Russia Religion Monasticism Monastery St Sergius Monastery of the Trinity

St Sergius Monastery of the Trinity

Probably the most famous Russian cloister, the St Sergius Monastery of the Trinity has been at the forefront of many exciting episodes in national history. But the monastery is equally celebrated for the beauty of its architectural ensemble, which was created over hundreds of years.

Ever since its foundation in the middle of the fourteenth century, the cloister has enjoyed a special place in the heart of the nation. This is largely due to the remarkable personality of its founder, St Sergius of Radonezh, a model of asceticism who is sometimes described as the “abbot of Russia.?

Long after his death, the teachings and moral fibre of St Sergius captured the imagination of wide sections of the population, from princes and boyars down to simple peasants and artisans. The former made generous endowments to his monastery, paving the way for the creation of a stunning architectural complex. From the sixteenth century onwards, this ensemble served as a model for many other Russian cloisters.

The St Sergius Monastery of the Trinity gradually consolidated its hold on the spiritual and cultural life of the nation. The importance of the cloister was so great that it even managed to emerge unscathed from the years of atheism in the twentieth century. The Soviet authorities did not dare raise a finger against this legendary monastery, even when hundreds of other abbeys were being dismantled or disfigured across the country.

Although the St Sergius Monastery of the Trinity was closed down in 1918, it reopened at the very first signs of a weakening of Communist power in 1946. Despite its official intolerance of religious practice, the Soviet government was forced to recognise the vast importance of the cloister’s cultural heritage. In 1920, the monastery was turned into a museum, which helped to save its historical treasures. Extensive renovations in the post-war decades restored the former beauty of the architectural ensemble. Throughout the whole of Russia, there is no other cloister whose historical and artistic heritage is so well preserved in situ.

The St Sergius Monastery of the Trinity is very similar to the Kiev Monastery of the Caves in the place that it held and the role that it played in the history of Russian monasticism in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Both cloisters arose out of the personal asceticism of their founders, who went on to become leading symbols of Russian Orthodoxy and national monasticism.

Like St Anthony of the Caves, St Sergius of Radonezh came from a rich family. His father was a boyar called Cyril, who married a woman called Maria. They had three sons – Stephen, Bartholomew and Peter. When the family’s property was seized by the grand prince, they moved from Rostov to the village of Radonezh in 1339. Towards the end of their lives, Cyril and Maria entered a communal monastery for both sexes at Khotkovo near Moscow. Slightly later, their widowed eldest son, Stephen, took monastic vows in the same cloister.

Bartholomew decided to become a hermit and asked Stephen to help him find a suitable place near Radonezh. The brothers discovered a secluded site deep in the forest, next to a small hill called Makovets, at the confluence of the River Konchura and the River Vondyucha. They built themselves a small wooden cell and a simple chapel dedicated to the Holy Trinity.

Stephen found the life of a hermit difficult and left his brother to enter the Monastery of the Epiphany in Moscow. Bartholomew remained alone for a number of years, taking the name of Sergius in 1342. Gradually, people learnt of his exploits and he began to attract disciples. A small cloister developed, run along idiorrhythmic lines, with each monk living in his own cell.

In the early 1350s, Bishop Athanasius of Volodymyr-Volynskyi officially ordained Sergius as the abbot. In the 1370s, Sergius transformed the cloister into a cenobitic monastery and began its reconstruction. He expanded the territory and built a new wooden church, surrounded on all four sides by cells. A refectory, a bakehouse and other auxiliary constructions were built nearby.

The Monastery of the Trinity rose to great prominence in the second half of the fourteenth century. The sermons and deeds of Sergius spread far and wide, earning him the reputation of the spiritual defender of all Rus in the face of Mongol aggression. Seeing national disunity, internecine warfare and religious discord, Sergius bravely preached the virtues of humility, stoicism, unity and love. He reconciled princes and priests, blessed Dmitry Donskoi before he took to the field at the Battle of Kulikovo in 1380, and urged all believers to “conquer the fear created by the hated divisions of the world.”

The disciples of St Sergius went out into the towns and villages, preaching the blessings of a pure faith and a moral lifestyle. Among his contemporaries and acquaintances were St Stephen of Makhra, St Demetrius of Priluki, St Stephen of Perm, St Dionysius and St Euthymius of Suzdal, St Cyril and St Therapontus of Belozersk. The saint’s disciples went on to open many cloisters, including St Methodius of Pesnosha, St Sabbas of Storozhev, St Sylvester and St Paul of Obnora, St Sergius of Nurom, St Abraham of Galich, St Jacob of Zhelezny Borok and St Nikit? of Serpukhov.

The followers of St Sergius founded approximately seventy cenobitic monasteries, which adopted the Typikon of the Great Church of Christ, translated into Russian by St Athanasius in 1392. New monks spent their first three years as a novice, before advancing to the Little Schema. The Great Schema was the final stage and the highest level of spiritual excellence. The first to receive the Great Schema was Sergius himself.

By the time St Sergius died in 1392, his monastery was the most renowned in Rus. His disciple, St Epiphanius the Wise, compiled the first hagiography and panegyric of the saint, based on his own personal recollections.

The late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries were hard times for the Monastery of the Trinity. The monks were forced to flee when the forces of Tokhtamysh, a descendant of Genghis Khan, attacked Tver in 1382. In 1408, the cloister was devastated by a fire when a Tatar unit raided the area. The monastery was rebuilt in wood, but in 1422, after the relics of St Sergius were discovered, the wooden church was moved eastwards to make way for the construction of a white-stoned cathedral in its place.

The Trinity Cathedral was built in memory of St Sergius, above the saint’s grave. The inward slope of the white-stoned walls (as much as 45 cm) makes the catholicon look very much like a monumental mausoleum. The outer air of solemnity and austerity is set off by the pure, white-stoned surfaces of the facades, the elegant pilasters and profiles, and the carved ornamental girdles with their repetitive motifs of entwined crosses and flowers.

A special feature of the Trinity Cathedral is the eastward location of its cupola. Despite the almost symmetrical division of the side facades, the cupola is still in the centre of the inner space, including the apses. The building ends in straight rows of arched gables along the facades and diagonal arched gables in the corners. Such elements were also once present at the base of the dome-drum. This complex system lends a pyramidal wholeness to the outline of the cathedral. Handsome and intricate structures at the tops of churches later became a distinguishing feature of Muscovite architecture.

The interior of the Trinity Cathedral is distinguished for its sense of sombre concentration and the spatial unity beneath the cupola. As the monastery was cenobitic, there was no need for a separate choir loft. There are few windows, creating a dimly lit space that harmonised perfectly with the cruciform, gradually ascending movement of the vaults. Such an interior provided an ideal setting for the joint worship of the fraternity, recalling the words of St Euphrosynos of Pskov, a disciple of St Sergius, on the joy of singing “Lord, Have Mercy” together in a church over solitary prayers in a lonely cell.

The Trinity Cathedral possesses the oldest surviving iconostasis in Russia. Forty of the icons were painted by a team of artists headed by Andrei Rublev and Daniel the Black prior to the consecration of the cathedral circa 1425. The rhythmic beauty of the compositions and silhouettes and the delicate colour combinations in the icons of the second and third rows (the Deesis and festival tiers) heighten the spiritual atmosphere inside the church.

To the right of the royal gates is a copy of Andrei Rublev’s famous Holy Trinity icon (the original is now in the Tretyakov Gallery). The royal gates are dated to 1643. The icons of the Holy Mandylion (1674) and the Saviour Enthroned (1684) in the bottom row were painted by Simon Ushakov. To the right of the iconostasis is the shrine of St Sergius (1559–85) with a magnificent silver canopy (1730–41). The original frescoes on the walls were replaced by new paintings in 1635.

In 1548, the small side-chapel of St Nikon was added to the south-eastern corner of the cathedral. The chapel was built above the grave of Father Superior Nikon, the disciple and successor of St Sergius, who built the Trinity Cathedral.

In the middle of the fifteenth century, the St Sergius Monastery of the Trinity was drawn into the Muscovite Civil War. The rightful ruler, Basil II, took refuge at the cloister, where he was seized by his enemies and blinded. After Basil regained the throne, the cloister was particularly highly favoured by the grateful princes of Moscow, who made many rich endowments.

In 1469, a Muscovite master called Vasily Yermolin built a stone refectory. Pictures of the refectory on icons and a description by Paul of Aleppo, a Syrian Melkite clergyman and chronicler, suggest that it was a two-storey construction with an enormous one-pillar chamber in the upper floor. This building served as a model for the Palace of Facets in the Moscow Kremlin and refectories in other Russian monasteries in the sixteenth century.

In 1476, when work began on the reconstruction of the Kremlin, an artel of Pskov masters was sent from Moscow to build a new brick church at the Monastery of the Trinity. The building was constructed to the east of the Trinity Cathedral, on the site of the wooden church, which had been moved there in the 1420s. Although the new church was initially dedicated to the Holy Trinity, it later became known as the Church of the Holy Spirit.

The Church of the Holy Spirit is the most original construction in the whole monastery. Although similar in size and form to the Trinity Cathedral, it is made lighter and more elegant by the extended vertical proportions, the white-stoned and ceramic decorative elements, and the inclusion of an open belfry beneath the central cupola. The profiles are more intricate than those of the cathedral. Even the ribbon of the socle is decorated with notched lilies. The middle of the three ceramic girdles consists of rail posts with notched ends. The engaged columns decorating the apses are joined together by decorative garlands analogous to those on the walls of the Church of the Panagia Pantanassa (“Most Holy Queen of All”), built in Mystras in south Greece in 1428.

The interior of the church is dimly lit by a few small windows and covered by blind vaults. The round tier of the six-arched belfry stands directly on the church vaults. The cupola towers up on a high dome-drum with eight windows, decorated by a three-part ceramic girdle.

These three stone buildings – the Trinity Cathedral, the Church of the Holy Spirit and the refectory – constituted the heart of the monastery. They were surrounded by a number of wooden constructions – cells, utility annexes and a stockade.

The scale and character of the architectural ensemble greatly expanded in the sixteenth century. The patronage of the grand princes and tsars, numerous donations and the income from the monastery’s vast estates and commercial activities helped to finance an ambitious new programme of building work.

In the 1540s, royal privileges and endowments paid for the construction of brick walls and towers around the increased territory of the monastery. The walls were raised to a height of six metres and had a maximum width of three and a half metres. The military gallery above the inner arcade was defended on the outside by a parapet with two rows of arrowslits. Holes for cannonfire were created at the bottom, in the arches. The twelve towers were the most important part of this defensive system.

Because the monastery expanded in a northern and easterly direction, the existing churches moved from the centre of the ensemble to a corner of the grounds. In 1557, the cells were shifted to the east and west, by a distance of more than eighty metres, to make way for an enormous new building. This was the Dormition Cathedral, which was constructed between 1559 and 1585. The presence of a cathedral with this name put the cloister right at the very heart of the Muscovite tradition, following the example of the principal churches of Vladimir and Moscow.

The Monastery of the Trinity grew into the most important Russian cloister, while St Sergius of Radonezh became one of the country’s most venerated saints. In 1561, Ivan the Terrible awarded the abbots the rank of the top Russian archimandrite. Meanwhile, the monastery’s catholicon was directly based on the nation’s most important church – the Dormition Cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin.

Like its Moscow prototype, the Dormition Cathedral had five cupolas, five apses and six pillars. The general size of the catholicon (27 x 41 metres) was even slightly larger than its namesake in the Kremlin. Unlike the repetitive, regular forms of the latter building, the central naves and curtain walls on the facades are slightly broader than the others, although the enormous scale of the building makes this disparity virtually indiscernible. The architecture of the Dormition Cathedral is cold and official, reflecting the imperious ambitions of the despotic tsar – far from the ideals of humility and fraternal love practiced and preached by St Sergius of Radonezh.

The interior of the Dormition Cathedral is equally grandiose, yet slightly more down-to-earth. The enormous pillars (3 x 3 metres) combine with the triumphant and exultant images on the walls and the iconostasis. The frescoes were painted over a period of five months in 1684 by a team of thirty-five masters headed by Dmitry Yaroslavtsev and Basil Grigorievykh. During this time, they also carved the colossal gilt iconostasis.

As in the Dormition Cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin, there were once open porches on the western and southern sides, before the building was reconstructed in the eighteenth century. In 1606, the family of Boris Godunov was reburied in the north-western corner.

The location of the main residential and utility constructions was decided as early as the sixteenth century. Most of these buildings were made of wood. The bursar’s chambers (stone), hospital (stone), treasury and sacristy stood along the western wall. Their expansive cellars and pantries were used to store provisions. Various auxiliary constructions were built in the north-western and north-eastern corners of the monastery. The royal palace was located along the northern walls. The monastic cells mainly ran along the eastern wall. Until the middle of the sixteenth century, there were cells for 150 monks. This soon became a problem when the size of the fraternity rapidly grew over the following decades, numbering two hundred monks in 1595 and two hundred and thirty-six in 1641.

In the sixteenth century, the auxiliary buildings began to spill outside the walls, leading to the formation of homesteads and settlements in the surrounding territory. In 1547, the stone churches of two subordinate cloisters were constructed to the south-east of the monastery, becoming an inalienable part of the architectural ensemble. The apses of one of them – the Church of the Presentation – copied the decor on the Church of the Holy Spirit.

The Time of Troubles was a momentous period in the history of the St Sergius Monastery of the Trinity. For ten years, the surrounding lands were constantly attacked by foreign invaders and marauders. The monks withstood a Polish-Lithuanian siege that lasted for one and a half years. A total of 2,125 defenders were killed (not including women, children and the elderly). The cloister was only saved by the heroism of its defenders and the firmness of its stone walls.

These events increased the fame and authority of the monastery, leading to a flood of new endowments and donations to help restore the damaged buildings. The cloister became a major property owner. In 1646, it owned 16,811 peasant homesteads – far more than the tsar (7,869) or the patriarch (6,481). Similar-sized abbeys could not boast even a quarter of such wealth.

The walls and towers were rebuilt and strengthened. The blind arches of the lower tier were transformed into casemates, while vaulted ceilings and arrowslits were added to the second tier. A third tier was built, repeating the previous open gallery, only on a larger scale. The new walls were about twice as thick and high as before. The towers were also improved. In 1641, the walls were guarded by ninety guns, with ten tons of gunpowder stored in the hospital cellars.

New buildings were constructed on the territory of the monastery. Between 1635 and 1638, hospital wards with the Church of St Zosimus and St Sabbatius of the Solovki were added to the western line of cells. Hospitals and hospices were a traditional feature of Russian cloisters and were first opened at the monastery during the lifetime of St Sergius. The new wards included a home for elderly monks, whose number had reached sixty-one by 1641.

The hospital block included parts of older buildings and was composed of several units. The second floor was split in the middle and the resulting space used to accommodate the tented roof of the Church of St Zosimus and St Sabbatius, which had a broad promenade gallery on its southern side. The orderly proportions, plastic segmentations and beautiful setting lent a festive air to the entire ensemble, underscored by the green tiles on the tented roof. The decorative motif on the apse echoed the Church of the Holy Spirit and was often repeated by the masters working at the monastery over the next two centuries.

A dorter was built along the eastern wall. An insight into what the cells once looked like is provided by the St John the Baptist Block, which stands to the south of the gateway church. This was once the home of the elders, icon-painters and book scribes. The three-storey building was divided into twelve cells. Each cell consisted of three rooms – an entrance hall in the centre and two chambers on either side. Wooden staircases with porches and galleries led to each entrance hall on the second and third floors.

In the middle of the seventeenth century, a stone belltower with a tented roof (not surviving) was built at the north-west corner of the Church of the Holy Spirit. By this time, the whole complex resembled a perfect ensemble. Paul of Aleppo wrote: “The entire monastery is surrounded by an enormous, high wall, newly constructed, white as a dove.” All the buildings were also white on the inside – either white-stoned or white-washed. The only interludes of colour were the new paintings in the arched gables of the Trinity and Dormition Cathedrals. The most spectacular view onto the monastery was from the Moscow road, where the lower position of the walls and the gently sloping terrain meant that the entire ensemble was clearly visible.

In the late seventeenth century, new artistic notes were introduced at the St Sergius Monastery of the Trinity, which was awarded the honoured title of lavra in 1688. The decorative features of the Muscovite Baroque style made the compositions more complex and multi-coloured. The festive elegance of the new buildings provided the perfect counterpoint to the austerity of the fifteenth-century constructions and the imposing grandiosity of the Dormition Cathedral. A royal palace and a new refectory with the Church of St Sergius were erected along the northern and southern walls, framing the central group of ecclesiastic buildings.

For two centuries, the first refectory had acted as a model for single-pillar dining halls in many other monasteries. The new building, constructed between 1686 and 1692, likewise set the tone for a new type of refectory. The number of monks more than doubled from two hundred and thirty-six in 1641 to four hundred and eighty-seven in 1715, necessitating a larger dining room.

The new refectory was an enormous pillar-less hall (15 x 34 x 9 metres). The vaults were covered in frescoes, which have been renovated on a number of occasions. The most remarkable decorative features, however, are the moulded cornices and ornate cartouches. The enormous windows have cusps above them, imparting a sense of solemnity and measure to the spatial development in the direction of the equally festive Church of St Sergius. The iconostasis is a masterpiece of seventeenth-century Muscovite art and was moved there in 1948 from the Church of St Nicholas of the Large Cross on Ilinka, after the latter building was destroyed in the 1930s.

An upper floor was constructed above the vault of the Church of St Sergius to be used as the monastery library. Even in the fourteenth century, the cloister had been an important centre of book creation and storage, with texts being written on birch bark. By the 1720s, the library contained around two thousand books, including prayerbooks, dictionaries, histories and the writings of the early fathers of the church. About half of them were manuscripts and seventeen people were employed in their storage.

The refectory had a basement, which housed the kitchen, bakery, pantry and a canteen for poor laymen. The basement is surrounded by a high gallery on arches, which acted as an original pediment to the entire building.

The opulent compositions on the refectory facades are formed from the engaged columns on high pedestals located in the piers of the evenly arranged windows. Each of them ends in a semi-circular shell. The windows are framed by white-stoned columns supporting unattached Baroque pediments. The carved ornamental designs of the columns and their capitals are enhanced by the bright tones of the ornamental elements and the walls themselves, where blue, yellow, brown and black paints create the effect of diamond-pointed rustication.

The style of the refectory is known as Muscovite or Naryshkin Baroque, which was essentially a fusion of traditional Russian architecture and elements of European Baroque. The first churches in this style were built on the estates of the Naryshkin family of Moscow boyars, before spreading across the country. The most important member of this family was Natalia Naryshkina, second wife of Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich and mother of Peter the Great.

The appearance of buildings in the Naryshkin Baroque style at the St Sergius Monastery of the Trinity reflects both the monks’ openness to innovative trends and their close relationship with the royal family. In 1682, the ten-year-old Peter I took refuge there during the Streltsy revolt instigated by the rival Miloslavsky clan. In 1689, Peter again escaped to the cloister after an attempt to overthrow him launched by his ambitious half-sister, the regent Sophia.

The royal palace was built at the same time as the refectory – and probably by the same masters. This long, two-storey building stands next to the northern wall, matching the refectory block at the southern wall. The palace was built in the same Muscovite Baroque style. The classical pilasters add the necessary scale to the upper state floor, while the rows of double windows lend the facades a rhythmic and official air.

The paintwork in the style of diamond-pointed rustication and the ornate window frames on the second floor are supplemented by individual tiled insets and full-scale ribbons of tiles at the end of each storey. External staircases with upper porches once led to the second floor. The interior is divided by the longitude wall into two enfilades running parallel to the facades. The original stucco moulding and tiled stoves from the mid-eighteenth century still survive in the rooms.

The Chapel over the Well in the centre of the ensemble was also designed in the Naryshkin style. This elegant building takes the form of a miniature tiered church. The lower quadrilateral unit ends in three gradually diminishing octagonal superstructures. The corners and frames of the windows in the lower tiers are decorated with carved and painted columns, which are twisted in the first tier.

The Chapel over the Well originally adjoined the parvis of the Dormition Cathedral. After the parvis was dismantled, this small church was transformed into an independent building, which served as a specimen for another chapel over a well – the Chapel of St Paraskeva, which was built slightly later, at the turn of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It stands to the south of the monastery, on the bank of the River Konchura.

Between 1693 and 1699, Grigory Stroganov financed the construction of the Church of St John the Baptist on the site of the gateway Church of St Sergius, built in 1513. The architecture was a particularly refined version of the Muscovite Baroque style, as cultivated by the wealthy Stroganov family. The facades of the upper church were embellished with columns, octagon windows and decorative shells. The building was crowned by five cupolas with exaggerated silhouettes (later restored). Similar quests for an unusual silhouette and the wide use of motifs from West European (Dutch) architecture also inspired the original lacy superstructure of the northern corner Utitsa Tower.

The great wealth and prestige of the St Sergius Monastery of the Trinity explain the lavish scale of all its construction projects. The vast stone walls limited the available territory, however, increasing the density of the buildings. By the end of the seventeenth century, almost the entire grounds were dotted with burial sites. In 1721, Peter the Great was forced to issue a special decree, banning all further interments inside the monastery walls.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the architectural ensemble was more or less completely formed. The elegant new buildings created in this period – the Church of St Micah (1734) at the north-western corner of the refectory, the Church of Our Lady of Smolensk (1745–48) and the Metropolitan’s Chambers (1778) – combined perfectly with the historical constructions.

One of the new buildings made a particularly important contribution to the monastery architecture. Between 1740 and 1770, Johann Jakob Schumacher, Ivan Michurin and Dmitry Ukhtomsky designed a belltower, which soared to a height of eighty-eight metres. Monumental and light at the same time, it slotted seamlessly into the existing ensemble, instantly becoming the new dominant. The ornate Baroque belltower made the older white buildings seem less austere, while the light-blue tones added an extra touch of colour to the crowded volumes.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the territory around the monastery developed into a fully-fledged urban settlement. In 1782, the town was given the name of Sergiev Posad. Churches were built there in the late Baroque style, with the cloister forming the architectural heart of the town. The stunning views onto the monastery from the Moscow highway became a favourite motif in both fine art and popular illustrations.

To a certain extent, the Monastery of the Trinity is to Sergiev Posad what the Kremlin is to Moscow. In both case, the sturdy walls do not spoil the views onto the central buildings, while the presence of a five-cupola Dormition Cathedral and high belltowers only adds to the similarities.

The Monastery of the Trinity even acquired some of the educational functions of the capital. In 1687, the Slavic Greek Latin Academy was founded in Moscow, becoming the country’s first ever higher-education establishment. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it moved into the royal palace, where it was transformed into the Moscow Theological Academy. Fortunately, while the presence of state organisations has turned the Kremlin into a centre of officialdom, the St Sergius Monastery of the Trinity has always remained the spiritual heart of the nation – a role it continues to play to this day.

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