Russia Religion Monasticism Monastery Mirozhsky Monastery in Pskov

Mirozhsky Monastery in Pskov

In 1136, the Novgorodians dismissed Prince Vsyevolod, son of Mstislav, who fled to the town of Pskov. This gave Pskov the status of a capital city, while Vsyevolod became its patron saint – even though he barely spent over a year there. After the prince’s early death in 1138, Bishop Niphon of Novgorod founded the Mirozhsky Monastery of the Transfiguration on the western bank of the River Velikaya, where it was joined by a stream called the Mirozh.

Bishop Niphon and Prince Vsyevolod had previously worked together, commissioning buildings in Novgorod in the early 1130s. Niphon now continued on his own, entrusting construction to the same team of experts formerly employed by the prince. The bishop’s decision to establish a monastery in Pskov was, therefore, a natural extension of the royal initiatives of the past and the previous actions of the two men in Novgorod.

Besides founding the Mirozhsky Monastery, Niphon also financed the construction of a cathedral. He oversaw all the building work and interior decoration. The bishop donated rich ornaments and ensured the future wellbeing of the cloister by awarding it the ownership of many villages.

The Cathedral of the Transfiguration was constructed from a combination of plinth and stone. Although the size of the plinths and the building devices clearly indicate the presence of craftsmen from Novgorod, the design and composition of the cathedral look slightly further afield, to the Byzantine architecture of the twelfth century. This circumstance is possibly explained by the personal tastes of Niphon, who was born in Greece, before entering the Kiev Monastery of the Caves.

Compared to similar buildings commissioned by the Novgorod princes in the eleventh century, the Cathedral of the Transfiguration is about average in size – larger than its counterpart at the St Anthony Monastery, but much smaller than St George’s Cathedral at the Yuriev Monastery. For Pskov, however, such a grandiose edifice was unprecedented, remaining unsurpassed until the sixteenth century.

The catholicon of the Mirozhsky Monastery is not like any other work of Old Russian architecture in the twelfth century. Although designed in the form of a cross-in-square church, the facades do not feature an even row of arched gables at the top. The corner sections are twice as low as the arms of the cross, increasing the expressiveness of the cruciform motif and the dome-drum.

Proportionally, the Cathedral of the Transfiguration is not as high as the princely constructions of Novgorod. The clear centre of the compositional rhythm is the cupola, which appears to be unusually large and sturdy. The movement descends from the cupola down to the lowered corner sections.

The western corner sections were heightened during the construction process, while a parvis was later added to the western facade. There are no niches in the cathedral walls. The occasional single windows do not form horizontal girdles, but create pyramidal groups on the facades.

Although later alterations now distort the exterior of the cathedral, the interior still brilliantly captures the decorative and spiritual features of Old Russian art in the twelfth century. Because there are no pillars inside the church, the space of the central cross seems unusually integrated and free.

The absence of pilaster strips on the walls creates a sense of union, a feeling of the incessant circular movement of the whole stone body. Narrow arched passageways lead to the slightly isolated corner compartments, adding to the freedom and lightness of the central cruciform space.

The most important role in the interior is played by the vaulted ceiling. The vaults are much lower than in similar buildings in Novgorod (the ration of the width to the height of the middle naves is 1:2, as compared to 2:7 in Novgorod). This echoes the Byzantine ideal of a wide and free space overhung by a cupola.

The cupola, dome-drum and the foundation of the dome-drum constitute the compositional centre of the cathedral. Hanging and soaring above the entire space, their circular outlines bring together and complete the rhythmic movements of the arches and vaults.

The builders strove to underscore the scale of the central area. Protruding at the bases of the large central arches, the consoles extend the interior, forming hollow cavities rather than projections in the corners.

As the pendentives begin higher up than the arches, the corner hollows seem to move upwards, in opposition to the inclined development of the arches. They form niches, creating a space among the intertwining stone forms. The power and dynamics of the top are underlined by the visually upward thickening of the arch walls. The low windows place the vaults further in the shade, increasing the austere and slightly intimidating air of the interior.

The lucidity of the dome-drum increases the sensation of space. While a profusion of upper light is an important symbolic element in any Christian church, this is increased in this particular case by the visual expressiveness of the higher forms. The deep cupola crowning the cathedral has no distinctive bright light, making it seem even further away.

This spatially united interior corresponded perfectly to the cenobitic status of the Mirozhsky Monastery. Bishop Niphon appears to have based the rules of the abbey on the typikon of the Kiev Monastery of the Caves. This conscious decision to follow in the wake of most other Russian cloisters meant that cenobitic monasticism survived in Pskov in later years, even in the face of strong local traditions.

The interior was decorated by a series of stunning frescoes. The subjects of the paintings are closely linked to the hierarchy of the space. Looking eastward, there is a single and clearly visible vertical – The Ascension of Christ in the cupola; the images of the prophets in the piers of the dome-drum; The Holy Mandylion and The Saviour Emmanuel on the central arch; The Transfiguration in the vault before the apse; The Empty Throne with the instruments of Christ’s Passion in the arch of the apse; Christ Enthroned between the Virgin Mary and St John the Baptist in the vault of the apse; The Communion of the Apostles on the wall of the apse. The two enormous compositions on the eastern walls of the side arms of the cross establish the key chronological boundaries of the Gospel story depicted on the vaults – The Nativity of Christ and The Dormition of the Virgin.

The style of painting is charged with emotional tension. The monumental nature of the compositions is supplemented by the expressive contours, stylised lines, light spaces and tense colour combinations on the stunning blue background. The Lamentation – still surviving in the lunette of the northern wall – is an acknowledged masterpiece of fresco painting.

As the Cathedral of the Transfiguration was the first stone building in Pskov, the remarkable interior decor clearly demonstrates the superb traditions of wall-painting already existing at that time. The frescoes place Pskov firmly at the heart of the most important phenomena of Byzantine and Old Russian art, following the golden age of culture in Kievan Rus.

Very little is known about the life of the Mirozhsky Monastery in the next period. The cloister was located on the undefended western bank of the River Velikaya, on largely uninhabited territory not protected by stone walls. This made the abbey an easy prey for enemy forces approaching Pskov from the west, particularly the Lithuanians and the Livonian Order (an autonomous branch of the Teutonic Knights).

Up until the sixteenth century, the Mirozhsky Monastery was the main custodian of cenobitic traditions in Pskov. St Cornelius spent several years there before entering the Pskov Monastery of the Caves in the 1520s. In 1405, the Church of St Stephen was built in the north of the cloister, facing the town centre (it was rebuilt in 1546 and later reconstructed). A low parvis was attached to the Cathedral of the Transfiguration, probably in the sixteenth century, while a small belfry was later added to the northern wall.

In the course of archaeological excavations, stone constructions dating from the sixteenth century were discovered on the bank of the River Velikaya, to the south of the Cathedral of the Transfiguration. On the whole, the architectural ensemble of the cloister did not undergo any major development. The squat and sturdy cathedral built in the twelfth century remained the dominant element in the river panorama to the south of Pskov – a constant reminder of the town’s proud history.

In 1581, King Stephen Bathory of Poland besieged Pskov during the final stage of the Livonian War (1558–83). The inhabitants staunchly defended the city, winning great fame. The Mirozhsky Monastery was located right next to the Polish camp and suffered much damage in the siege. The final battle was fought on the other side of the River Velikaya, next to the Intercession Tower. Several of the monastery buildings were broken up by the Polish occupants, in order to improve the line of fire of their cannons, which were stationed on the territory of the cloister.

In the late eighteenth century, a low belltower and two-storey stone cells were built near the Church of St Stephen. In the nineteenth century, a wooden abbot’s house was constructed to the west of the catholicon, while a small wooden block of cells was built to the south.

The frescoes in the Cathedral of the Transfiguration were whitewashed over and forgotten. A lack of money meant that they were thankfully never replaced by new paintings. The frescoes were only rediscovered by chance in 1858. In the late nineteenth century, a time of renewed interest in Old Russian art, the paintings attracted the interest of scholars. In 1899 and 1900, an artel of Palekh artists headed by Nikolai Safonov, carefully removed the overlays of whitewash and plaster and restored the old images.

Monastic life continued until 1922, when the cloister was closed down by the Soviet government and all its property was seized by the state. The holy icon of Our Lady of Mirozh – a copy of a lost twelfth-century work painted in 1583 – was awarded to the Pskov Museum Complex of History, Architecture and Art. The cathedral was turned into a museum, where there was a renewed attempt to restore and preserve the frescoes in the following decades.

Between 1941 and 1944, the Mirozhsky Monastery was occupied by the Nazis. Although the cloister suffered from bombings and fires, the damaged buildings were restored after the war. The original frescoes dating from the 1130s and 1140s were studied and renovated right up until 1983.

In 1994, Archbishop Eusebius of Pskov and Velikie Lugi signed an agreement with the regional government, whereby the Pskov diocese was awarded the use of the Church of St Stephen, the dorter and the abbot’s house. The other buildings, including the Cathedral of the Transfiguration, remained under the control of the Pskov Museum Complex of History, Architecture and Art. This event paved the way for the revival of monasticism in the oldest cloister in Russia.

In 1997, a school of icon-painting was opened at the Mirozhsky Monastery and headed by archimandrite Zinon (Fyodor). The following year, Brother Alypius painted a copy of the icon of Our Lady of Mirozh. A religious service with the Akathist to the Theotokos is now held every week before the icon in the Church of St Stephen. The Sabbath liturgy and the twelve great feasts of the Orthodox Church are also celebrated there.

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