Russia Religion Monasticism Monastic Life History of Russian Monasticism

History of Russian Monasticism

After Rus adopted Christianity in the late tenth century, the new religion was mostly spread by the grand princes of Kiev. The first cathedrals were built in various towns by such rulers as Vladimir the Great, Yaroslav the Wise, Mstislav of Chernihiv and Bryachislav of Polotsk. The desire of the princes to introduce Christianity, however, did not extend to establishing monasticism. The secular rulers were too busy pursuing their own private interests – fighting wars, competing for the throne or collecting tribute – to think about opening or financing cloisters.

There is no direct evidence of the existence of any monastic communities in Rus prior to the middle of the eleventh century. The first occurrence in any written source is the Monastery of the Caves in Kiev. The only indirect information on the preceding period comes from the hagiographies of the founders of this cloister.

The Primary Chronicle tells the story of Hilarion, a priest at the grand prince’s residence of Berestovo, which was to the south of Kiev. Desiring greater solitude, he found a spot on a nearby hill above the River Dnieper and dug a small cave, where he lived for many years. Hilarion was possibly not the first to embark on this path, as eremitism probably came to Rus at the same time as Christianity back in the tenth century.

Those seeking a monastic existence could dig a cave or build a cell near a church. A group of cells constituted a small idiorrhythmic monastery. Such cloisters were encountered in great numbers in the following centuries. These spontaneous forms of monasticism are chronicled in the Patericon of the Kiev Monastery of the Caves – a collection of stories of the creation of the abbey and the lives of its first inhabitants.

The Kiev Monastery of the Caves was founded by St Anthony of Kiev, who was born in the principality of Chernihiv around 983. When he came of age, Anthony entered the Esphigmenou Monastery on Mount Athos in north-east Greece. After living as a hermit in a secluded cave, the superiors gave him their blessing to return to Kiev and spread monasticism in Rus.

Anthony visited all the monasteries in Kiev, but was unable to find the strict life that had drawn him to Mount Athos. The only male cloister definitely known to have existed at that time was St George’s Monastery, which had been founded by Yaroslav the Wise. All the other abbeys visited by the saint were probably small idiorrhythmic monasteries.

When founding such cloisters as St George’s Monastery or St Irene’s Convent, Yaroslav the Wise simultaneously commissioned the construction of stone catholicons. Mostly, however, the various princes who ruled Rus in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries concentrated on building private palaces, domestic chapels and urban cathedrals. Founding monasteries only became prestigious much later. This was linked to the growing authority of the Kiev Monastery of the Caves, which was itself the result of long decades of eremitic toil.

In 1051, Hilarion was appointed metropolitan of Kiev and left his cave, which was inherited by Anthony. By this time, in the middle of the eleventh century, the development of monasticism was increasingly linked to the court environment. Hilarion had served in the prince’s chapel at Berestovo, while almost all the early contributors to the Kiev Monastery of the Caves came from the upper classes. Christianity was actively spread by the grand prince, winning its first and most zealous converts among the educated classes close to his court. These were mostly young people, who adopted the new religion against the wishes of their parents, who had grown up under paganism.

While Anthony’s own social background is unknown, his desire to go to Mount Athos in Greece reflects its status as the acknowledged centre and model of Orthodox monasticism from the middle of the tenth century. This also explains Anthony’s choice of a simple cave as the location for his religious deeds. Even though Yaroslav the Wise had built handsome churches in cloisters in Kiev, an ascetic lifestyle in a lonely cave seemed more spiritual and prestigious. The Kiev Monastery of the Caves was built “not through gold, but on the prayers of the saints, and by their tears, vigil, work and fasting.”

The news of Anthony’s exploits quickly spread, and he was joined by others drawn to monasticism. A priest called Nikon became the confessor of the fraternity. Theodosius was the son of a military commander, whose decision to become a monk was bitterly opposed by his mother. Other members of the fraternity were Barlaam (the son of a distinguished Kievan boyar) and Ephremus (a close associate of Prince Izyaslav, the eldest surviving son of Yaroslav the Wise).

After inheriting the throne of Kiev from his father in 1054, Grand Prince Izyaslav went to Anthony to ask for his blessing and prayers. This reflected the growing authority of the monastic community. Around this time, a larger cave was dug, along with a church and cells, creating an entire underground monastery. This was the site of what is now known as the “Far Caves.” Anthony appointed Barlaam as the first abbot, while he himself dug a new cave in the next hill (now known as the “Near Caves”).

In 1057, Prince Izyaslav founded the St Demetrios Monastery in Kiev and invited Barlaam to take up the post of abbot. With Anthony’s blessing, Theodosius became the new prior of the Monastery of the Caves. The community continued to expand, reaching a population of one hundred. Izyaslav presented the entire hill to the monks, who built a wooden church, cells and a stockade by 1062.

The fraternity continued to grow under Father Superior Theodosius, who soon realised that the previous form of monasticism, based on individual asceticism, was no longer possible. There was a clear need for a specific set of rules governing the entire life of the community. The abbot decided to follow the example of the Studion Monastery in Constantinople, adopting its laws and customs as the basis for life in Kiev.

The Studion Monastery was one of the leading cenobitic cloisters in the Orthodox world. A cenobitic (“common life”) monastery was governed by a typikon or a collection of precepts which stressed the importance of a communal life. The monks lived together in a complex of several buildings, unlike hermits, who lived alone in a cell and only met occasionally for joint prayers.

The Stoudite typikon covered every aspect of religious and everyday life at a cenobitic cloister, including how the monk should behave in church, in the cell or in the refectory. By adopting a strict set of rules based on a communal existence, the Kiev Monastery of the Caves paved the way for the later spread of cenobitic monasticism throughout Rus.

The head of the monastery was called the abbot (hegumen). The post of abbot was usually elected by the brethren, although the additional agreement of the prince and bishop was often required (or, at the Monastery of the Caves, the blessing of St Anthony). The prefect (domestikos) was in charge of the reading and singing in the church. This tradition came to Rus from Byzantium in the late tenth century. The sexton (ponomonarion) looked after the church wine, oil and bells. The steward (oeconomus) was responsible for the monastery’s property and finances. The refectory and food supplies were overseen by the cellarer, who was assisted by the housekeeper and the head baker. The gatekeeper controlled access to the cloister.

The whole fraternity was divided into four classes. The first level was the rank of novice, for those who had just entered the monastery and still wore lay clothes. After spending some time in the cloister and adopting its rules, the novice progressed to the rank of rassophore (“robe-bearer”), when he was clothed in the first degree of monasticism and received the tonsure. The next level was the stavrophore (“cross-bearer”) or Little Schema, when the monk has taken his vows and wears a habit. The final stage was the Great Schema, which was reserved for the most dedicated monks. Every aspect of monastic life was regarded as an act of God, requiring blessing, focus and seclusion. Even the dining room was a form of service, as the refectory table was associated with the altar and the tomb of the Lord.

Withdrawing to a cave was regarded as the highest form of religious service. St Cyril of Turaw wrote in the twelfth century: “The deep cave is the monastery church, while the light shining out of its depths is the offering of divine praise, the unceasing singing of Alleluia.” The involvement of the princes in the monastic movement, however, led to the flourishing of overground cloisters, where rich customers could finance the wide-scale construction of stone buildings. Once again, the Kiev Monastery of the Caves led the way.

In 1073, Prince Svyatoslav II presented the monks with a plot of land at Berestovo for the construction of a grand cathedral. Work began under Father Superior Theodosius with the blessing of St Anthony, while the grand prince himself laid the foundations. All three men died before the building was finished. Construction continued under the following abbots Stephen (1074–78) and Nikon (1078–88). The Dormition Cathedral was finally consecrated by Father Superior John in 1089. The side-chapel of St John the Baptist was added to the north-west corner in memory of a boyar called Ioann, who had financed its construction.

When it was finished, the Dormition Cathedral was the largest church in Kiev (in terms of the diameter of the central cupola and the width of the middle nave). The grandiose forms and solemn composition reflect its official ties to the court of the grand prince. A large choir gallery was built on the first floor, above the narthex and down the sides of the west arm of the cross. The facades were divided up by thick pilaster strips and rows of large windows and niches. The walls ended in arched gables crowned by the central cupola. The high dome-drum had twelve windows. The interior was decorated with magnificent mosaics.

By the early twelfth century, the Kiev Monastery of the Caves also had a stone refectory and a stone gateway Trinity Church. The entire territory was surrounded by a stockade. The cloister had its own teams of builders and artists, including St Alypius, who is regarded as the first Russian icon-painter. The fraternity numbered 180 monks, who led virtuous lives spent in “common hymns, prayers and penance.”

The great wisdom of the founders and the constant flow of rich donations helped to transform the monastery into a major intellectual centre. The abbots compiled the hagiographies of the first Russian saints – St Vladimir, St Boris and St Gleb. A monk called Nestor wrote the life of St Theodosius of the Caves and kept the Primary Chronicle until the year 1110.

The Kiev Monastery of the Caves produced many leading figures of the Russian Orthodox Church. By the mid-thirteenth century, the cloister had trained approximately fifty bishops. At the start of the thirteenth century, Bishop Simon of Vladimir likened the missions of these churchmen to the Acts of the Apostles, sent out into the world to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Inspired by the example of the Monastery of the Caves, other cloisters began to spring up throughout Kievan Rus – first in the capital and then in other towns. By the 1130s, there were four convents and nine monasteries in Kiev. Almost all of them were founded through royal initiatives or donations. Their cathedrals were built from stone and some were lavishly decorated, such as St Michael’s Cathedral in the Monastery of St Michael.

Seven cloisters appeared in Novgorod. The largest was the St George (Yuriev) Monastery, which was the seat of the archbishop of Novgorod. The monastery was provided with land by Grand Prince Mstislav Vladimirovich and his son, Prince Vsyevolod. Between 1119 and 1130, an enormous catholicon was built and consecrated in honour of St George.

The Yuriev Monastery stood approximately the same distance from the centre of Novgorod as the Monastery of the Caves was from the heart of Kiev. Both cloisters were joined to the main urban ensembles by riverside panoramas. St George’s Cathedral in Novgorod is similar in type and scale to the Dormition Cathedral in Kiev. The buildings played an analogous role in shaping the local townscape. St George’s Cathedral still conveys the solemnity and prestige of the grand prince’s commission.

Novgorod was also the home of a completely different monastery, which arose out of the deeds of an individual ascetic, rather than the initiative of a prince. This cloister was founded by St Anthony the Roman, who came to Novgorod in 1106, bought a plot of land and began stone construction. A cathedral was built between 1117 and 1119 and decorated in 1125. This was followed by a stone refectory with the Church of the Purification in 1127. For the first time in Russian architecture, these buildings displayed a taste for a more contemplative, austere and introspective art, moving away from the magnificent solemnity of the grand prince’s constructions.

Other monasteries were founded in South Pereyaslavl, Chernihiv, Volodymyr-Volynskyi, Tmutarakan, Murom, Smolensk, Vladimir, Veliky Ustyug and the Olonets region. All these cloisters were cenobitic and adopted the typikon of the Kiev Monastery of the Caves.

In the second half of the twelfth century, Kiev lost its dominant position as the political and cultural capital of Rus. The city was the subject of the competing claims of rival princes, leading to almost constant civil warfare. The divided nation was further weakened by Polovtsian raids in the south, effectively ending the building of monasteries in these lands. The chronicles mention the founding of only a few cloisters in this period.

The central belt from Polotsk to Kostroma suffered less damage. By the 1230s, around twenty monasteries had been opened in this part of the country. Almost all of them, as before, were linked to royal sponsors. The rulers of Vladimir-Suzdal were particularly generous in their acts of patronage, continuing the traditions of the grand princes of Kiev.

There were rare, but interesting exceptions. Predslava, the pious daughter of Prince George of Polotsk, entered a convent at the age of twelve and took the veil as Sister Euphrosyne. After receiving the blessing of Bishop Elias of Polotsk, she was awarded a cell near the St Sophia Cathedral, where she lived alone. With the help of the bishop, her father and his brother (Prince Boris of Polotsk), Euphrosyne founded the Convent of the Transfiguration, where her sisters and nieces also became nuns.

In the twelfth century, Christianity gained a deeper foothold in Russian society. Besides the continued patronage of cloisters by the various princes, there were now examples of members of the upper classes turning their backs on their wealth and entering monasteries.

The story of St Abraham of Smolensk reflects the growth of such aspirations among wide sections of the population. Just as the members of rich and educated families had founded the Kiev Monastery of the Caves, St Abraham of Smolensk restored this tradition, passing the torch to future generations.

After the death of his parents, Abraham gave away all his property and entered a monastery. His righteous life aroused the envy of the local clergy, who brought several charges against him. Abraham was put on trial, but was acquitted and appointed the abbot of the Monastery of the Holy Cross, founded by the bishop of Smolensk. He spent the rest of his life there, receiving anyone who came to him for help, while allowing only a select few to join him. The size of the community was never more than twenty monks.

Monasteries developed even more widely in Novgorod, where over twenty new cloisters appeared. The rare examples founded by princes – the Monastery of the Saviour on Nereditsa and the Convent of the Nativity of the Virgin at Mikhalitsa – were no different from any others. Two cloisters were opened near the town by bishops. The Annunciation Monastery was founded by Archbishop John, while Archbishop Martirius established the St Nicholas Island Monastery. Two more were created by private individuals, continuing a tradition already familiar elsewhere.

In 1153, Father Superior Arcadius opened the Monastery of the Dormition, where he built a wooden church from logs. Arcadius’s ordainment as archbishop of Novgorod in 1156 suggests that he belonged to the highest social circles. Describing the foundation of the St Arcadius Monastery of the Dormition, the chronicles call the cloister a “haven of Christians, a joy unto angels, and the bane of the devil.”

St Barlaam was born as Alexei Mikhailovich to a wealthy family from Novgorod. After the death of his parents, he gave away all their property and settled in Khutyn, a solitary place on the bank of the River Volkhov, about seven miles north-east of Novgorod. The hermit soon attracted a large number of disciples, leading to the founding of the Monastery of the Transfiguration in 1192. This cloister went on to become one of the most celebrated in Novgorod.

These four monasteries were all built and decorated by laymen (families or neighbours). This tradition later became particularly widespread in Novgorod. The churches were small in size, while two of them had entrance gateway chapels. The other buildings were made of wood. As the size of such communities was probably no more than ten or fifteen monks, there was a natural tendency for them to drift away from the classical cenobitic structure. This process was kept in check by tradition and, when the Annunciation Monastery was opened by Archbishop John, it adopted the Stoudite Regulations.

In the first half of the twelfth century, two monasteries were founded by princes in Pskov. The Mirozhsky Monastery was established by Prince Vsyevolod and Bishop Niphon. After the death of the prince, the bishop completed the construction and decoration of the Cathedral of the Transfiguration. The Convent of St John the Baptist also appeared in this period. By the start of the thirteenth century, new cloisters had been opened in Staraya Ladoga, Staraya Rus, Vologda, Tikhvin and Veliky Ustyug. This made a total of over seventy abbeys in the first two centuries of Christianity in Rus.

The Mongol invasion devastated Rus in the thirteenth century, causing the ultimate break-up of the state and numerous changes in national life. The central principalities of Kiev and Smolensk never recovered their former glory. Further west, the kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia managed to escape ruin, flourishing under the rule of Prince Daniel Romanovich. Throughout the thirteenth century, many monasteries were founded and sponsored by the princes of Galicia. This tradition came to an end in 1340, when most of the kingdom fell under Polish control. At least a dozen Orthodox monasteries were opened in Lithuania or on the Russian lands conquered by Lithuanian princes (Vitebsk, Polotsk, Mstislavl).

The remaining principalities formed a new grouping of appanage states based around Vladimir, which succeeded Kiev as the centre of the nation and the residence of the metropolitan. Although the Mongols allowed freedom of worship in the conquered lands, even granting considerable privileges to the Orthodox Church, the overall cultural and economic damage was immense. No new monasteries appeared in Rus until the second half of the thirteenth century.

Novgorod and Pskov escaped the Mongol invasion and continued to flourish. In the period up until the mid-fifteenth century, the local archbishops founded around ten monasteries, while eight arose at the initiative of the monks themselves. The same number was created by Novgorod families and citizens.

Most monasteries were built two or three miles outside the city. When Dmitry Donskoi attacked Novgorod in 1386, the local population embarked on a scorched-earth policy, setting fire to the twenty-four cloisters surrounding the town. Similarly, over ten abbeys stood on the approaches to Pskov.

During this period, the traditions of cenobitic monasticism were weakened by the idiorrhythmic tendencies of the local monks, even in such highly revered institutions as the Snetogorsky Monastery in Pskov. Like other cloisters prior to the sixteenth century, the Snetogorsky Monastery did not have a written typikon. Anyone joining a cloister and making a personal endowment of property could take it back when leaving. There was no common refectory, and the fraternity was more like an economic partnership than a spiritual community. Typika were only adopted in Pskov and Novgorod from the early fifteenth century.

By the sixteenth century, communal life had virtually died out in the two main cloisters of Novgorod – the St George (Yuriev) Monastery and St Anthony Monastery. Small sketes, individual cells at parish churches and reclusive eremitism became the prevailing forms of monasticism in Novgorod and Pskov. Although the chronicles and lives of the saints sometimes mention fraternities of two or three hundred monks, the true figure was probably closer to one hundred, even in the fifteenth century. Large monasteries were a great rarity, with most priories numbering only three to five monks. In the small idiorrhythmic cloisters of Novgorod, the friars only came together for church services. The rest of the time, each monk led a separate existence in his own cell.

Most monastery buildings continued to be made of wood. While many stone churches were constructed in Novgorod, they were all extremely small in size. In the tiniest churches, the width of the inner space was sometimes as little as seven metres. Most churches were four-pillared, and the massive columns further limited the space, reducing the passageways to less than a metre in width.

Prior to the mid-fifteenth century, the main type of church built in the monasteries of Novgorod and Pskov was the parish church. No special form of monastic place of worship was cultivated. In Novgorod, cloisters occasionally built gateway chapels. In the fifteenth century, the construction of heated stone refectories began, probably with single pillars.

The monasteries surrounding both Novgorod and Pskov were – and still are – an inalienable part of the local architecture and landscape. In Pskov, some cloisters were swallowed up by the town in the course of urban development in the fifteenth century. To this day, the views to the south and east of Novgorod retain much of the original beauty of the historical landscapes.

Unlike in the north-west, the prince or bishop continued to play the main role in the founding of monasteries in central Rus. At the turn of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, such figureheads were responsible for the appearance of at least a dozen cloisters in Rostov, Yaroslavl, Suzdal and Tver. Prince Daniel of Moscow and his son, Ivan Kalita, founded the St Daniel Monastery and the Epiphany Monastery. In 1328, Ivan Kalita opened the Monastery of the Saviour in the Kremlin. He supported the cloister with rich endowments and transferred the office of archimandrite there from the St Daniel Monastery.

Russian monasticism soon became linked to the profound need for a popular movement which would provide moral guidance and unite the nation. Writing about the disorderly state of the country in the late twelfth century, Bishop Serapion of Vladimir noted that “many calamities happen to us because of our sins; attacks by infidels, disturbances between people, the disarray of churches, disorders between princes, the insubordination of priests.” The long list of misfortunes and moral shortcomings – devastation, internecine warfare, malice and deceit – generated a desperate longing for some form of faith that would awaken the divine element in man, humility and love, helping to heal the sores and vicissitudes of everyday life.

The troubled state of Russian society inspired many young men, mostly the sons of rich parents, to turn to religion in their search for the meaning of life. Just like St Anthony and St Theodosius of the Caves three centuries earlier, St Sergius of Radonezh provided the impetus for a whole new wave of Russian monasteries from the fourteenth century onwards. He founded the St Sergius Monastery of the Trinity, which acted as a model for many other cloisters in terms of its spiritual achievements, way of life and even the architecture and location of its buildings.

The great authority of St Sergius of Radonezh transformed the Monastery of the Trinity into a national shrine, where the grand princes came to seek help and advice. The saint’s close adherence to communal life revived the tradition of cenobitic monasticism across the whole country. St Sergius had many disciples and followers, who founded dozens of abbeys, particularly in the north of the country.

During his travels across Russia, St Sergius of Radonezh opened several cloisters. These included the Monastery of the Annunciation in Kirzhach, St Boris and St Gleb Monastery near Rostov, St George Monastery on the Klyazma near Kirzhach, Vysotsky Monastery near Serpukhov, St Andronikos Monastery and St Simon Monastery in Moscow. In collaboration with Dmitry Donskoi, he helped to found three more – Dubenka Monastery of the Dormition at Stromyn, Dubenka Monastery of the Dormition on the Island, Golutvino Monastery in Kolomna. The abbots of the latter were his former pupils. Over two centuries, St Sergius and his disciples were responsible for establishing around seventy cloisters.

By the mid-fifteenth century, ten new monasteries had been founded in Moscow. Father Superior John of the High Monastery of St Peter introduced a cenobitic typikon for the first time in the city. Two new cloisters appeared in Ryazan, while twelve were opened in Tver. There were four monasteries in Nizhny Novgorod, where St Dionysius was active from the 1330s (St Dionysius was a friend and follower of St Sergius who founded the Monastery of the Caves on the River Volga and was later appointed metropolitan of Moscow). Two new monasteries were created in Suzdal, three in Rostov and ten in Kostroma. Another twenty cloisters, many of which owed their appearance to the acts of St Sergius and his disciples, are known to have existed in the central Russian belt between Mozhaisk and Murom.

The monasteries of Vologda, Belozersk and the far north played a particularly active role in this movement. The Republic of Novgorod spread down the River Onega as far as the White Sea, leading to the appearance of at least ten new cloisters on this enormous territory. The most famous was the Solovetsky Monastery, founded on the Solovki Islands around 1430. The lands to the east of the River Onega, along the banks of the Northern Dvina, were colonised first by Rostov and then by Muscovy.

The most important cloister in the Vologda region was the Stone Monastery of the Transfiguration, which was established in 1260. A century later, these lands enjoyed a golden age of monasticism, when many abbeys were founded by the disciples of St Sergius of Radonezh and former monks of the Stone Monastery of the Transfiguration. One example of the latter was St Dionysius of Glushitsa, who opened four priories. Two other monks founded two, while four cloisters were established by followers of St Sergius. St Stephen of Perm was also instrumental in spreading Christianity in the fourteenth century, creating three new monasteries. The first cloister to adopt cenobitic monasticism in the Vologda region was the Prilutsa Monastery of the Saviour in 1371.

A vital contribution to these activities was made by the St Cyril of Belozersk Monastery, which was founded in 1397. St Cyril was a monk of the St Simon Monastery in Moscow, which was run by a nephew of St Sergius. Cyril became a disciple of St Sergius, who urged him to go north and open a monastery in an uninhabited place. Cyril was joined by another monk of the St Simon Monastery, Brother Therapontus, who founded a nearby monastery a year later.

The great spiritual authority and exemplary cenobitic lifestyle of the St Cyril of Belozersk Monastery made it the figurehead of monasticism in the north of Russia. Among the many saints to emerge from its walls were St Nilus of Sora, St Sabbatius of the Solovki, St Innocent and St Cornelius of Komel. At the nearby St Therapontus Monastery, the original founder was succeeded by St Martinian.

Many other disciples of St Sergius were part of this tradition, including St Dionysius of Glushitsa, St Paul of Obnora, St Alexander of Kushta and St Sergius of Nurom. They opened dozens of cloisters in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, which were collectively described by Orthodox writer Andrei Muravyov as the “Northern Thebaid” – a reference to the well-known habitat of the early Christian monks and hermits near Thebes in Upper Egypt.

The reputations of these monasteries influenced other spheres of life, including Russian art, which was infused with a new atmosphere of spirituality. The paintings of Andrei Rublev were the perfect parallel to the angelic personality and purity of St Sergius of Radonezh. Dionysius’s frescoes in the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin at the St Therapontus Monastery brilliantly capture the fervent quest for spiritual perfection in the early sixteenth century. All this helped to shape the finest aspects of the Russian character, contributing to the national ideals of morality, good and beauty.

A special type of catholicon developed in the early Muscovite architecture of the turn of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The choir gallery – a vestige of the princely culture of the pre-Mongol period – disappeared and the whole interior became one common space. The stepped central vaults created a gradual upward movement, rising towards the light beneath the cupola. This created a sense of celestial joy among the austere architectural forms, symbolising the restored unity of man and God. The high iconostasis increased the emotional tension and the mystery of the rites taking place inside the altar, conveying ideas representing the first and second comings.

There was nothing grandiose or oppressive in the Russian art of the fifteenth century. Today, this atmosphere survives only in a few cloisters – most fully at the St Therapontus Monastery and, partially, in the cathedrals of the Muscovite and Pskov abbeys built in the fifteenth century.

By the 1470s, there were approximately 350 monasteries in Rus – all different in terms of size, character, structure and architecture. A cloister could be independent or attached to a larger priory. There were monasteries belonging to princes, metropolitans, archbishops and even family ones, which were bequeathed from one member to another. The holiest abbeys acquired great wealth from donations of land, mines and money or the granting of various privileges. They were built and kept at the expense of individual novices or rich endowers.

In the fifteenth century, monasteries were important centres of learning and schools for clergymen. Many had their own construction artels, manuscript workshops and icon-painting studios. Monks and abbots copied and corrected handwritten books. By the late fifteenth century, the cloisters owned several hundred rare manuscripts. More than two-thirds of them consisted of the holy scriptures and prayerbooks. The rest were the writings of the fathers of the church, spiritual and moral compendia, collections of ecclesiastical laws, historical compositions and chronicles. The manuscripts were kept in special libraries, which were often built alongside the refectory.

By the end of the fifteenth century, Rus had been transformed into a powerful and centralised state under the rule of the grand prince of Muscovy. This event was celebrated by the reconstruction of the Moscow Kremlin, bringing new forms and an unprecedented scale to Russian architecture. The lyrical and intimate styles of the previous periods gave way to a passion for the grandiose and the monumental.

The sixteenth century brought a new intensity to all aspects of Russian life, including religious matters and the lives of the monasteries. Many old cloisters were completely rebuilt, while around a hundred new abbeys were founded. The construction of new walls and towers around the Moscow Kremlin was matched by the building of impregnable fortifications in many historical towns and cloisters, particularly the St Sergius Monastery of the Trinity.

The stunning new cathedrals of the Moscow Kremlin likewise inspired a multitude of imitations in the Russian monasteries. Churches built in the first half of the sixteenth century copied the Archangel Cathedral, introducing greater scope and refined courtly forms to monastery architecture. In the second half of the century, the new catholicons of the St Sergius Monastery of the Trinity, Solovetsky Monastery, Novodevichy Convent and the St Euthymius Monastery of the Saviour imitated the dimensions and scale of the Dormition Cathedral, transforming the ensembles into monumental fortresses, which still survive today.

The architects and builders of monastery refectories copied the Palace of Facets in the Kremlin. The enormous dining rooms in Russian cloisters were only slightly smaller than the royal banqueting hall. The interiors of auxiliary and residential buildings had similar groined vaults with vast cusps.

Such ambitious construction projects were financed by the enormous wealth of the monasteries. Private donations were supplemented by the generous endowments made by boyars and princes – particularly the grand princes of Muscovy, who began crowning themselves tsars of Russia in 1547. By the mid-seventeenth century, 439 Russian cloisters owned 91,000 peasant homesteads, transforming the monasteries into the country’s leading landowner. By comparison, the tsar possessed 7,900, the patriarch owned 6,500 and bishops possessed around 22,000 homesteads, while thirty-two boyars owned 50,000 serfs.

On average, each monastery possessed 209 homesteads. The St Sergius Monastery of the Trinity owned almost 17,000. The next largest landholders were the St Cyril of Belozersk Monastery (3,800), Ipatiev Monastery (3,400), Monastery of the Miracle in the Moscow Kremlin (2,100) and the Monastery of the Transfiguration in Yaroslavl (3,800). The St Euthymius Monastery of the Saviour and the Convent of the Intercession in Suzdal, the Khutyn Monastery in Novgorod and the Solovetsky Monastery all owned approximately one thousand homesteads.

Holdings of land were not the only source of wealth of the Russian monasteries. Cloisters were awarded the right to engage in fishing, hunting and salt production (particularly important in the north). They were granted their own courts of law and exemptions from paying taxes on trade and carriage. The abbeys were also the recipients of valuable gifts of precious ornaments and large sums of money. In the sixteenth century, the grand princes and tsars donated a total of 100,000 roubles to the St Cyril of Belozersk Monastery (in comparison, construction of the monastery’s catholicon cost 250 roubles in the late fifteenth century).

The business and financial affairs of the monasteries influenced both the atmosphere in the cloisters and the primary concerns of the abbots. Auxiliary buildings were increasingly built inside priories, while slobodas and posads began to appear outside the walls. Cloisters opened and ran their own churches in other towns.

The attraction of members of the upper classes caused problems in the monasteries, where the inhabitants were expected to renounce all worldly deeds and even their own wills. Paisius, a monk of the St Cyril of Belozersk Monastery, caught the attention of Ivan III, who appointed him abbot of the St Sergius Monastery of the Trinity. Shortly afterwards, however, he felt obliged to resign: “And he could not return the monks to the path of God, to praying, fasting and abstinence. And they wanted to kill him, because there were boyars and princes who had taken the habit, but did not wish to submit.”

In the late fifteenth century, there was a growing movement of opposition to monastic landownership. In the northern cloisters of the Vologda region, St Nilus of Sora emerged as the leader of the “non-possessors,” who persuaded the grand prince to raise this question at the Church Assembly in 1503. The non-possessors were opposed by the heads of the largest priories, led by St Joseph of Volokolamsk and Father Superior Serapion of the St Sergius Monastery of the Trinity.

The non-possessors spoke of the need for a complete rejection of all worldly concerns, the adequacy of the monk’s own modest toil in providing for himself and others, and the need to focus solely on saving and developing the soul. But they were defeated and the right of the cloisters to own land and property was upheld: “To this day, even the saints and monasteries kept and do keep lands, and do not dare give them up and do not deign, for all these church possessions are the possessions of God, and they are inalienable, for they have been given His name and belong to God, and are not for sale, and can never be anyone’s for all eternity.”

The Church Assembly invoked the precedent of the founders of the Kiev Monastery of the Caves, proclaiming the inviolability of church properties as necessary for the upkeep of cloisters. The position of the non-possessors was undermined by the inability of small sketes and hermitages to feed themselves without additional upkeep. Another argument was that only prosperous monasteries could perform the important role of training metropolitans, archbishops and bishops.

The ownership of property contributed to the rapid growth of the largest monasteries in the following decades. The pace of the monastic movement intensified in the sixteenth century, when six hundred new cloisters were opened. There is an interesting relationship between the number of new monasteries and the general nature of this historical period. Before the coronation of Ivan the Terrible in 1547, an average of two or three cloisters were founded every year. During Ivan’s reign of terror, this figure increased to six, reaching as much as twenty towards the end of his life.

As in previous times, most monasteries had extremely small fraternities, particularly in the outlying regions of Novgorod and the far north. Documents from the second half of the sixteenth century describe communities of only one, two or three monks living at a church or monastery. Even such a well-known cloister as the Skovorodsky Monastery near Novgorod only had three elders living in three cells in 1582. Other evidence of the disorderly nature of monastic life was the spread of mixed abbeys, where monks and nuns lived side by side. Although the Church Assembly banned this practice in 1503, such places continued to exist throughout the sixteenth century.

The followers of St Sergius of Radonezh founded cenobitic cloisters across the whole country, leading to the need for clear guidelines governing these communities. Prior to the sixteenth century, monastery typika did not exist in written form. At the start of the sixteenth century, the spiritual testament of St Joseph of Volokolamsk had more or less become a de facto typikon.

Cenobitic monasteries acquired increasing authority. In 1528, Archbishop Macarius of Novgorod, who was later appointed metropolitan of Russia, called upon the idiorrhythmic monasteries to convert to cenobiticism. Sixteen priories adopted a communal way of life, including the St Anthony Monastery, where the cenobitic tradition had begun back in the twelfth century, before dying out by the sixteenth century.

Like the Russian state itself, many aspects of public and religious life were regulated and centralised in the sixteenth century. In 1550, a revised code of laws (Sudebnik) was passed by the Assembly of the Land (Zemsky sobor), while the Church Assembly of 1551 adopted the Hundred Chapters (Stoglav). Together, both documents regulated all civil and religious matters. Dozens of nationally and locally revered saints were canonised in 1547 and 1549. The hagiographies of forty-nine saints were compiled (over the entire preceding period, the total number had only been thirty-three).

The tempestuous events of the sixteenth century led to a burst of polemical literature. The struggle against the heresy of the Judaisers, the theological debates of the mid-sixteenth century and the vitriolic exchanges between Ivan the Terrible and Prince Andrei Kurbsky, or between tsar and church, reflect the passionate nature of political and everyday life. While many writings refer to the need for spiritual perfection, inner reflections and contemplation were not their main topics.

Russian medieval theology focussed less on theoretical questions and more on points of dogma and practical matters. The sequence and form of the liturgy were widely debated. As intrinsic elements of the church rites, Russian art and architecture reflected the tense atmosphere and lofty ideals of this period – and monastery ensembles were no exception.

The St Sergius Monastery of the Trinity, Solovetsky Monastery and Alexandrovskaya sloboda mirror the grandiose, epic and tragic nature of Russian life in the sixteenth century. The St Euthymius Monastery of the Saviour and the Convent of the Intercession in Suzdal, the Pskov Monastery of the Caves and the St Cyril of Belozersk Monastery managed to combine the elegant and innovative architecture of the first half of the sixteenth century with a greater air of intimacy, far removed from the heated wrangling and passions.

Although the official culture inevitably found its way into fresco and icon painting, the aristocratically refined art of the early sixteenth century still survived in the following periods, adding a subtle charm to even large-scale images and compositions. In larger monasteries, the origins of the customers or the masters themselves meant that the art closely followed the traditions of the capital. This also influenced the creative environment in the surrounding towns and villages, contributing to the wide spread of leading artistic forms in the provinces. The wooden churches in villages dependent on the Solovetsky Monastery, for example, such as the Trinity Church in the village of Nenoks on the White Sea, possessed icons of a very high standard.

The locations and layouts of the architectural ensembles were extremely diverse. They were often built on the shores of lakes, rivers and seas, while some were concealed in forests or ravines. Although the cathedral normally formed the architectural centre, it did not always stand right in the middle of the monastery. Some were built close to the periphery. A central courtyard usually arose around the cathedral, with the refectory and belltower as its main components. The main road led to the central courtyard through the entranceway tower, which was crowned by a gateway church in large cloisters.

The auxiliary buildings were located in an inauspicious place at the edge of the monastery. In some cloisters, such as the Solovetsky Monastery, there was more than one yard. The other buildings were constructed along the walls. They were either built right up against the wall or left an enclosed space known as the zasenie (“place in the shade”).

Besides engineering and defensive considerations, the constructors of monastery walls were also obliged to take into account the view onto the cloister from the main vantage points and the openness of the central complex of buildings. Some buildings were places of work, such as manuscript workshops and icon-painting studios. Many industries and services were located alongside cloisters, sometimes forming extensive settlements that later developed into towns.

Despite the solidity of the walls and their prevailing focus on spiritual values, the monasteries were not immune to the dramas and passions of outside life. Several cloisters were the scenes of important private and public events. Grand princes and tsars sometimes took refuge in monasteries or exiled their enemies there. Basil III incarcerated his first wife, Solomonia Saburova, in a convent when she was unable to beget an heir. The prince’s prayers for a son were accompanied by the construction of magnificent churches and cathedrals. During the reign of Ivan the Terrible, the cloisters witnessed many contradictory events. Some served as prisons for those who had incurred his wrath; others benefitted from generous royal endowments. The story of the murder of Father Superior Cornelius at the Pskov Monastery of the Caves was a typical example of the despot’s paradoxical nature.

Monasteries opened poorhouses and hospitals, which sat perfectly with their pursuits of charity and holiness and their atmospheres of serenity and security. But the actions of the authorities caused the public to generally regard cloisters as a prison or a place of incarceration.

The Russian monasteries shared the joys and tragedies of the entire country. Their walls defended not only monastic tranquillity, but also the national borders. Back in the fourteenth century, the people of Novgorod had been forced to set fire to their suburban cloisters when they had come under attack. Now, in the sixteenth century and beyond, the abbeys were transformed into impregnable fortresses, guarding and protecting the Russian lands.

During the Time of Troubles in the early seventeenth century, many monasteries were sacked, while thousands of monks were brutally murdered. A wave of destruction engulfed the whole country, from Pskov to Kostroma, from the western borders to Belozersk in the north. At the same time, the heroic defence of the St Sergius Monastery of the Trinity and the St Cyril of Belozersk Monastery elevated them into national centres of resistance and recovery.

Although many small cloisters were completely destroyed in the Time of Troubles, new ones were not long in appearing. Around five hundred monasteries were founded throughout the whole seventeenth century. While most of them were still very modest, some of the new abbeys and many of the old ones enjoyed a heyday in the seventeenth century.

From the late sixteenth century onwards, the social and economic status of the monasteries began to change. Their rapid growth and enormous holdings of land began to evoke the alarm of the state. In 1580, Ivan the Terrible attempted to limit their power by banning priories from acquiring new lands – whether by purchase, mortgage or bequest. In parallel, cloisters began to court the favour of the authorities, often resulting in their transfer to royal jurisdiction. By 1610, so many monasteries had been taken under direct royal control that a special section of the Department of Palaces had to be created. In 1648, the acquisition of new estates through purchase or donation was once again banned, while jurisdiction over the cloisters was transferred to a newly formed Department of Monasteries.

It is very difficult to establish the exact number of cloisters at the start of the seventeenth century, because it is not known how many survived the Time of Troubles. There were probably around a thousand. While this figure might suggest that Russia was a land of monasteries, the enormous size of the country and the population make this picture rather less impressive. As the overwhelming majority of abbeys had very small fraternities, the total number of monks was probably only in the region of seven to ten thousand – in a country of fourteen million people. While cloisters played a prominent role in the architectural environment and social stratigraphy of Moscow and other historical towns, the average figures help to balance out the overall picture.

The largest monasteries experienced a golden age in the seventeenth century, thanks to rich endowments made by the royal family, the patriarch and private individuals. All formal prohibitions on the acquisition of new lands were forgotten when the tsar wished to favour a chosen abbey. Three cloisters enjoyed the special patronage of the royal family – the Ipatiev Monastery in Kostroma, the St Sabbas of Storozhev Monastery near Moscow and the Novodevichy Convent in the capital. An equal number were linked to the ecumenical ambitions of Patriarch Nikon – the Iviron Monastery on Lake Valdai, the Monastery of the Cross on the White Sea and the Monastery of the Resurrection (New Jerusalem) outside Moscow. The country’s leading masters were hired to build and decorate their ensembles, while New Jerusalem was instrumental in spreading the new traditions imported from Europe via the Ukraine and White Russia.

After the calamities of the early seventeenth century, monasteries paid special attention to the building of defensive walls and turrets. They continued the monumental traditions of sixteenth-century art, which achieved an unprecedented scale and magnificence at the St Sergius Monastery of the Trinity and the St Cyril of Belozersk Monastery. Armed soldiers or Streltsy guards were stationed at cloisters, requiring the construction of additional guardhouses. Abbey walls were lined with dozens of cannons, while enormous reserves of cannonballs and gunpowder were stored in the cellars.

The monasteries gradually lost their defensive functions in the second half of the seventeenth century, as the state began to recover and was able to defend its own borders. Cloister walls grew more decorative and inviting, while the outlines of the merlons and turrets formed lacy silhouettes.

Such practical developments matched the general changes taking place in Russian architecture. Although the traditions of the sixteenth century continued in the first decades of the seventeenth century, due to hostile relations with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, they eventually gave way to more decorative and colourful devices. In the 1680s, there was a tendency to copy the segmentation of facades encountered in European architecture.

Western devices combined with national traditions to form a unique style known as Muscovite Baroque – the last original movement in Old Russian architecture. Muscovite Baroque was a feature of the buildings commissioned by the regent Sophia for the Novodevichy Convent. The style was widely employed in the main facades of monastery buildings and the elegant outlines of gateway churches and belltowers. Refectories were built with enormous pillar-less halls, recalling the Chamber of the Cross in Patriarch Nikon’s palace in the Kremlin.

The interiors of monastery cathedrals and churches were decorated with carved and gilded iconostases. The walls were often left white, further enhancing the masterly fretwork of the iconostasis and the shining icons in their gold and silver revetments. New iconostases replaced the old icon screens in many historical cathedrals.

The monasteries continued to provide the setting for important events in Russian history. New Jerusalem was a monument to the rise and fall of Patriarch Nikon, whose biography was later linked to the St Therapontus Monastery, St Cyril of Belozersk Monastery and the Tolga Monastery. The Solovetsky Monastery was one of the strongholds of opposition to Nikon’s ecclesiastic reforms, leading to the famous Solovetsky Uprising (1668–76). The Novodevichy Convent served as a place of imprisonment and executions.

The reign of Peter the Great marked the end of Old Russia and the dawning of a new age in the life of the monasteries. In 1721, Peter I founded the Most Holy Governing Synod, effectively turning the Russian Orthodox Church into a department of state. In 1762, all church estates with more than 900,000 serfs passed into the ownership of the crown. In 1764, Catherine the Great divided all state-owned cloisters (158 monasteries and 67 convents) into three classes, which determined how much government money would be spent on their upkeep. 161 landless cloisters were acquired by the state, while all the others were closed down.

In the eighteenth century, the land holdings of the monasteries were rapidly restored through the acquisition of uninhabited territories. By 1890, their total value was worth 26.5 million roubles, providing an annual income of 1.2 million roubles.

The involvement of cloisters in commerce and other economic activities was condemned in some quarters, leading to the growth of a special form of monasticism called staretsdom or “spiritual fatherhood.” A starets (Russian: “elder”) was a venerated adviser and teacher, whose exemplary life of asceticism, prayer and seclusion was believed to grant special powers and wisdom.

The general rates of monastery construction reflected the changes taking place in the country. Between 1700 and 1764, approximately one hundred and twenty new cloisters appeared. This was a mean figure of two a year, dropping to an annual average of one until 1840. In the following decades, the numbers of new abbeys sharply increased, sometimes reaching as many as fifteen a year. Over two hundred and fifty new cloisters were founded between 1840 and 1917.

During the Great Northern War against Sweden (1700–21), many monasteries were fortified by additional earthen bastions. The military campaigns of Peter the Great and the wars fought in the latter half of the eighteenth century led to a fresh problem – the housing and occupation of invalids and retired soldiers. Peter I issued a series of decrees accommodating them in abbeys. By the mid-1760s, around 1,500 former soldiers were living in cloisters.

Monasteries continued to be used as places of imprisonment and exile. In the late eighteenth century, the residences of many bishops were opened in deserted cloisters. New construction work in historical ensembles virtually ceased. Instead of being maintained in their original forms, old buildings were often reconstructed or given new sloping roofs, distorting their appearances.

A wave of interest in Old Russian culture and the parallel desire of the Holy Synod to catalogue all church valuables led to the removal of many precious objects from the monasteries to central repositories. This helped to uncover and save a large number of manuscripts. The growing public awareness of historical and artistic artefacts and concern for their preservation inspired new works of research and restoration programmes. Unfortunately, misguided attempts to renovate historical monuments frequently led to the unwarranted destruction of many old buildings and frescoes.

At the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, several cloisters marked their five- and six-hundredth anniversaries. This contributed to the further growth of popular interest in the monasteries, inspiring new publications. Although restoration work was often amateurish, a system of scientific restoration and public control gradually began to develop in Russia.

The 1917 revolution ushered in the darkest period in the history of the Russian monasteries. In 1918, the majority of cloisters were closed down by the new Communist government. Although museums of history and art were opened in some abbeys, most were turned into concentration camps, penal colonies, homes for abandoned children, poorhouses, hospitals or rest homes. Others were simply abandoned. In many priories, the cathedrals, belltowers and other buildings were deliberately dismantled or blown up.

The Second World War brought fresh damage and destruction to the monastery buildings. Several ensembles were razed to the ground. The atrocities of the Nazis and the accompanying wave of patriotism helped to rehabilitate the Russian Orthodox Church in the eyes of the Soviet authorities, who allowed the St Sergius Monastery of the Trinity to reopen as a functioning cloister.

After the war, the destruction of Russia’s architectural monuments was officially qualified as an act of barbarism. This encouraged the revival of the former system of state protection of listed buildings and the launching of an ambitious programme of restoration work.

The growth of national and international tourism from the late 1950s onwards contributed to further interest in the monastery ensembles. Some were transferred from the jurisdiction of the Ministry of the Interior to the direct control of cultural institutions. Many former cloisters were turned into museum complexes and reserves.

By the 1980s, there were fourteen active monasteries on the territory of the Soviet Union. Ten of them were located on what is now the Russian Federation. In the 1990s, the restoration of religious freedom in Russia led to a rapid revival of monasticism, which now flourishes with over three hundred cloisters.

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