only put down by force.

The Red Guards returned on 17 March 1919, when they opened and defaced the saint’s relics. On 5 April, the remains of St Sabbas were taken to the Lubyanka, the headquarters of the secret police in Moscow. They were later saved from destruction by Mikhail Uspensky, a curator of the History Museum.

On 23 June 1919, the monastery was closed down. The territory was appropriated by the Communists and used as a detention centre for mentally retarded children until May 1920, when the decision was taken to open a sanatorium. In 1922, the churches and part of the refectory were turned into a museum. These two establishments largely coexisted until the cloister was returned to the Russian Orthodox Church in the mid-1990s.

Between 1960 and 1973, many of the buildings were repaired, while the frescoes and iconostasis of the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin were restored. The gradual transfer of the monastery to the Russian Orthodox Church began in 1995. Two years later, monasticism was revived at the cloister.

In August 1988, the relics of St Sabbas of Storozhev were returned to the monastery, during the celebrations marking the six-hundredth anniversary of the cloister. In 2007, the monks and the whole country commemorated the six-hundredth anniversary of the death of St Sabbas.

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