Russia Religion Monasticism Monastery St Therapontus Monastery of the Nativity of the Virgin

St Therapontus Monastery of the Nativity of the Virgin

The St Therapontus Monastery of the Nativity of the Virgin was founded by Fyodor Poskochin, who was born to a family of boyars in 1331. After entering the St Simon Monastery in Moscow and taking the name of Therapontus, he persuaded another monk, Cyril, to go north in search of a place of monastic seclusion.

After establishing the Belozersk Monastery, Therapontus left Cyril to found his own cloister. Ten miles from the Belozersk Monastery, he came across an ideal spot between Lake Borodava and Lake Paskoe, where he settled in 1398.

Therapontus soon attracted disciples and a monastery began to slowly develop. Several wooden buildings were constructed in the early fifteenth century, including the Church of the Nativity of the Virgin, a refectory and cells.

In the early fifteenth century, Belozersk belonged to Prince Andrei of Mozhaisk, the third son of Dmitry Donskoi. The prince learnt of Therapontus and asked him to leave his monastery and open a new cloister near Mozhaisk. Therapontus founded the Luzhetsk Monastery, remaining there until his death in 1426.

After Therapontus’s departure, the monastic community endured a difficult period. Their troubles only came to an end when a new abbot was appointed in the second quarter of the fifteenth century.

Father Superior Martinian was born to a peasant family in the village of Berezniki near Vologda. After studying under St Cyril, he took the habit and trained under the deacon Oleksa Pavlov at the Belozersk Monastery. After the death of St Cyril, Martinian left the monastery and founded a new cloister a hundred miles away on the River Vozha – the Vozhezersky Monastery of the Saviour.

The monks of the St Therapontus Monastery visited Martinian and asked him to become their abbot. Although he agreed, he did not stay at the cloister for long. Martinian was a supporter of Basil II in his struggle for the throne of Muscovy and, after his victory, was asked to run the St Sergius Monastery of the Trinity, where he spent the next eight years. In 1455, he returned to the St Therapontus Monastery, where he died in 1483.

During his time as abbot, Martinian ran the St Therapontus Monastery according to the strict rules formulated by St Cyril of Belozersk. An important part of monastic service was not just reading books, but rewriting and binding them. The cloister soon acquired an outstanding library, paving the way for a flourishing intellectual life in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Pachomius the Serb, who compiled the lives of many Russian saints, visited the monastery in 1461 and 1462. The hagiographer wrote that the cloister was “extremely beautiful, with many toiling brothers.” Shortly afterwards, in 1466, a new wooden cathedral was built.

In the late fifteenth century, Metropolitan Spyridon of Kiev was imprisoned at the St Therapontus Monastery, where he wrote An Exposition of Our Sincere Orthodox Faith and The Lives of St Zosimus and St Sabbatius of the Solovki. Another famous resident was Father Superior Philopheus, who went on to become archbishop of Vologda and Perm.

After a disagreement with Grand Prince Ivan III, Archbishop Joasaphus of Rostov was exiled to the monastery. Joasaphus was a member of the Obolensky family and had previously served there as a monk. He was joined by Cassian (Constantine), who had come to Russia as part of the retinue of Sophia Palaiologina, niece of the last Byzantine emperor and the second wife of Ivan III.

In 1485, Joasaphus commissioned a church in the monastic village of Borodava. This tiny chapel is now one of the oldest surviving wooden buildings in Russia. In 1957, it was moved to the St Cyril of Belozersk Monastery, where it now stands on the territory of the “New Town.”

Shortly after Joasaphus returned to the cloister from Rostov in 1488, a fire broke out, destroying all the constructions at the St Therapontus Monastery. Fortunately, the treasures that he had brought from Rostov survived and were used to build a new Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin around 1490. So the fire actually contributed to the construction of a stone cathedral at the cloister – much earlier than the Dormition Cathedral at the neighbouring and older St Cyril of Belozersk Monastery.

Both buildings – the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin and the Dormition Cathedral – are very similar in composition and decorative features. As the Dormition Cathedral is known to have been built by masters from Rostov, the city where Joasaphus had previously served as archbishop, the catholicon of the St Therapontus Monastery can probably be attributed to the same school of architecture.

The Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin was decorated in 1502 by one of the great masters of Russian medieval art, Dionysius, with help from his sons. The subject of the paintings was the glorification of the Virgin. No other church in Russia dating from before the sixteenth century has such a magnificent and well preserved set of frescoes.

When visiting the St Cyril of Belozersk Monastery, Basil III, Ivan the Terrible and all subsequent rulers usually also paid a visit to the St Therapontus Monastery. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the main periods of construction at both cloisters coincided in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with the work often being carried out by the same masters.

The refectory Church of the Annunciation was built between 1530 and 1534 in a style similar to the Church of St Gabriel the Archangel at the St Cyril of Belozersk Monastery. In the sixteenth century, the refectory and cathedral were joined together by stone passages, which were rebuilt in the seventeenth century and renovated in 1797. A stone belltower was built in the middle of the passageway in the early seventeenth century.

The St Therapontus Monastery stands on a low hill above Lake Borodava. In the sixteenth century, the buildings were surrounded by a wooden stockade, which was only replaced by a low stone wall in 1857. The main entrance on the side of the lake was built in 1649. The holy gates were crowned by two chapels – the Church of the Epiphany and the Church of St Therapontus.

The St Therapontus Monastery was sacked by Polish troops during the Time of Troubles and experienced further problems throughout the rest of the seventeenth century. In 1627, there were only forty-one roubles in the exchequer. The estimated income for 1673 was 403 roubles. A description of the cloister in 1676 notes that “all the structures have fallen away and rotted, while there is no money or bread.”

After his overthrow in 1666, Nikon was imprisoned at the monastery for ten years. The former patriarch lived in cells near the refectory on a pension provided by Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich. In 1676, he was moved to the St Cyril of Belozersk Monastery, where he lived close to the hospital Church of St Euthymius until 1681.

The St Therapontus Monastery continued to decline in the eighteenth century. Although the cloister received financial assistance following the secularisation of the monasteries in 1764, it was closed down in 1798 and assigned to the neighbouring wooden Church of St Elijah the Prophet in Tsypino.

In 1898, the five-hundredth anniversary of the St Therapontus Monastery was widely celebrated and the cloister reopened as a convent. Restoration work began in 1908, when all the buildings and frescoes underwent repairs.

In 1918, Mother Superior Seraphima (Sulimova) was arrested and executed. The new abbess, Mother Superior Martiniana (Tsvetkova), managed to keep the convent running under the guise of an agricultural commune, until it too was closed down in 1925. The following year, the St Therapontus Monastery Museum opened as a branch of the St Cyril of Belozersk Museum of History and Art.

In 1928, all the churches and other buildings were awarded to the Directorate of Scientific, Artistic and Museum Institutions of the People’s Commissariat of Education of the RSFSR. In 1930, the iconostasis in the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin was broken up and dispersed between the St Cyril of Belozersk Museum, the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and the Russian Museum in Leningrad. Five years later, the bells were removed from the belfry and sent to be melted down.

In January 1990, a religious service was held in the Church of St Martinian by the local congregation, which had been registered in 1989 and was also allowed to use the Church of the Epiphany. In 1993, the cloister was visited by Patriarch Alexius II.

In 1998, in celebration of the sixth-hundredth anniversary of the monastery, the cross of worship was re-established on the island of Patriarch Nikon in Lake Borodava. Since then, the restoration of the cloister has continued with the help of a special historical-educational society called the Heritage Foundation of the St Therapontus Monastery.

Random articles