Russia Religion Monasticism Monastery Novodevichy Convent in Moscow

Novodevichy Convent in Moscow

As Kievan Rus declined after the eleventh century, its south-western territories were gradually absorbed into the kingdom of Poland and the grand duchy of Lithuania. The capital of Rus moved north-east from Kiev to Vladimir and then to Moscow. This left the lands on the western borders of Rus particularly vulnerable to attack.

One such centre was Smolensk, which reached the pinnacle of its power in the twelfth century, when it was one of the most powerful cities in Eastern Europe. As the town slipped into terminal decline in the thirteenth century, it increasingly looked back to the past and its proud cultural heritage. One of its most precious possessions was the Hodegetria icon of the Virgin, brought to Smolensk by Vladimir Monomachus in 1077.

In the early fifteenth century, the Smolensk icon found its way into the Annunciation Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin. There are two versions of how this happened. The icon was possibly taken to Moscow by Sophia of Lithuania, wife of Grand Prince Basil I, who visited Smolensk in 1398 and 1399. Alternatively, it may have been removed in 1404, just before Smolensk fell to the forces of Vytautas the Great.

In 1456, Smolensk asked for the icon to be returned to the city. A copy was painted for the Annunciation Cathedral and both icons were taken to the banks of the River Moscow, where a farewell service was held. The copy was returned to the Kremlin, while the original was taken to Smolensk.

After the annexation of Novgorod and Pskov in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Basil III besieged and captured Smolensk in 1514. The whole of Rus was now united in a powerful state under the control of the grand prince of Muscovy.

This westward movement was as important for Muscovite Rus as its parallel expansion in an eastward direction. Before laying siege to Smolensk, Basil III promised to found a convent in the event of victory. The name and location of the new cloister were inspired by the famous icon and its historical association with the city of Moscow.

In 1523, Basil III donated two villages and three thousand roubles towards the foundation of the promised convent. Work began after his successful campaign against Kazan in 1524. The convent was built at the exact point on the River Moscow where the local inhabitants had parted with the Smolensk icon in 1456. The copy of the image was brought there from the Annunciation Cathedral on 28 July 1525.

The cloister was initially called the “Smolensk Convent of the Virgin on Maidens Meadow.” Later, to distinguish it from the older female monasteres in the Kremlin and Ostozhenka, it became known as the Novodevichy (“New Maidens”) Convent.

The Novodevichy Convent stood in the middle of a field at a bend in the River Moscow. From the Sparrow Hills on the high opposite bank, a magnificent view opened up onto the convent and, beyond, onto the city of Moscow and the Kremlin. This panorama became famous over the next five hundred years, as countless artists recorded its changing face in paintings, drawings and photographs.

From the very start of its history, the Novodevichy Convent was considered an elite cloister. The nuns came from the highest circles of Russian society, including the royal family and court. The first abbess was Helena Devochkina, who was transferred from the Convent of the Intercession in Suzdal.

The early constructions were probably made of wood. The first attempt to build the Smolensk Cathedral from stone ended in catastrophe, the exact date and circumstances of which are still unclear. According to the Novodevichy synodic, while it was still under construction, the stone cathedral collapsed in 1525, killing fifty-six stonemasons. Other sources claim that this disaster occurred twenty-five years later, in 1550. The architectural forms of the existing cathedral suggest that it was built in the mid-sixteenth century, supporting the later dating.

The enormous size of the five-cupola catholicon was typical of monastery and urban cathedrals built during the reign of Ivan the Terrible, when architects aimed to emulate the Dormition Cathedral in the Kremlin. From its location outside the town, the Smolensk Cathedral formed a common perspective with the Dormition Cathedral, reflecting its conscious orientation on the Kremlin and the royal origins of both buildings.

In the second half of the sixteenth century, the Novodevichy Convent grew rapidly in wealth and size. By the early seventeenth century, there were 122 nuns. The cloister owned a large number of villages and around fourteen thousand serfs. In 1547, Ivan the Terrible sponsored the building of the wooden Church of St Joachim and St Anne. The number of wooden constructions was probably quite large in this period, when the catholicon was the only building made of stone.

In the final years of the sixteenth century, the Novodevichy Convent was the site of an important event in Russian history. On 7 January 1598, the Rurikid dynasty came to an end, following the death of the childless Tsar Feodor I. The widowed tsarina, Irina Godunova, entered the Novodevichy Convent as Sister Alexandra. She was accompanied by her brother, Boris Godunov, who had been the real power behind the throne during the reign of the weak and sickly Feodor.

On 21 February 1598, a crowd of people gathered outside the convent, calling on Boris Godunov to return to Moscow and ascend the throne. The following day, he was anointed the ruler of Russia in the Smolensk Cathedral. On 26 February, the new tsar left the convent.

During his seven-year reign, Boris Godunov did not forget either the Novodevichy Convent or the Smolensk Cathedral. The same year that he was crowned tsar, he commissioned a team of artists to paint the interior of the catholicon. A large inscription commemorating this event runs along the tops of the walls.

The space above the apse was decorated with an enormous image of Our Lady of Smolensk. The pillars depicted the heads of the celestial forces (archangels Michael and Gabriel) and the patron saints of Moscow and Smolensk (St George and St Mercurius). Images of St Boris and St Irene reminded worshippers of the patronage of the Godunov family.

Irina Godunova (Sister Alexandra) was awarded the rooms originally created by Ivan the Terrible for his sister-in-law, Princess Ulyana of Palekh. A new complex was formed by the construction of a stone refectory and bakery, the Church of the Annunciation and two-storey chambers adjoining the church from the west.

During the Time of Troubles, the Novodevichy Convent was captured by a Polish unit under the command of Aleksander Korwin Gosiewski. Although the cloister’s great wealth helped it to quickly recover, there was no new construction until the 1670s.

After the expulsion of the Polish invaders, it was decided to permanently station Streltsy guards at the convent. By 1616, the number of troops was already in the region of one hundred. In the middle of the seventeenth century, the tsar decided to resettle elders from Kiev at the cloister.

After the death of Feodor III in 1682, his elder sister Sophia was installed as regent during the minority of her brothers Ivan V and Peter I. During her brief period in power from 1682 to 1689, this ambitious and clever woman made generous endowments to the convent. Hiring the finest architects, Sophia created one of the most beautiful and refined architectural ensembles of the late seventeenth century.

Sophia’s first project was the reconstruction of the entire complex of Irina Godunov’s chambers. The Church of the Annunciation was rebuilt and reconsecrated in honour of St John the Baptist in the 1670s. In the following decade, a much expanded refectory and a bakery were attached to the church from the west, on the site of the old constructions.

The new refectory was built between 1684 and 1687 – a few years earlier than the famous dining chamber at the St Sergius Monastery of the Trinity. The Novodevichy refectory inspired the latter building and was just as wide, though slightly shorter in length (the central hall is approximately four hundred square metres in size and nine metres in height). The other premises on the ground floor were three smaller rooms and the Church of the Dormition. There was an additional floor at the top, which housed the side-chapel of the Holy Spirit.

The refectory was constructed and decorated by masters of the Moscow Armoury – the architect Kondraty Mymrin and the artists Bogdan Dmitriyev and Ivan Masyukov. The iconostasis in the Church of the Dormition was carved and painted by Karp Zolotaryov. Although remade in the early twentieth century, it still contains the icons created in the late seventeenth century. The iconostasis in the side-chapel of the Holy Spirit dates from the second half of the eighteenth century.

In the 1680s, the frescoes in the Smolensk Cathedral were renovated. The enormous gilt iconostasis was created between 1683 and 1685 by Osip Andreyev and Klimenty Mikhailov. The iconostasis included both historical works and new icons painted by Simon Ushakov, Nikita Pavlovets, Fyodor Zubov, Dorofei and Karp Zolotaryov.

The belltower rises over seventy metres in height and was built between 1683 and 1690 at the eastern edge of the convent. Like the cathedral, the height and location of the octagonal tower reflected its associations with Moscow and the Kremlin, particularly the Ivan the Great Belltower. Together with the refectory and the cathedral, the belltower formed a line of gradually ascending buildings.

In parallel to the construction of the main buildings, stone walls were erected around the convent. The new stockade was the shape of an irregular rectangle with round turrets at the corners and two rectangular towers on each side.

The Church of the Intercession was built above the southern gates between 1683 and 1688, while the Church of the Transfiguration was built above the main entrance and northern gates in 1687 and 1688. The compositions and styles of these two churches are extremely similar to the forms of Ukrainian architecture. While such devices did indeed spread throughout Russia in the late seventeenth century, their presence at the convent is probably explained by the arrival of the sisters from Kiev.

The interiors of the gateway churches still contain the original iconostases. The iconostasis of the Church of the Intercession was carved in 1689 by Ivan Tyutrin and Miron Klimov. The gilded seven-tier iconostasis in the Church of the Transfiguration was carved by Karp Zolotaryov, who employed free-standing sculpture (the angels on the sides of the royal gates). Both iconostases have icons signed by masters of the Kremlin Armoury.

Two blocks of cells were built next to the southern and northern gates in the late seventeenth century. The two-storey complex next to the southern gates was intended for Sophia’s sister, tsarevna Maria Alexeyevna. Later, when Sophia lived there, a third floor was built. This was a teremok with a covered gallery, which was joined to the promenade gallery of the Church of the Intercession.

Created over a relatively short period of time, the architectural complex of the Novodevichy Covent is famous for its bright red-and-white colour scheme. The influence of the tsarist court lent a unique note to the regular forms of classical European architecture at the cloister, creating the last artistic style of Pre-Petrine Rus – Muscovite Baroque.

This remarkable ensemble was created by the will of one woman – the regent Sophia. Ironically, it later became the place of her incarceration and, for her, the scene of many painful and unpleasant experiences. In 1689, Fyodor Shaklovity incited the Streltsy guards to rebel against the young Peter I and demand the coronation of Sophia. After the revolt failed, Peter had Sophia imprisoned at the Novodevichy Convent, where she was closely guarded by the Preobrazhensky Regiment.

In 1698, during Peter’s absence from the country, the Streltsy attempted another uprising, aimed at returning Sophia to the Kremlin. But the tsar hurried back to Russia and quashed the rebellion with an iron fist. Sophia was forced to become a nun, taking the name of Sister Susanna, and was kept in strict isolation in the guardhouse at the Pond Tower.

After the uprising was defeated, searches and interrogations were carried out at the convent, accompanied by the torture of many nuns. Peter had 193 Streltsy guards hung from the gallows and the cloister walls (some of them were deliberately suspended in front of Sophia’s windows). Sister Susanna died in 1704 and was buried in the Smolensk Cathedral.

Under Peter the Great, the Novodevichy Convent passed into the direct control of the government. In the 1720s, many Russian cloisters were turned into homes for retired soldiers or orphans. The Novodevichy did not escape this fate, housing an orphanage for 252 children and a hospital for soldiers and officers. The number of nuns at this time was around three hundred.

In 1727, after the death of Peter the Great and the overthrow of his all-powerful favourite Prince Alexander Menshikov, Peter’s first wife, Eudoxia Lopukhina, was moved to the convent from the Schlüsselburg Fortress. After almost three decades of incarceration, she spent the last four years of her life in relative luxury, residing in the block of cells next to the Church of the Transfiguration. The former tsarina was awarded an annual pension of up to sixty thousand roubles.

The Novodevichy Convent grew into one of the richest in Russia, owning 150,000 hectares of land and 14,500 serfs. In 1764, although the Novodevichy was ranked among the “first-class” cloisters under the new system introduced by Catherine the Great, the convent was transformed into a place of penance for convicted women. Between 1790 and 1806, their number reached 172.

Dramatic events unfolded at the Novodevichy Convent in 1812, when Napoleon invaded Russia. As the Grande Armée approached Moscow, many of the nuns and the contents of the rich sacristy were hastily evacuated to Vologda. The cloister was occupied by French troops, who used it as a storage place for looted property.

On 28 September 1812, Napoleon visited the Novodevichy Convent. When the French army decided to retreat from Moscow, he ordered the cloister to be blown up. Fortunately, the remaining nuns managed to extinguish the fuses and save the convent.

Like other old monasteries over the years, the grounds of the Novodevichy Convent were increasingly taken up by burial sites. By the nineteenth century, the number of graves had reached three thousand.

In the sixteenth century, many high-ranking Russians were buried in the Smolensk Cathedral. The catholicon contains the tombs of the half-sisters of Peter the Great – tsarevnas Sophia, Eudoxia and Catherine – and his first wife, Eudoxia Lopukhina. Relatives of Ivan the Terrible and members of the Vorotynsky family (one of the most eminent Rurikid princely houses) were laid to rest in the ground floor. They were interred alongside Bogdan Khitrovo, a boyar who headed the Kremlin Armoury from 1657 to 1680.

In the nineteenth century, the Novodevichy Convent became the last resting place of many heroes of the Patriotic War of 1812 and the failed Decembrist Revolt of 1825 (Denis Davydov, Sergei Troubetzkoy, Matvei Muravyov-Apostol, Alexander Muravyov), writers (Mikhail Zagoskin, Ivan Lazhechnikov) and historians (Sergei Solovyov). In 1904, Anton Chekhov was buried near the refectory.

Between 1897 and 1900, in order to ease the crowding inside the convent grounds, the New Cemetery was built outside the southern wall. During the Soviet period, the New Cemetery was a prestigious burial site for members of the Communist elite and leading figures from the world of culture. Many of these tombstones are important artistic and historical monuments.

The Novodevichy Convent was closed down in 1922 and transformed into a branch of the History Museum in 1934. On 29 December 1945, the Church of the Dormition was returned to the Russian Orthodox Church and consecrated. In 1988, it was awarded the iconostasis from the Dormition Church on Pokrovka, which was pulled down in 1936.

In 1994, the Novodevichy was reopened as a convent under the authority of Metropolitan Juvenalius of Krutitsy and Kolomna, whose seat had been located at the Church of the Dormition since 1964. Ten years later, it was proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

On 5 January 2010, an important meeting took place between Patriarch Cyril of Moscow and All Russia and Vladimir Putin, prime minister of the Russian Federation. As a result, it was decided that the Novodevichy Convent, which still hosts a branch of the History Museum, would be returned in its entirety to the Russian Orthodox Church.

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