Russia Religion Monasticism Monastery Iviron Monastery on Lake Valdai

Iviron Monastery on Lake Valdai

The Iviron Monastery stands on an island in Lake Valdai, two miles from the town of the same name in the east of Novgorod Region. While the cloister may have been founded long after the other famous monasteries of Novgorod, this did not stop it from becoming one of the holiest sites in the whole of Russia.

The early history of the Valdai Monastery is synonymous with the name of Patriarch Nikon. In the middle of the seventeenth century, when he was still metropolitan of Novgorod, Nikon was once travelling from his diocese to Moscow, when his attention was drawn to the countryside around Lake Valdai. The stark beauty of the landscape reminded him of the Solovetsky Monastery, where he had taken his monastic vows.

In 1652, Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich decided to move the relics of St Philip from the Solovki Islands to Moscow. St Philip had once headed the Solovetsky Monastery, before being appointed metropolitan of Russia in 1566. Three years later, he was murdered by order of Ivan the Terrible.

The expedition to the Solovki Islands was headed by Nikon. In the middle of the journey, St Philip appeared to him in a dream and told him to found a monastery on one of the islands of Lake Valdai.

The decision to name the monastery in honour of Our Lady of Iviron probably dates back to the time when Nikon was the abbot of the New Monastery of the Saviour in Moscow. Paul of Aleppo writes that “archimandrite Nikon had a great affection for the Greek people and the monks of the Holy Mount. He heard that among its many cloisters was a monastery called the Iviron, which means Georgian, named after the miracle-working icon of the Panagia Portaitissa.”

When representatives of the Iviron Monastery on Mount Athos visited Moscow in 1648, Nikon asked archimandrite Pachomius for a replica of the Panagia Portaitissa (Greek for “keeper of the gate”). A copy was painted and sent to Moscow, along with a plan of the Iviron Monastery.

After his appointment as head of the Russian Orthodox Church on 25 July 1652, Nikon went ahead with his plans to found a monastery on Lake Valdai. He was supported by Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich, who donated a large sum of money. In August 1653, the first builder of the new cloister was dispatched to Valdai – archimandrite Jacob of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Novgorod.

Construction proceeded so rapidly that the wooden Cathedral of Our Lady of Iviron and a heated Church of St Philip had already been built by autumn 1653. A wooden belfry, a dorter and utility blocks were constructed by January 1654. The community consisted of twenty-six monks and twenty-six labourers. In late 1654, when archimandrite Jacob returned to the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, archimandrite Dionysius was appointed the first abbot of the new cloister.

In February 1654, the Iviron Monastery acquired its first holy object – the relics of St Jacob of Borovsk. They were moved from the St Paphnutius Monastery in Borovsk, which was also assigned to the new cloister at Valdai. On 26 February 1654, Nikon visited the monastery and personally placed the relics of St Jacob in a new gilded shrine. At the same time, the cloister was awarded four arks containing the relics of four Muscovite saints – Peter, Alexis, Jonah and Philip.

On 6 May 1654, the tsar officially turned the posad of Valdai into the village of Bogoroditskoe (from the Russian word for “Mother of God” – Bogoroditsa). Lake Valdai became the Holy Lake, while the cloister was named the Iviron Monastery of the Holy Lake. The patriarch consecrated the site of the future Dormition Cathedral with side-chapels of St Philip and St Jacob of Borovsk.

In early 1655, the Kuteinka Monastery of the Epiphany in the town of Orsha in White Russia was closed down and its monks moved to Valdai. Father Superior Dionysius, the first abbot of the Iviron Monastery, was transferred to another cloister. His place was taken by an abbot with the same name, who became known as Dionysius II.

The Kuteinka Monastery of the Epiphany has been a famous centre of book publishing. When the White Russian monks relocated to Valdai, they brought their printing press with them. In 1657, the Iviron Monastery opened its own publishing house, which employed editors, translators and bookbinders. In 1665, Patriarch Nikon moved the printing press to the New Jerusalem Monastery of the Resurrection.

While Nikon was still the patriarch of Russia, the Iviron Monastery enjoyed his care and attention. He personally chose the Greek-styled kamilavkas and klobuks worn by the monks. Besides granting various privileges to the heads of the cloister, such as awarding the abbot the rank of archimandrite, he made numerous endowments of church books and ornaments.

The Iviron Monastery enjoyed wide-ranging civil rights. The buildings lying outside the walls were freed from the need to billet soldiers of the crown. The abbey did not have to pay any commercial taxes. The monks were under the sole jurisdiction of the abbot (except for serious crimes). In the early 1660s, the fraternity numbered around two hundred people.

In spring 1655, work began on the construction of the Dormition Cathedral on the site previously consecrated by Nikon. The project was headed by a master from Kalyazin called Averky Mokeyev. Nikon wanted the building to look like the cathedrals of the Lesser St Cyril Monastery on the River Volkhov in Novgorod and the Solovetsky Monastery, which were, in turn, inspired by the Muscovite architecture of the sixteenth century.

On 16 December 1656, the Dormition Cathedral was officially consecrated by Patriarch Nikon in the presence of metropolitans, archbishops and the abbots of the largest Russian monasteries. Nikon donated a bell cast by the royal master Alexander Grigoriev bearing an image of the patriarch (known as the Nikon Bell).

The monastery received another present – a second copy of the Panagia Portaitissa, painted on Mount Athos for the patriarch in 1655. Like the creation of the first replica of 1648, the painting of this copy was preceded by a detailed ceremony. A prayer service was held and water was sanctified in holy relics. The original icon was dipped in this water, which was then used to wash the board of the future icon. The completed painting arrived at Valdai in a precious revetment commissioned by Nikon.

Between 1688 and 1689, the Dormition Cathedral was painted by the artists of the Iviron Monastery, headed by Matvei Karpov. Special place among the fresco subjects was assigned to the history of the Iviron Monastery, including the Virgin becoming the protectress of Mount Athos and St Gabriel recovering the Panagia Portaitissa from the sea. The link between Greece and Russia was celebrated in the scene of the copy of the Panagia Portaitissa being brought to Valdai, accompanied by portraits of Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich and Patriarch Nikon welcoming the icon.

Besides inviting monks from the Kuteinka Monastery of the Epiphany to Valdai, Nikon also assembled a large group of White Russian masters at the cloister. Most of them came to Valdai to escape suppression at the hands of Roman Catholics in their native lands. The multi-tiered iconostasis (not surviving) in the cathedral was carved by Gerasim Okulov, Andrei Fyodorov, Jacob Ivanov, Osip Andreyev and Klim Mikhailov, while the icons were painted by Matvei Karpov and Basil Potapov.

The Dormition Cathedral suffered a fire on 11 May 1704. The upper ceilings burnt down and part of the library was destroyed, including manuscript books and documents. The iconostasis and the frescoes were also damaged, but were restored by Matvei Karpov. When the repair work was completed in 1705, the cathedral was reconsecrated. Soon afterwards, it was completely repainted.

The Dormition Cathedral underwent further changes following another fire in 1825. In the 1830s, two artists from Ostashkovo, Ivan and Andrei Utin, replaced many of the lost frescoes with oil paintings, which were constantly renovated over the years.

In May 1657, work began on the monastery’s second stone building – the Church of the Epiphany with a refectory and auxiliary structures. The refectory stands on a ground floor and adjoins the church from the west. In 1747, the Church of the Epiphany was split into two storeys. The Church of the Descent of the Holy Spirit was opened on the second floor.

In 1666, Nikon was defrocked and exiled to the St Therapontus Monastery. The cloisters that he had built and protected now found themselves in official disfavour, and the Iviron Monastery was hastily shut down. Two years later, however, the monks returned to Valdai, headed by archimandrite Philopheus. On 26 October 1668, the tsar issued a new decree, restoring its former privileges and possessions.

By the late seventeenth century, the reopened abbey owned over one and a half thousand peasant homesteads, agricultural and forest lands, lakes, eleven saltworks in Staraya Russa, two churches in Moscow, two in Novgorod and one each in Torzhok and Tver.

The reestablishment of the monastery’s rights signalled the resumption of construction work at Valdai. A number of utility services, including a bakery and a kvass brewery, were built in 1668 and 1669. Between 1679 and 1689, a stone three-tiered belltower was erected to the south of the Church of the Epiphany, most probably on the site of the wooden tented-roof belltower of 1657.

Between 1684 and 1689, a two-storey abbot’s block with cellars was built to the east of the belltower. The deputy’s block was built to the west of the belltower in the seventeenth century and rebuilt in the 1830s.

Another zone of stone construction in the 1680s was the western tip of the monastery. The most important structure in the complex of buildings running along the inner line of the monastery territory is the gateway Church of St Michael the Archangel. Construction work was headed by Athanasius Fomin, who also built St Michael’s Tower and the treasurer’s block.

The Church of St Michael the Archangel is a pillar-less single-cupola building with a triple-edged apse. The church stands on the single-storey Holy Gates.

A stone quadrilateral tower was built to the north of the Holy Gates, probably on the site of the previous wooden structure. The tower ends in a tented roof and a steeple, reaching up to thirty metres in height (the steeple was rebuilt during restoration work).

Although sometimes also called the Patriarch’s or Nikon’s Tower, the official name of this structure is St Michael’s Tower, because it was once physically joined to the Church of St Michael the Archangel by an unsurviving passageway running along the western side of the vault of the treasurer’s block. The latter directly adjoins the southern wall of the tower, bringing all three constructions together in a single ensemble. A two-storey stone building covered in vaults, the treasurer’s block underwent significant alterations in the middle of the nineteenth century, particularly in the design of the facades.

From 1670 to 1671, the Church of St Jacob of Borovsk was built from wood in the north-eastern corner of the monastery. In 1700, it burnt down in a fire, which also consumed the wooden hospital. In 1708, in its place, a small square church was built from stone with a single cupola. The new church was continued on the western side by a hospital block.

In 1712, Peter the Great assigned the Iviron Monastery to the new St Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St Petersburg, which was also awarded its possessions and sources of income. All the church valuables were sent to St Petersburg, many of them remaining there to this day. This period of neglect, when all construction work at Valdai ceased, continued until the restoration of its former rights and possessions in 1730.

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 empress assigned five other abbeys to Valdai, which was awarded the status of a first-class cloister.

While the Dormition Cathedral was being repaired after the fire of 1704, the copy of the Panagia Portaitissa and the relics of St Jacob of Borovsk were moved to the gateway Church of St Michael the Archangel. They remained there until the completion of the restoration work in 1710.

The two-storey dorter “above the cellars” was built before 1731 in the style of Naryshkin Baroque architecture. Adjoining the gateway Church of St Michael the Archangel, it extended the line of constructions from north to south, separating the inner eastern part of the monastery from the western guest section lying between the two gateway churches.

Between 1731 and 1763, the wooden stockade was replaced by stone walls. In this period, four wooden turrets – the Cookery, Kvass Brewery, Smithy and South-Eastern Towers – were likewise rebuilt in stone, followed by all the others after 1764.

Major construction and repair work was carried out after the fire of 1825. Between 1830 and 1831, architect Alexander Kharulin built a guest house and a block of equerry cells on the site of the eighteenth-century western wall. In 1842, he redesigned the belltower, replacing the tented roof with an octagonal cupola, steeple and cross. By the end of the nineteenth century, seventeen bells hung from the belltower.

In the 1860s, a stone hospice was built in the south-western corner of the monastery, in place of the wall. The wooden Church of St Philip (1653), which had fallen into dilapidation, was dismantled around the middle of the eighteenth century. The altar was moved into the gateway church built above the western stone gates between 1730 and 1764.

The aforementioned gateway church was rebuilt by the architect Saveliev between 1873 and 1874. The two-storey building was crowned with one cupola (the original octagonal form was revived during restoration work between 1989 and 2006). The main square unit of the church is adjoined by two two-storey wings. The northern wing contained a staircase, while the southern wing is now a church shop. The wings extend into the guest cells in the south and the equerry cells in the north. In the nineteenth century, the Horse and Hospice Towers were completely rebuilt, while a stone crypt-chapel was erected in the monastery garden.

Between 1854 and 1876, when archimandrite Laurentius (Makarov) was abbot, all the churches and residential buildings were repaired. The iconostasis of the Dormition Cathedral was gilded in 1861 and an hotel was opened for pilgrims. In 1858, Laurentius commissioned a new shrine for the relics of St Jacob of Borovsk and a gold revetment with precious stones for the copy of the Panagia Portaitissa.

The monks particularly worshipped the image of Our Lady of Iviron, which had given the monastery its name. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Father Superior Laurentius established the tradition of religious processions with the icon to Valdai, Demyansk, Borovichi and throughout Novgorod and the neighbouring provinces. On such occasions, the icon’s place in the Dormition Cathedral was taken by the second copy, which was covered by the precious setting.

In the early twentieth century, there were four copies of the Panagia Portaitissa in the Dormition Cathedral and one each in the Church of the Epiphany, the Church of St Michael the Archangel and the Church of St Philip. After the 1917 revolution, the second copy of 1655 disappeared; its whereabouts are still unknown.

By 1918, there were around seventy monks and labourers at the monastery. The last abbot was archimandrite Joseph (Nikolaevsky), who was appointed in 1906. In 1921, he was demoted to the post of bishop of Valdai and a vicar of the Novgorod diocese.

In January 1918, the Communist government began holding regular requisitions of foodstuffs. In July 1918, an armed detachment of Red Guards landed on Valdai with the aim of seizing “surplus bread,” but were stopped by the indignant local population. The abbot managed to avoid an armed battle, although he himself was injured by a stray bullet. After this, the requisitions temporarily ceased.

In autumn 1918, the Red Guards returned. They stormed the monastery, seizing the golden revetment from the miracle-working copy of the Panagia Portaitissa, precious ornaments and the former possessions of Patriarch Nikon. On 1 January 1919, the Soviet government issued an order returning all these objects to the cloister.

Soon afterwards, a workers’ committee moved into the monastery and demanded the subordination of the abbot. The fraternity was renamed the “Iviron Labour Artel.” In 1921, the remains of St Jacob of Borovsk were violated. After the monastery was closed down, the relics were lost; their current whereabouts are still unknown.

In 1927, the Iviron Labour Artel was officially disbanded. The abbot was arrested and exiled to Rybinsk. In the late 1930s, six monks served in the local villages. The territory of the monastery housed a museum and workshops, followed by a military hospital from 1941 to 1945. After the war, it was used as a home for invalids, a sanatorium for children with tuberculosis and, from the 1970s, a leisure centre.

In 1959, restoration work began at the Iviron Monastery under the guidance of architect Leonid Krasnorechiev. By this time, most of the buildings were in a perilous condition. But the real work on the restoration of the complex only began after the cloister was returned to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1991.

The first abbot of the revived monastery was Father Superior Stephen (Popkov). In 1991, the cloister was visited by Patriarch Alexius II of Moscow and All Russia, who held a public service before the copy of the Panagia Portaitissa in the Dormition Cathedral.

By August 2003, the Dormition Cathedral, Church of the Epiphany, gateway Church of St Philip, belltower, Nikon Block and the dorter had all been returned to their former glory. Three years later, the rest of the complex was fully restored. In 2007, archimandrite Ephremus (Barbinyagr) was appointed abbot of the Valdai Monastery.

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