Russia Religion Monasticism Monastery Pskov Monastery of the Caves

Pskov Monastery of the Caves

The Pskov Monastery of the Caves occupies a special place in the hearts of Russians. One of the country’s oldest cloisters, it is often called a lavra a special term for the highest ranking monasteries in the Russian Orthodox Church.

Like hundreds of other small cloisters, the Pskov Monastery of the Caves sprung up quietly and unobserved. Instead of being patronised by a prince or a bishop, it developed out of the rarer form of cave eremitism, reviving the old traditions and customs of the Kiev Monastery of the Caves.

The founders of the Pskov Monastery of the Caves were not even following a specific agenda, but simply continuing the acts of the previous inhabitants. The early history of the cloister notes that the first monks did not dig a cave, but came across an earlier dwelling, which already bore the inscription “cave given by God.”

In many ways, the Pskov Monastery of the Caves is quite unlike other Russian cloisters. Perched on a steep riverbank, it does not boast any panoramic views, opening up from far away in the distance. Founded relatively late, it never ranked among the oldest and most venerable sites, yet went on to become the leading cloister in Pskov region and one of the most highly regarded in the whole of Russia.

After the revolution and civil war, the monastery found itself in the newly independent state of Estonia, escaping the persecution suffered by other Orthodox cloisters and churches. Although Estonia was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, the country was overrun by the Germans in 1941, saving the monastery from immediate closure.

The Pskov Monastery of the Caves avoided persecution after the war, when it was allowed to continue its life uninterrupted. In 1973, the looted treasures of the sacristy were returned to the monks by the Germans.

The monastery was founded in 1472 by an hieromonk called Ivan Shestnik, who was fleeing from Catholic persecution in the Estonian town of Yuriev (also known in various times as Tartu and Dorpat). He came across a cave on the bank of the River Kamenets and decided to settle there.

The following year, Ivan dug a church out of the hillside and consecrated it in honour of the Dormition of the Virgin. Alongside the church, he built two wooden cells on pillars. This land belonged to a man called Dementiev, who gave it to Ivan in order to found a monastery in his memory.

After Ivan died, a second hieromonk called Misael established a cenobitic monastery on the hill above the Church of the Dormition. He built a wooden chapel, which was named in honour of St Anthony and St Theodosius – a conscious reference to the traditions of the Kievan monks. This church also had a wooden belfry.

The early development of the new monastery was interrupted when it was attacked by the knights of the Livonian Order. Another blow was the annexation of Pskov by Muscovy in 1510, which led to a break in traditions and the decline of the cloister. By the 1520s, it was home to no more than six monks, who lived in great poverty.

The monastery was saved by the patronage of a deacon called Misyur (Michael Grigorievich Munekhin), who was the official representative of the grand prince of Muscovy in Pskov. In 1519, he commissioned the digging of slopes on both sides of the River Kamenets. A new and larger Dormition Cathedral was built on the site of the previous church of the same name. The monastery relocated lower down the hill, occupying both sides of the river.

The Church of St Anthony and St Theodosius moved inside the cave and, in 1523, became a side-chapel of the Dormition Cathedral. Around the same time, wooden cells and a Church of the Forty Martyrs were built. The upper monastery was closed down and the new one opened as a cenobitic cloister.

The Dormition Cathedral was dug out of sandstone, reaching twenty metres inside the gully. The low vaulted premises (height around three metres) were divided into five longitude and five transverse intersecting spaces by eleven rectangular pillars of various sizes.

All the vaults were cylindrical, while the square compartment at the entrance was covered by a cruciform vault. The side-chapel of St Anthony and St Theodosius, which stands to the south, was covered by a groined vault. All the surfaces of the walls, pillars and vaults were lined with brickwork and plastered.

The cathedral had two lantern cupolas, which were coated with gilded copper and installed directly on the hillside. In the 1960s, frescoes of saints dating from the middle of the sixteenth century were discovered on the eastern wall of the side-chapel, behind the iconostasis.

This golden period in the life of the cloister continued in the following years, when a monk from the Mirozhsky Monastery called Cornelius was elected to the post of abbot in 1529. Over the course of the next four decades, he contributed to the further growth of the fraternity.

The architectural ensemble developed across two main areas – the lower level next to the river and an upper zone. The upper level was the most important one, stretching in a narrow strip from north to south. Its eastern section was formed from the long and low facade of the cathedral, sunk deep into the hillside, and the adjoining belfry.

The sacristy and the refectory with the Church of the Annunciation ran along the border of the upper zone from the west, dividing it from the lower level. These constructions appeared during the time of Father Superior Cornelius. They were not high buildings, consisting only of two storeys in the upper area and three in the lower level.

The leading role in the architectural ensemble was played by the monumental six-span wall belfry – the most beautiful in a series of similar constructions in Pskov. This particular example consisted of arches of various widths on top of pillars, which were rounded at the bottom. They were covered by a transverse gabled roof, creating a handsome zigzagged finish to the entire structure. The original bells dating from 1540 and 1544 still survive. The larger bells were gifts from Ivan the Terrible in 1561 and 1562 and Peter the Great in 1690.

The block beneath the arches is a two-storey building. The entrance is located in the main facade and leads to vaulted premises on the first floor. On the right-hand side is a passageway leading behind the belfry to the hillside. From there a staircase leads to the second floor, which originally housed the side-chapel of St Barlaam of Khutyn.

In 1541, the Church of the Annunciation with a side-chapel and refectory was built opposite the belfry. The church was constructed from stone in the far corner of the upper level, enclosing it from the east. Although the facades have been greatly distorted by later alterations, the main structure survives almost unscathed. The bottom tier is visible from the lower level and represents a high vaulted ground floor, four metres in height, with two virtually identical chambers – one beneath the church and one beneath the southern side-chapel.

The main premises of the church are covered by a cupola vault, recalling contemporary ceilings in the refectory churches of Novgorod (including the Church of the Purification at the St Anthony Monastery). At the top was the side-chapel of St Boris and St Gleb, which was covered by a cylindrical vault. The latter begins directly on the level of the floor and is split in the centre by a small transverse vault with stepped arches, which bear the lantern cupola.

The three-storey interior of the Church of the Annunciation is only encountered in monastery buildings near Pskov – in Krypetsy and Maly. The exterior is designed in a more traditional manner. The facades are divided by three pilaster strips into curtain walls and have three-strip ends at the top, fitting into the outlines of the eight-hip roof. A ceramic inscription runs along the top of the dome-drum of the cupola – the earliest surviving example in Pskov.

The sacristy is located on the same side of the upper level, but closer to the cathedral and directly opposite the belfry. Although it is not known when this square-shaped, two-storey (three-storey from the lower level) structure was built, the well-preserved two-tiered porch and the ceilings suggest that it dates from the seventeenth or even the sixteenth century.

Each of the tiers represents a single chamber, covered by a cruciform vault (on the ground floor), a groined vault with one cusp (above the entrance) or two cusps on the other sides (the sacristy in the first floor), and an eight-trough centric vault with spire lights (in the library at the top). The original form of the building, with its monumental porch, is typical of the Pskov architecture of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

In the second half of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the entire upper complex appears to have had a single face, reflecting the traditions of the Pskov school of architecture. All the buildings were constructed from stone slabs and were whitewashed (as in the present walls of the belfry and the porch). This small architectural ensemble was surrounded by the wooden cells and auxiliary buildings in the lower level.

The character and scale of the Pskov Monastery of the Caves changed radically after the walls and towers were built between 1558 and 1566, transforming the cloister into an impregnable fortress. The decision to fortify the monastery was a direct result of the outbreak of the Livonian War (1558–83), fought between Russia and a coalition of European powers for control of the Baltic lands.

The walls were built in high places along the banks of the river, intersecting the hill on two sides and letting the water pass through defensive railings. Nine round and square towers (up to twenty-five metres in height) were constructed next to these lattices and at the corners of the walls.

The interiors of the towers had as many as five tiers and exits onto the covered military gallery, which ran along all the walls. The main entrance into the monastery was in the northern Petrine Tower. Anyone passing through this tower found themselves in a small inner stockade, which was separated from the main space of the monastery by an additional wall. The gates were built in the corner, opposite the entrance, where the walls met. Inside the gates, the road turned at a right angle to the south. In 1564, the Church of St Nicholas was built above the gates.

In 1581, the wall of the inner stockade was dismantled and a two-span belfry was built on the plot of land adjoining the gates and the church. Around the same time, the western porch of the church was reconstructed. To this day, the view from the monastery entrance onto the Church of St Nicholas, amid the descending lines of the walls and road, is one of the most picturesque in Russian architectur? and a popular motif in art and photography.

The Church of St Nicholas was very similar in design and construction to the Church of the Annunciation. This small building had the exact same system of vaults and analogous exterior decor. The main road into the monastery descends from the Church of St Nicholas, leading to both the lower and upper levels. At the bottom, when looking back, the silhouette of the church rises up above the dark arch of the gates.

The untiring deeds of Father Superior Cornelius transformed the Pskov Monastery of the Caves, but aroused the wrath of Ivan the Terrible. The suspicious tsar accused the cloister of plotting with Prince Andrei Kurbsky, his former friend who had defected to Lithuania in 1564. After the massacre of Novgorod in January 1570, Ivan decided to move on to Pskov and avenge himself on the monks.

What happened when Ivan the Terrible reached the monastery gates is now the stuff of legends. When Cornelius went out to greet Ivan, the latter attacked him with an axe, cutting off his head. The tsar then picked up his dead body and carried it into the cloister. The monastery synodic records that, on 20 February 1570, the abbot “was dispatched from this corruptible life by the earthly king to an eternal life with the heavenly king.”

The following year, wishing to atone for his sins, the repentant tsar commissioned a precious gold and silver revetment for the icon of the Virgin in the Dormition Cathedral. Cornelius was buried in the caves and, twenty years later, reburied in the cathedral.

The caves were the traditional burial site of all the other monks. They continued to play an important role in the life of the cloister even after the monastery moved out of the hillside in the early sixteenth century. The caves were enlarged in the 1520s, a process which continued under Cornelius.

The entrance to the caves is to the left of the Dormition Cathedral. The first passageway is called Fraternity Street and runs for a total length of twenty-three metres. Two more paths of approximately the same length lead even further into the hillside – Elders Street and Fraternity Street. They likewise diverge into four more passages – Church Street (ending at the small Church of the Resurrection of Christ), Female Street, Bunting Street and Fraternity Street. The total length of the underground passageways is 177 metres.

While the caves were also a place of retreat and solitude, they were mainly used as the monastery cemetery. The graves are located in the walls of the caves, in rows of one or two. Over the centuries, around ten thousand monks and laymen have been buried there. The graves are preserved thanks to the constant, year-round temperature of about 4 C, almost 100% humidity and natural system of ventilation.

Many of the burial slots have headstones with inscriptions – 105 of them are ceramic, while 220 are made of stone. The oldest gravestones are the ceramic ones, some of which date back to the 1530s. Stone only began to be used in the seventeenth century.

The centres of the ceramic tombstones were usually decorated with an icon-case in the shape of a church. This took the form of a three-strip arch on spiral columns, ending in an onion-shaped dome with four towers in the corners. Inside the arch was an image of the site of the Crucifixion and the head of Adam in front of the walls of Jerusalem, accompanied by the words: “The Place of the Skull was made Paradise.” The whole composition was often surrounded by a personal inscription.

The Pskov Monastery of the Caves continued to flourish even after the death of Cornelius, whose murder temporarily quietened the the mad tsar. In 1584, the cloister was home to up to a hundred monks and around three hundred auxiliary workers. The fraternity successfully saw off the army of the Polish king Stephen Bathory, who besieged the monastery during the final stages of the Livonian War in 1581. The holes in the walls and the damage to the towers were quickly repaired. In 1605, the abbot was awarded the rank of archimandrite.

The monastery walls were tested again in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In 1592, the cloister was set on fire and sacked by a Swedish army during the struggle for control of the Duchy of Estonia. In 1611, the monks were besieged by a combined Swedish and Lithuanian army, led by Aleksander Józef Lisowski. In 1634, Lithuanian forces burnt down all the constructions lying outside the monastery.

After these events, the monks decided to devote all their attention to fortifying the cloister. By 1639, the artillery battery consisted of fifty-five men. In 1682, the number of cannons on the walls was 482, while the cellars contained two and a half tons of gunpowder and thirty-five tons of round shot.

There was no new stone construction during this period. The existing cells, which numbered thirty-nine in 1639, remained wooden. Fresh calamities came in 1688, when the churches, sacristy and other buildings burnt down in a terrible fire, which also damaged the walls and towers.

The final military threats came during the reign of Peter the Great, when Russia and Sweden fought the Great Northern War (1700–21). In order to better defend the borderlands, a line of fortifications was built in the most vulnerable spots, which included the monastery. In 1701, earthen ramparts were built along the walls. Two years later, the monks successfully deflected an attack by the forces of King Charles XII.

Under the terms of the Treaty of Nystad in 1721, Russia was awarded all the Swedish possessions on the eastern Baltic coast, pushing the borders of Peter’s empire hundreds of miles to the west. As a result, the Pskov Monastery of the Caves lost its strategic importance as a military outpost. A period of peace and calm finally dawned in the eighteenth century, when the cloister could devote itself to increasing its wealth, land and urban possessions.

The monastery could also engage in new construction work – which, unfortunately, was not always to the benefit of the original edifices. In the early eighteenth century, the top of the main belfry was altered. The handsome arches were replaced by a gable roof, while a clocktower was added to the north face. An additional single-span tier with a small cupola was installed above the belfry, increasing the scale of the building.

These developments appear to have been the main reason for further changes, increasing the role played by the Dormition Cathedral in the general ensemble. In 1758, the cupolas of the catholicon were dismantled and, in their place, a Church of the Intercession was built. Its rectangular shape extended along the facade of the cathedral, but did not extend deep into the hillside.

Both buildings were united by a single Baroque facade, which instantly became the new architectural dominant of the upper level. The pilasters and large windows in magnificent Baroque frames lent an air of imposing regularity. Even the way in which the facade curves along the slope looks like a deliberate Baroque device.

The Church of the Intercession was crowned by five cupolas with figured picture-pediments. They underline the vertical axis and symmetry of the composition, imparting a solemn elegance. Around the same time, the belltower was adjoined by an entrance vestibule with a small cupola.

The colourful Baroque decor, painted compositions and the tiered and centric facade made the upper level the perfect setting for solemn church services, particularly when all the worshippers were unable to fit in the Dormition Cathedral. The broken silhouettes of the gilded cupolas were like a magnificent crown atop the main ensemble.

The windows of the Church of the Annunciation and the sacristy were possibly widened at this time. They were also given identical frames. In this way, the entire ensemble became a unique fusion of medieval and Baroque motifs. Interacting with the green hillside in the background, this contributed to the great physical allure of the monastery.

The Dormition Cathedral still possesses the original Baroque iconostases and icons from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in precious settings. The surviving works include The Dormition of the Virgin, St Nicholas the Miracle-Worker, Our Lady of Vladimir, Our Lady of Korsun and Our Lady of Okhtyrka, the carved abbot’s place and three censers dating from the early eighteenth century.

The gateway Church of St Nicholas boasts an iconostasis, chandelier and candlesticks from the seventeenth century, sixteenth-century icons of The Virgin Hodegetria and Our Lady of Kazan, and a remarkable wooden sculpture of St Nicholas of Mozhaisk from the seventeenth century. The monastery also owns superb works of Old Russian embroidery, including ornamental shrouds dating from the sixteenth century.

The second half of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries witnessed the final formation of the architectural ensemble in the lower level. The western side was shaped by the sacristy and the Church of the Annunciation. In 1803, the refectory was flanked by the side-chapels of St Barlaam of Khutyn (moved from the belfry) and St Boris and St Gleb (moved from the top of the Church of the Annunciation). A new and larger refectory was created around 1830 and converted into the Church of the Presentation of the Lord in 1871.

A dorter of stone cells was built on the same side of the river in 1827. This rectangular two-storey building extended along the lower level and was decorated by a four-columned portico of the Tuscan order. Although the windows are located in the main facade, the rectangular cells are entered from the gallery running along the back of the building.

Perpendicular to the dorter, intersecting the river and enclosing the lower level from the north, are the hospital wards, the Church of St Lazarus (1782–1800) and a new refectory (1883). This ensemble is visible from the road descending from the Church of St Nicholas. By contrast, the main ensemble on the upper level only emerges at the very end of the road, when it turns towards the Dormition Cathedral.

The Pskov Monastery of the Caves emerged unscathed from the events of 1812, when Napoleon invaded Russia. Between 1815 and 1827, the Church of St Michael was built in honour of the Russian victory over the French at the Battle of Polotsk. The cubic church was raised on the site of the Log Tower, which had been dismantled to make way for a new construction.

The Church of St Michael has Tuscan porticos on the facades and a semi-circular apse. The western arm of the cross extends into the stockade. The church is decorated with icons painted in the sixteenth century – Our Lady of Smolensk, The Virgin Eleusa and St Nicholas the Miracle-Worker. The iconostasis in the form of a columned rotunda dates from the 1820s, while the original paintwork survives on the walls and vaults.

The building of the Church of St Michael was the last act of new construction at the monastery. The reputation of the cloister continued to grow in the late nineteenth century, attracting many pilgrims and artists.

In 1919, following the Estonian War of Independence, the Pskov Monastery of the Caves found itself outside Russia. During this period, its library was removed to the University of Tartu (it was returned to the cloister after the war).

During the Second World War, the refectory, dorter and the Church of St Michael all suffered from artillery attacks. In 1944, the retreating German forces robbed the sacristy. Restoration of the walls and towers began in 1960, followed by the renovation of the frescoes.

Work on the architectural ensemble gathered pace after the overthrow of Communism in the early 1990s. A medical clinic, dorters and icon-painting, restoration and sewing workshops were built. The cupolas of the churches and the paintwork on the facade of the Dormition Cathedral have been restored. Renovation work was carried out inside the Church of St Michael.

Since 1994, the monks have celebrated the memory of the holy fathers of the Pskov Monastery of the Caves. In 2000, the St Cornelius Educational Readings were launched in collaboration with the Orthodox Pedagogical Society.

In 2008, the Chapel of the Virgin Eleusa was built in honour of the 535th anniversary of the consecration of the Dormition Cathedral and the start of the official history of the monastery. There are currently plans to open a permanent exhibition in the sacristy devoted to the life of Father Superior Cornelius.

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