Russia Religion Monasticism Monastery St Cyril of Belozersk Monastery of the Dormition

St Cyril of Belozersk Monastery of the Dormition

The Kiev Monastery of the Caves was the grandfather of all cloisters in Kievan Rus, while the St Sergius Monastery of the Trinity played a similar role in Muscovite Rus. In the history of monasticism in northern Russia, this honour goes to the St Cyril of Belozersk Monastery. The cloister paved the way for the founding of dozens of other monasteries, which spread across the vast northern expanses like a precious chain, stretching from Karelia all the way to the Arctic Ocean.

From the tenth century onwards, most of northern Russia was under the control of Novgorod. Only the western part of this territory, however, was directly administered by the principality. The lands around Lake Onega and other beyond enjoyed a high level of independence, subject only to the payment of various taxes and tributes. The countryside was scattered with dozens of small idiorrhythmic cloisters, some of them with only a handful of monks. Most of their churches were dedicated to Jesus Christ.

Throughout this period, the far north-eastern lands were more influenced by Rostov the Great. In the fourteenth century, this encroachment gradually gave way to the rising authority of Muscovy.

The foundation of the St Cyril of Belozersk Monastery paved the way for the growth of cenobitic cloisters in the region. In keeping with the traditions of north-eastern Rus in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, their most important churches were dedicated to episodes from the life of the Virgin, particularly the Dormition or Assumption. And while the Novgorod monasteries were run along the lines of a rural administrative district (pogost), the cenobitic cloisters of the far north-east were more like a fortified homestead or citadel (kremlin).

The Belozersk Monastery was founded by St Cyril, whose original name was Kosma. He was born in 1337 to a rich and influential family of Russian boyars, who were related to Timofei Velyaminov, a retainer of Dmitry Donskoi. After losing his parents at an early age, Kosma took the name of Cyril and entered the St Simon Monastery in Moscow around 1380. The St Simon Monastery had recently been founded by Theodore, a nephew and disciple of St Sergius of Radonezh. Cyril went on to become the abbot of this cloister.

After visiting the White Lake near Vologda, a monk called Therapontus returned to the St Simon Monastery and captured Cyril’s imagination with his tales of the rugged nature of these distant lands. In search of a secluded life, the two men headed north and eventually arrived on the shores of Lake Siverskoe near Belozersk in 1397.

Cyril and Therapontus were struck by the beautiful panorama stretching from Mount Maura and the sense of isolation provided by this small and hilly outpost, surrounded on three sides by Lake Siverskoe and, on the fourth, by the River Sviyaga. They decided to settle there, digging themselves a small cave and building a chapel. Soon afterwards, Therapontus left to found his own monastery several miles away.

Cyril began to attract followers among the local inhabitants and his former brothers at the St Simon Monastery in Moscow. He continued to keep in touch with the life of the capital, corresponding with Grand Prince Basil I and the other sons of Dmitry Donskoi.

The Belozersk Monastery soon expanded westwards, occupying the gently sloping hill on the other bank of the River Sviyaga, where the monks built the Church of the Dormition, cells and a bakery. The original cave and chapel on the former site were transformed into a sanctuary, which was carefully protected and still survives today. A separate monastic community was later established there.

Cyril’s two closest associates were St Therapontus of Belozersk and St Dionysius of Glushitsa. His disciples included St Martinian, St Sabbatius of the Solovki, St Alexander of Oshevenskoe and the founders of many other monasteries. In 1423, four years before he died, there were already fifty-three monks at his cloister.

Throughout the fifteenth century, the St Cyril of Belozersk Monastery won increasing fame and authority. In 1447, Grand Prince Basil II was blinded and overthrown by his cousin, Dmitry Shemyaka, who exiled him to Belozersk. After Basil recaptured the throne in the 1450s, the cloister enjoyed his special favour.

In the middle of the fifteenth century, a boyar called Zacharius Romanov made a rich endowment of silver to the monastery. This allowed the monks to rebuild the Dormition Church and construct a large and heated refectory. The possessions of the cloister also grew, numbering 152 settlements in 1482.

The late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries were a period of great spiritual and intellectual achievement at the monastery. The cloister took an active stance in the debate between the “possessors” and “non-possessors” on the question of ecclesiastical landownership. The ideological head of the “non-possessors” was St Nilus of Sora, whose skete was only ten miles away from Belozersk. Property ownership was bitterly denounced in the writings of many monks of the St Cyril of Belozersk Monastery, including Prince Vassian Patrikeyev and Father Superior Gurius (Tushin).

One of the most interesting personalities residing at the monastery in the late fifteenth century was a scribe called Euphrosynos. Besides religious compositions, he also copied books on history and the natural sciences.

By the late fifteenth century, there were 212 manuscripts in the monastery library, suggesting that the cloister was producing an average of two books a year. In the fourteenth century, an average of fifty manuscripts were written in Rus every year – a figure that more than doubled in the fifteenth century. Most of this work was performed by the abbots. In the nineteenth century, the St Cyril of Belozersk Monastery still owned fifteen books created by its founder and first abbot, St Cyril. Father Superior Gurius copied thirty-seven books during his time at the cloister from 1478 to 1526.

In the sixteenth century, the wooden monastery was transformed into an impregnable stone fortress. The first new building was the Dormition Cathedral, which was designed by Prokhor Rostovsky and constructed by twenty masters in 1497. Although the church was one of the largest cathedrals built in a Russian monastery in the fifteenth century, it took just five months to erect at a cost of 250 roubles.

The Dormition Cathedral had roughly the same cross-sectional dimensions as the Trinity Cathedral at the St Sergius Monastery of the Trinity (the central nave is around five metres in width), but was much greater in length. This lent a deliberate sense of scale to the interior, where the entire space is permeated by the solemn rhythms of the wide stepped arches. The extended eastern arm of the cross breaks the even line of the eastern wall, creating a protruding faceted area on the outside above the three lowered apses.

The icons from the original iconostasis have survived to the present day. Although they are now scattered throughout various Russian museums, many of them can now be seen in the permanent exhibition of the museum opened at the monastery in 1924. The current iconostasis was made in the nineteenth century (the templon of the original iconostasis was discovered behind it).

The royal gates have a silver setting and were donated by Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich in 1645. The original frescoes also survive inside the cathedral. They were painted in 1641 under the leadership of one of the finest artists of the seventeenth century – Lyubim Ageyev from Kostroma.

The wide volume of the Dormition Cathedral is even more impressive on the outside, where the monumentality of the whole combines with the elegant flatness of the thin pilasters and the archivolts of the arched gables. The wide decorative girdles beneath the arched gables are like lacy ribbons, varying in motif and width. They consist of brick soldier courses, ornamental strings, ceramic rail posts and red tiles with repetitive floral motifs. The most multi-constituent girdles decorate the cupola and the apses.

Although now concealed under a later roof, the top of the Dormition Cathedral was once more intricate and beautiful. The three arched gables on each facade were crowned by tiers of smaller arched gables. Unlike in Muscovite churches, there were no diagonal corbel arches in the corners. Such a composition was later typical of buildings in the sixteenth century.

The second stone building at the St Cyril of Belozersk Monastery was the refectory with the Church of the Presentation in 1519. The refectory and the church are located on one axis, one behind the other, on a high ground floor. This building subsequently acted as a model for similar constructions in other cloisters.

The high and faceted volume of the pillar-shaped church underlined the scale and sculptural qualities of the central group of buildings, particularly when seen from the lake in the south. The church has three rows of corbel arches. The interior is cruciform and is currently distorted by a later vaulted ceiling. The vaults of the single-pillar refectory (17 x 17.5 metres) have not survived. An inkling of what the interior must have once looked like is provided by the single-pillar bakery, which is virtually the same size and is located directly below the refectory.

Although the Church of the Presentation and the refectory were commissioned by the monastic community, the sources of their architectural forms extend far beyond the bounds of Belozersk. They incorporate the traditions of Rostov the Great and the influence of the Italian masters working at that time in Moscow. The following constructions were built at the initiative of the grand prince and reflect the changes taking place in Muscovite architecture.

In 1528, Basil III visited the St Cyril of Belozersk Monastery, accompanied by his second wife, Elena Glinska. The grand prince was desperate for an heir and came to ask St Cyril for a son. His prayers were answered the following year, when his wife gave birth to a baby boy – the future Ivan the Terrible. In gratitude, Basil commissioned the construction of two new churches at the monastery, which were built simultaneously between 1531 and 1534.

The churches and side-chapels were named in honour of the patron saints of Basil’s wife and son and the act of praying for a son. The Church of St Gabriel the Archangel with a side-chapel of St Constantine and St Helena was built next to the refectory. The Cathedral of St John the Baptist with the side-chapel of St Cyril was constructed on the hill where the cell of St Cyril and the original chapel stood.

The Cathedral of St John the Baptist formed the centre of a small, separate ensemble – St John’s Monastery, which was dedicated to caring for the needy and charity work. A home for impoverished elders, an almshouse, a hospital for laymen and a cemetery were all built there.

The royal background to the commission explains the overall elegance of the Cathedral of St John the Baptist. The central compositions on each facade are the large portals with keel-shaped endings. Higher up are keel-shaped niches (for painted icons) and round windows in the middle arched gables. The arched windows in the side curtain walls impart a pyramidal symmetry to the composition.

The strips of the facades rest on the socle of the attic profile, while the ribbon of the three-part upper entablature passing under the arched gables transforms them into pilasters. This clear and orderly scheme betrays the influence of the Italian masters working in Muscovy.

The cathedral facades end in three arched gables. The two rows of corbel arches above the arched gables act as the foundation for the dome. The wide decorative ribbon on the dome-drum echoes the decor of the catholicon. A small cupola rises above the south-eastern corner of the building, where the side-chapel of St Cyril is located.

Inside the cathedral, the bases and capitals of the square pillars create the impression of a distinct, orderly form. The sense of space is increased by the cruciform vaults of the ceiling in the western compartments.

The Church of St Gabriel the Archangel was one of the most groundbreaking constructions in the history of Russian architecture in the sixteenth century. The overall composition of the facades – detailed portals (the northern portal still survives), keel-shaped icon-cases in the centre and the lower windows of the side curtain walls – is similar to the Cathedral of St John the Baptist. The profiling of the girdles of the socle and the entablature are also analogous. But the arched gables were replaced by direct segments of the walls, while the apertures between them were covered by arches – three on each side. A bell was suspended from each arch, creating a belfry united by a common passageway. Two rows of arched gables rose up above the arcade of the belfry, on the vaults of the church. A large cupola stood in the middle on a massive cylindrical dome-drum, while a small blind cupola was installed above the south-eastern side-chapel of St Constantine and St Helena.

The original forms of the top of the church were greatly distorted during subsequent alterations. In 1638, the belfry was transformed into a closed vestry. In the early nineteenth century, both cupolas and the upper series of corbel arches were dismantled and replaced by a new dome-shaped ceiling with a small, blind, wooden cupola. The south-western corner has a tower with a spiral staircase leading to the belfry.

The Church of St Gabriel the Archangel has a stunning interior. The eastern square pillars merge with the inter-apse walls and are joined by the short altar screen. The round western pillars have bases and capitals. They are interpreted as freely standing columns, whose movements do not hamper the sensation of the wholeness of the solemn high space.

In the following years, the St Cyril of Belozersk Monastery continued to enjoy royal patronage. In the middle of the sixteenth century, it also provided a safe haven for many distinguished men who had fallen into disgrace in Moscow. The list of names includes the Vorotynsky princes, the Sheremetev boyars, Metropolitan Joasaphus, Simeon Bekbulatovich (briefly appointed ruler of Russia when Ivan the Terrible “abdicated” for a year) and Father Sylvester (a former close friend and advisor of the the tsar). Princess Euphrosyne of Staritsa, who had been exiled to the Goritsy Convent of Resurrection, visited the monastery and made generous endowments.

While such actions inevitably incurred the wrath of Ivan the Terrible, the tsar did not forget that he himself was born following his father’s prayers to St Cyril. Intending to enter the monastery before his death, he made enormous endowments to the cloister, particularly towards the end of his life. Ivan IV donated the total sum of twenty-eight thousand roubles, although the only acts of construction were the building of cells for the tsar in 1567 and 1568. Most of the construction work in the second half of the century was aimed at improving the everyday life of the monks. In the 1560s, a refectory with the Church of St Sergius of Radonezh was built in the lesser ensemble of St John’s Monastery.

On the main territory of the cloister, numerous utility constructions were built throughout the 1520s, including a drying oven, tannery, smithy, malthouse and a small hotel arcade. A bakehouse was constructed to the west of the refectory, while Holy Gates and an adjoining treasury appeared in the line of cells to the north of the Dormition Cathedral. Dozens of individual cells also stood in a line to the west of the cathedral. In the early seventeenth century, 186 friars lived there in forty-seven cells. By this time, the size of the community had grown to a thousand monks.

In the second half of the sixteenth century, the main acts of ecclesiastic construction were the building of new side-chapels in the Dormition Cathedral and churches above the monastery gates. These new constructions consciously sought to imitate preceding models, reflecting not only the entrenched tastes of the customers, but also the emergence of a distinctive school of architecture at the St Cyril of Belozersk Monastery.

In 1554, the widow of Prince Vladimir Vorotynsky commissioned the side-chapel of St Vladimir above her husband’s grave in the north-eastern corner of the Dormition Cathedral. This modest burial vault evoked the anger of Ivan the Terrible, who chastised the monks for building a chapel above the grave of one of his enemies, before according the same honour to the tomb of St Cyril in the south of the cathedral. The outraged tsar fumed in a letter: “Vorotynsky is inside a church, while a miracle-worker is left outside!”

The side-chapel of St Vladimir was inspired by the forms of the Dormition Cathedral. A lacy ornamental girdle runs beneath the crowning arched gables, while tiers of corbel arches rise up above (now hidden by the later roof). Profiled portals lead to the burial vault from the north and west. The western portal is particularly elegant, joining the galleries surrounding the cathedral at that time to form a handsome composition with the northern portal of the cathedral. The chapel has a ceiling of stepped vaults and is crowned by a small cupola. The intimate interior suggests a place of private prayer, while the fragile forms convey a sense of the family’s defencelessness against the despotic tsar.

The side-chapel and parvis paved the way for the transformation of the Dormition Cathedral into a multiple complex of buildings. In 1585, the side-chapel of St Cyril was created in the south-western corner. In the middle of the seventeenth century, the side-chapel of St Epiphanius of Salamis was added onto the north-eastern corner of the side-chapel of St Vladimir. The new chapel had similar forms to the Vorotynsky burial vault.

A complex of buildings also appeared to the south of the cathedral. A stone belltower was built between the Church of St Gabriel the Archangel and the refectory. The bakehouse to the west of the refectory was expanded and supplemented by the addition of a friars’ cellar with a single-pillared chamber in the top floor.

Between 1569 and 1572, the Church of St John Climacus with a side-chapel of St Theodore Stratelates was built above the Holy Gates in the northern row of cells. The church and side-chapel were named after their sponsors – Ivan and Fyodor, the two sons of Ivan the Terrible.

The church facades are divided up by elegant pilaster strips with keel-shaped and rectangular panels. The traditional lacy decor fills the insides of the arched gables, supplemented by rail posts in the cruciform niches. A similar decorative girdle adorns the top of the orderly dome-drum, installed above rows of corbel arches. The round pillars, stepped vaults and order profilings create a sense of wholeness and harmony inside the church, where the original iconostasis and royal gates still survive from the sixteenth century.

The treasury adjoining the Holy Gates was increased in size by the addition of expansive annexe buildings. The facades were adorned by a girdle of decorative elements typical of monastery constructions. In the seventeenth century, the facades of the chambers and annexes were harmonised by the installation of rhythmic pairs of windows in elegant frames. The chambers, cells and the Church of St John Climacus above the Holy Gates formed a pleasant and balanced ensemble, welcoming anyone arriving from the Moscow Highway.

The refectory complex, cells and Holy Gates surrounded the cathedral ensemble on three sides. On the eastern side, the buildings are closer to the river. The main constructions standing on the hill look particularly imposing from the lake in the east and south, where the low walls and buildings on the shoreline do not infringe upon their outlines. In 1595, the Church of the Transfiguration was built on top of the Water Gates facing the lake in the south, copying the northern gateway church and completing the ensemble of churches at the monastery.

The Church of the Transfiguration was crowned with rows of corbel arches and three symmetrical cupolas – one central cupola and two above the side-chapels of St Nicholas and St Irene. The architectur? of the building is similar to the Church of St John Climacus. On the facade, in the centre of the main arched gables, there is a repetitive design of circles and crosses. This motif copies the round windows of the Cathedral of St John the Baptist and is not to be found on any other buildings.

The Church of the Transfiguration is lower in height than the other churches. This reflects its subsidiary role in the ensemble and ensures that it does not spoil the view from the lake onto the central complexes of buildings. There is an expansive parvis in front of the church, on the west of the second floor. The large niches transform the walls of the parvis into an interesting arcade. Inside the main premises, round pillars hold up camber arches. There is a lantern cupola on stepped vaults in the middle of the camber arches. Three tiers of the original iconostasis still contain icons from the late sixteenth century, although the images of the festival row were replaced in the eighteenth century.

The ensemble of stone buildings was completed following intense construction work in the mid-seventeenth century. A two-storey bursar’s block with striking window frames was erected between the Church of the Transfiguration and the refectory. The cells surrounding the cathedral from the west, north and east were united in a single line and rebuilt in stone. In 1646, a large hospital ward with the Church of St Euthymius the Great was built in the south-eastern corner. This complex was inspired by the hospital built at the St Sergius Monastery of the Trinity between 1635 and 1638, explaining the presence of a tented roof, although the main cubic volume more or less repeats the side-chapel of St Epiphanius of Salamis built near the cathedral in 1645.

In the early seventeenth century, various utility services were built at the monastery. Some of them were constructed outside the walls – a small hotel, stables and sledge yards – developing into independent settlements surrounding the cloister.

An icon-painting studio and a manuscript workshop were opened at the monastery. Hundreds of icons were painted every year, both for the needs of the cloister and for sale on the market. The library, which now contained over a thousand books and manuscripts, was housed in the lower tier of the belltower.

In the final decades of the sixteenth century, work began on the construction of fortifications, continuing for the next 150 years. The rebuilding of the wooden stockade from stone began after the devastating fire of 1557. A stone wall was built around the territory of the Dormition Monastery, while construction of a palisade circling St John’s Monastery began in 1576. In the early seventeenth century, a small triangular bastion was built to the north of the main monastery, with eight towers at the corners of its stockade.

The total length of the fortifications was approximately a thousand metres. The height of the walls reached 5.2 metres in places, while the width was one and a half metres. The fortifications were punctuated by a row of arrowslits, with two rows on the side of the lake. The best preserved towers are the three rectangular turrets facing the lake – Fishing Net Tower (where the nets were kept), Laundry Tower (where the monastery launderers lived) and the Cauldron Tower (where copper cauldrons and candles were made). These turrets were up to fifteen metres in height and had four defensive tiers inside. On the outside, they had as many as sixty arrowslits and ended in high wooden tented roofs. Like so many other buildings in the monastery, the facades were decorated with girdles of patterned brickwork.

The fortifications were severely tested during the Time of Troubles. Between 1610 and 1614, the monastery was continuously stormed by Swedes, Poles, brigands and outlaws. Although the defenders repulsed all the attacks, the cloister lost many possessions in the bitter fighting. Memories of these calamities encouraged the monks to strengthen the walls in the following years.

In 1648, the Salt Riot broke out in Moscow after the government attempted to raise funds by introducing a universal direct salt tax. The tax was instigated by Boris Morozov, a brother-in-law of Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich, who was forced to take refuge at the St Cyril of Belozersk Monastery. After he returned to Moscow, the abbot was made an archimandrite in gratitude. In 1651, the tsar donated the enormous sum of forty thousand roubles to build new fortifications, with Boris Morozov contributing another five thousand.

In 1654, work finally ended on the reconstruction of the walls round the St Sergius Monastery of the Trinity near Moscow. The St Cyril of Belozersk Monastery received the tsar’s permission to build an identical network of defences. Work began on 10 April 1654, under the leadership of Kirill Serkov, and only ended in 1680. As many as 120 stonemasons and hundreds of lifters were employed on this vast construction project every year.

The resulting fortifications were the grandest ever built in any Russian monastery, surpassing even the St Sergius Monastery of the Trinity. The three-tiered walls were up to twenty metres in height, seven metres in width and a total length of 730 metres. Two of the six towers had entranceways in the middle, while the other four stood in the corners. The bottom tiers contained vaulted casemates with twenty large and seventy small cells. The second tier was a military gallery, more than four metres in width, with arrowslits and cruciform vaults. The third tier had flat ceilings and a combination of straight arrowslits and slanting ones at the bottom.

The impregnability of the walls was underscored by the absence of any exterior decor and the rows of fissure-shaped arrowslits. On the inside, the grandiose scale of the construction is conveyed by the closed bottom row of chambers and the spatial structure of the upper tiers – the arcades of the second tier and the rectangular apertures of the third tier, which conjure up associations with Ancient Roman architecture.

The polygonal corner towers look as forbidding as the stone walls. Their massive volumes are highlighted by the tiny arrowslits in the various tiers, laid out in checkerboard fashion. Only the Vologda Tower is decorated with a network of horizontal girdles and pilaster strips, recalling the decor on the Utitsa Tower at the St Sergius Monastery of the Trinity. The heights of the walls reach twenty-nine metres, while the towers are a total of forty metres in height and twenty metres in diameter. Inside, a central pillar acts as a support for six or seven ceiling tiers. This hollow pillar has a spiral staircase leading to a stone lookout point above the wooden tented roof.

The new fortifications made the monastery impregnable on land, while the lower sixteenth-century walls defended the approaches from the lake. The views from the south were enhanced by new silhouettes – the outlines of the high walls and towers of the “New Town” in the far distance. The walls of the “Old Town,” which were now inside the fortifications, were later dismantled. While the existence of two separate ensembles – the Dormition Monastery and St John’s Monastery – grew less apparent from the eighteenth century onwards, the geographical location of the buildings over two hills offers a fascinating insight today into the unique history and development of the abbey.

Although hospital wards were built in St John’s Monastery in 1732, this period witnessed the start of the gradual decline of the whole cloister. Victory over Sweden in the Great Northern War (1700–21) gave Russia an exit to the Baltic Sea, opening up new trade routes that bypassed the north of the country. The growing military power of the Russian Empire meant that the abbeys now played a far lesser role in defending the nation from foreign invaders.

The secularisation of the monasteries in the 1760s deprived the cloister of its vast possessions and sources of income. The last great act of construction was the building of an enormous belltower between 1757 and 1761, on the site of the sixteenth-century belfry with the three-tented roof. But for the rest of the eighteenth century, the only other official work was the parvises of the Dormition Cathedral and the reconstruction of the side-chapel of St Cyril.

The end of construction and decorative work contributed to the emergence of the present silhouette of the architectural ensemble in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The rows of corbel arches at the tops of all the churches disappeared beneath new and ungainly roofs. The wooden tented roofs of the towers were replaced by low metallic rooftops. Buildings were crowned with high steeples and small faceted cupolas on slender necks.

Provincial Baroque forms appeared on the majestic creations that had once rivalled the finest architecture of the capital. This awkward fusion of different styles and periods made it extremely difficult to renovate individual buildings and the complex as a whole. The only constructions restored to their original forms were the Church of St Euthymius the Great and the Church of the Transfiguration. In all other cases, renovations were confined to a partial restoration of the facades, with more detailed work carried out inside the buildings.

The most tragic period in the history of the St Cyril of Belozersk Monastery began in 1918, when Bishop Barsanuphius (Lebedev) was executed in the nearby suburb of Kirillov, along with Mother Superior Seraphima (Sulimova) of the St Therapontus Convent and a group of laymen suspected of plotting against the new government. On 18 October 1924, the cloister was closed down. Two months later, the St Cyril of Belozersk Museum opened on its territory.

After the overthrow of Communism in the early 1990s, divine services could once again be held at the monastery. In 1992, the cloister was visited by Patriarch Alexius II of Moscow and All Russia. Five years later, the sixth-hundredth anniversary of the St Cyril of Belozersk Monastery was widely celebrated.

In 1999, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church passed a resolution reopening the cloister. The new monks were awarded the use of part of the lesser complex of St John’s Monastery, where the holy relics of the founder are now worshipped in the Church of St Cyril of Belozersk.

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