Russia Religion Monasticism Monastery Tolga Monastery of the Presentation of the Virgin

Tolga Monastery of the Presentation of the Virgin

The Tolga Monastery of the Presentation of the Virgin stands on the bank of the River Volga in Yaroslavl. The cloister was founded on the site of a divine vision, witnessed by Bishop Prochoros of Rostov and Yaroslavl in 1314, during the reign of Prince David Fyodorovich of Yaroslavl.

Bishop Prochoros was returning home from the White Sea, when he stopped to spend the night not far from Yaroslavl, at the place where the River Tolga flows into the Volga. He was woken in the middle of the night by a pillar of fire burning on the other side of the river. A bridge appeared and he crossed over to the opposite bank, where he saw a shining icon of the Virgin hovering in the air. He prayed to the icon for a long time, before returning to the other side and falling asleep.

In the morning, when Prochoros awoke, the bridge was gone and he naturally assumed that he had dreamt the entire event. But when the bishop got up to continue his journey, he could not find his staff. He remembered that he had taken it with him across the river and sent his servants to look for it on the opposite bank. They not only located the staff, but also found an icon of the Virgin. When Prochoros heard this, he fell on his knees and worshipped God.

That same day, on 8 August 1314, a one-day wooden Church of the Presentation of the Virgin was built on the site of the apparition. Bishop Prochoros and Prince David decided to establish a monastery in honour of the event.

The date of the founding of the monastery is confirmed by the surviving icon of Our Lady of Tolga, which was painted in the late thirteenth century. Now in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, this image enjoyed great popularity among contemporaries, working many miracles and inspiring numerous copies.

Despite the generally poor condition of early Russian icons, two repetitions of the Tolga image have survived to our days. They were painted in the monastery, shortly after the appearance of the original. The icon is often mentioned in the Russian chronicles, which record all its miracles. In the fourteenth century, the image was saved from a fire when an invisible hand removed it from a burning cathedral (it was found up a tree). In 1392, myrrh seeped from the right hand of the Virgin and the left foot of the Child.

From the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries, all the monastery buildings were made of wood. In 1553, Ivan the Terrible experienced great pain in his legs when returning to Moscow from the St Cyril of Belozersk Monastery. He stopped at the Tolga Monastery, where he was cured by rest and prayers. The grateful tsar donated money towards the building of a stone cathedral.

The result was the Cathedral of the Presentation of the Virgin with side-chapels of St Nicholas the Miracle-Worker and St Demetrius of Thessaloniki. The catholicon was built either shortly after the tsar’s visit or later, during the abbacy of Father Superior Theodosius (1578–1602). A cedar park with ponds was laid out to the north of the cloister.

The Tolga Monastery experienced many trials during the Time of Troubles. In 1609, the cloister was sacked by Polish troops, who murdered forty-six monks in the cathedral. But this did not shake popular faith in Our Lady of Tolga. In 1612, the army of Prince Dmitry Pozharsky was cured of an epidemic following a religious procession with the icon from the monastery to Yaroslavl.

Despite its great fame, the cloister had never received any large endowments. Even the rare tsarist gifts were extremely modest. Ivan the Terrible had sponsored the building of the cathedral, while Michael Romanov donated a hundred roubles towards the construction of a stone belltower in 1628.

Although such royal endowments continued throughout the seventeenth century, while the monastery was visited by Tsar Feodor III in 1677, the only realistic financial help came later on, courtesy of Prince Nikit? Lvov and two Yaroslavl merchants – Semyon and Ivan Sverchkov. This led to a golden age of construction in the final two decades of the seventeenth century, a period coinciding with the abbacy of Father Superior Gordium.

Prince Nikit? Lvov claimed to be a descendant of Prince David of Yaroslavl, who had helped to found the monastery back in 1314. In 1669, the prince took the habit and the name of Brother Nilus, living in the cloister until his death in 1684. Besides gifts of property, he donated over five thousand roubles, paving the way for an ambitious construction programme.

In 1681, the original Cathedral of the Presentation of the Virgin was dismantled and replaced by a new catholicon, which took over two years to build. The new cathedral was one of the most important works of the Yaroslavl school of architecture. Built on a high ground floor, it had five cupolas and was surrounded by a two-storey closed gallery. At the south-eastern corner, the gallery ended in a single-cupola side-chapel named in honour of three princes of Yaroslavl – St Theodore, St David and St Constantine.

Between 1690 and 1691, the interior of the cathedral was painted by a group of Yaroslavl masters headed by Dmitry Semyonov, Fyodor Fyodorov and Vasily Osipov. At the same time, the outside walls were decorated with hundreds of ceramic tiles. The side-chapel was painted in 1691 at the commission of Prince Basil Zasekin-Zhirovoi.

The frescoes included scenes from the history of the monastery, covering both the founding of the cloister and more recent events. The artists depicted the construction of the buildings and the wooden walls under Bishop Tryphon, ice passing down the river and the famous religious procession to Yaroslavl in 1612. The interior and exterior paintwork was renovated between 1839 and 1842, when the frescoes in the altar section were also repainted.

To the south of the cathedral stands the refectory with the Church of the Exaltation of the Cross. This building is based on an original structure dating from the 1620s, created after Michael Romanov donated forty roubles to the monastery, and was probably rebuilt in the late seventeenth century. In 1735, the side-chapel of Our Lady of Tolga was added to the north of the building.

The belltower on the other side of the cathedral was constructed between 1683 and 1685 on funds supplied by Prince Nikit? Lvov. The original seventeenth-century structure only had four tiers and was rectangular in shape. As early as 1685, there were fourteen bells. Between 1825 and 1826, provincial architect Pyotr Pankov added another two tiers, increasing the total height of the belltower to fifty-three metres.

The stockade was wooden until the end of the seventeenth century. In 1672, holy gates and the gateway Church of St Nicholas were built in the western wall, opposite the cathedral and belltower. Their construction was sponsored by Semyon and Ivan Sverchkov. The holy gates were a miniature version of the entrance to the residence of the metropolitan of Rostov. The existing stone walls and towers surrounding the monastery were built between 1685 and 1700.

Over the following centuries, the architectural ensemble remained virtually unchanged. There was only one important addition – and this was outside the walls. In the early eighteenth century, the cedar park and ponds to the south of the cloister were surrounded by a stone wall with two round corner towers.

In 1762, Peter III secularised all the lands and property of the Russian monasteries. Two years later, after his overthrow, Catherine the Great returned a share of the seized wealth in the form of stipends. The Tolga Monastery was awarded the status of a “second-class” abbey, elevated to “first class” in 1820. After this date, except for the construction of a few modest residential and utility buildings, only repair work was carried out at the monastery.

During this period, the most important events in the life of the Tolga Monastery were linked to historical dates and jubilees. In 1893, a small chapel in the form of a summerhouse was built above the graves of the monks murdered in 1609. Between 1910 and 1914, many of the buildings and frescoes were cleaned and repaired for the six-hundredth anniversary of the cloister.

Although the Tolga Monastery was officially disbanded in 1917, services continued to be held in its churches until 1928. In 1918, a home for invalids was opened at the cloister. In 1934, the territory was awarded to Volgostroi, the construction company commissioned to design the weir of the Yaroslavl Hydroelectric Power Plant. Between 1936 and 1973, the monastery was used by the NKVD as a corrective-labour camp for young offenders.

In 1987, religious life was revived at the Tolga Monastery, only this time as a convent. The famous history of the cloister and the generous support of believers contributed to its rapid growth. After only seven years, the number of nuns had already reached 126. The restoration work which began in the 1970s continues to this day.

In 1988, the relics of St Ignatius Bryanchaninov were discovered at the Babaiki Monastery of St Nicholas and transferred to the convent. On 20 August 2003, a copy of the original icon of Our Lady of Tolga, which had been kept at the Yaroslavl Museum of Art since the mid-1920s, was returned to the cloister. In July 2008, Vladimir Putin officially awarded the entire complex of buildings and all other structures on the territory to the Tolga Convent.

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