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Kremlin: Cathedral of Assumption
 
 

The cathedral of the Assumption (Dormition) holds a special place in Russian history and culture. One of the church figures of the past century described it as "the image of the world church and the earnest of Russia's state integrity". The cathedral had for many centuries served as Russia's state and ritual center where grand princes were proclaimed and appendage princes swore allegiance to them, Czars were enthroned and, later, emperors were crowned. It was here that bishops, metropolitans and patriarchs were inaugurated, governmental acts were read out and grand services were held before the beginning of military campaigns and after their victorious completion. The cathedral is the resting place of the heads of the Russian church of the 14th-17th century period, among them the relics of thaumaturgies Peter, Jonas, Philip and Hermogen. The lofty destination of the cathedral accounted for the special attention accorded to it over centuries, with the best architects, artists and jewelers doing their utmost to adorn it and the rulers donating numerous objects of worship. In the beginning of this century when the world discovered for itself the phenomenon of Russian medieval painting, the world's best collection of 12th-17th century icons was found in the Cathedral of the Assumption. The world's knowledge of Russian art would have been much poorer but for the relics of the Cathedral of the Assumption.

The erection and reconstructions of the cathedral took place at crucial periods in Russian history. It was founded in the early 14th century when the Moscow princes had just started bringing all Russian lands together, and Ivan Kalita was contending for grand princedom writ. In 1326, Metropolitan Peter whose seat was in the city of Vladimir, and prince Ivan Kalita laid, at the top of the Kremlin Hill, the cornerstone of the cathedral consecrated, like the main cathedral in Vladimir, to the Assumption of the holy Virgin. Moscow emerged on the political scene as the successor of Vladimir. In December 1326, Metropolitan Peter passed away and was buried in the cathedral whose construction had not been completed yet. His successor, Metropolitan The Ognost moved his residence to Moscow, which further strengthened the positions of the Moscow princes in their contention for grand princedom and the unification of Russian lands.

Experts have long attempted to reconstruct the initial aspect of the cathedral of the Assumption, and other structures erected in the time of Ivan Kalita, none of which has survived. The material evidence on which they base their conclusions is confined to the 15th century icon "Metropolitan Peter. “Vita icon" in which the cathedral is shown, and the remains of the foundations discovered by archaeologists. It was a single-dome church of modest size with tall chapels adjoining the main section on three sides. The walls were decorated with modest bands of carved white stone. It is likely that initially there stood the Chapel of 1329; the Chapel of the Adoration of the Apostle Peter's chains was built on the northern side of the chancel. The chapel was consecrated to Metropolitan Peter and later became known as the Chapel of the Apostles Peter and Paul. In 1459, after the miraculous salvation of Moscow threatened with an invasion by Khan Sedi Akhmet of the Golden Horde, the Chapel of the Praise of the Holy Virgin was erected.

Thus surrounded by structures on all sides, the ageing building survived until the year 1472 when the ruler of All Russia, Grand prince Ivan the Third decided to build for himself a residence adequate to his high position. The new Kremlin was to symbolize the grandeur of the Russian state, which had united practically all Russian principalities and was now the center of Orthodoxy after the downfall of Byzantium. He began with the erection of the Cathedral of the Assumption, which was to reproduce the size and appearance of the majestic Cathedral of the Assumption in Vladimir built in the 12th century, the golden age of the Vladimir-Suzdal land. Yet the construction work started in 1427 by architects Krivtsov and Myshkin eventuated in a disaster in 1474 when the already vaulted huge building collapsed. To resume work, Ivan the Third invited Aristotle Fioravanti, a prominent Bologna engineer and architect. In a matter of five summer seasons he cleared the debris and built the cathedral, which we see today. Contemporaries attached special significance to that undertaking and a detailed story about the erection of the Cathedral of the Assumption was written into chronicles. The chroniclers closely followed the progress by Fioravanti, such as demolition of walls with fire and water, the use of extra durable bricks in combination with white stone, utilization of metal joints, and the drafting of the layout according to the compasses and the ruler. The new cathedral was ceremoniously consecrated on August 12, 1479. The building impressed contemporaries as something "majestic, lofty, radiant and spacious". Although Fioravanti copied the prototype, a cruciform five-domed church, rated accurately, he produced an entirely new structure from the architectural viewpoint. The building, which perfectly suited its ceremonial purpose, had a tremendous impact on 16th century Russian architecture.

The cathedral built of moderate-size white stone blocks has facades articulated by massive pylons of the same width and height. The altar apses, far-projecting semicircles as a rule, are flattened and concealed behind the pylons. Fioravanti preserved the earlier chapels, placing them in the lateral sections of the channel. The walls are practically devoid of decor. The narrow slit like windows, the receding portals and the carved architecture, belt submerged into the depth of the wall and supported by engage columns, while setting off the solidity of the walls, accentuate the monumental sternness of the cathedral. Five closely set powerful domes terminate the building. Contemporaries appreciated the monolithic quality of the structure, nothing that it gave the impression of a single stone. The geometrically lucid composition, the distinct proportions, monumentality and significance distinguish the cathedral from the surrounding buildings. Certainly the Cathedral of the Assumption is the architectural center of the smart Cathedral Square. The interior is still more distinctive. The metal joints and one-brick-thick vaults allowed Fioravanti to increase the dimensions of all internal articulations to the maximum. All the vaults are of the same height, while the round pillars, rather than crowding, create the impression of a vast auditorium. The chronicler noted this as he compared the cathedral with a gala palace chamber.

Over centuries the cathedral did not change its aspect appreciably notwithstanding numerous repairs and restorations. In the beginning of the 17th century the vaults were rebuilt and the shapes of the roofs and domes were somewhat changed. At the end of the past century major restoration operations were carried out, reconstructing the initial shape of the windows, removing layers of plaster from the walls and exposing the white stone masonry. The original facing was largely replaced.

Shortly after the completion of the construction work they began decorating the cathedral. In 1481, Dionysus, the best painter of the period, painted, together with his team, a three-row iconostasis and several large icons. Shrouds and palls embroidered with pearls and gems appeared along with ritual attributes of precious metals. In 1513-1515, the cathedral was decorated with frescoes. Nothing the fact, the chronicler wrote that “when entering the church and seeing this glorious creation, the cathedral church with its wonderful wall paintings and shrines of great thaumaturgies, one has the sensation of being in Heaven”, thus comparing the church with paradise. Not much of the original décor has remained. New ones replaced indeed dilapidated icons; fire or enemy raids, old-time frescoes were scarped off in the mid-17th century, destroyed much. It was only in the beginning of this century that restorers discovered several old compositions in the channels. In 1914,Ye.I.Bryagin uncovered a fresco in the vestry hidden under numerous layers of stucco and whitewash. It was “The Adoration of the Magi” which the experts easily identified with Dionysus. Prior to the alterations undertaken in the 17th century the fresco adorned the praising Chapel. The composition is harmoniously fitted into the arch whose shape is repeated by the cut lines of the blue glory and the recumbent figures of the angels, the shepherds and the magi bringing gifts. The outlines of the gracefully elongated figures with small heads and finely delineated visages, and the radiant color gamut based on the combination of golden ocher with blue, violet, pink, and blue shades remind one of the frescoes of Ferapontov Monastery which were doubtlessly painted by Dionysus. “The Praise of the Holy Virgin” painted on the vault of the chapel by other artists is distinguished by bigger forms, thick contrasting storks and succulent colors.

Two old-time frescoes- “Forty Martyrs of Sebastian” and “Seven Sleeping Youths of Ephesus”- have survived in the Chapel of the Apostles Peter and Paul, and another fresco, “Three Youths in a Fiery Furnace”, has remained on the wall of the altar. Another fragment, small yet very important for the study of early painting, has been discovered recently behind the canopy over the sepulcher of Metropolitan Peter. It is a fraction of their composition “Forty Martyrs of Sebastian”, obscured and partly scarped off while building the canopy. While other surviving paintings have come down to us considerably damaged, this fragment is wonderfully well preserved.

Back in the 19th century, people knew about the existence of frescoes on the stone altar partition behind the iconostasis, yet it was only recently that it became possible to uncover and restore it and carry out thorough investigation. The northern part of the altar partition is now exposed to view. The frescoes embellishing it have never been renovated and therefore preserve all the distinctive features of the painter’s artistic manner.

Such frescoes on stone altar screens are typical of many 14th-16th century monuments. Perhaps, initially they made up a kind of additional row of the iconostasis but gradually became obscures by the icons of the lower row. They present half-size figures of monks-monastery founders, authors of monastery charters, and hermits. Conceived as part of the iconostasis, they are artistically close to the icons with their close painting manner, thorough elaboration of details and emphatically expressive visages. Superb artistic quality distinguishes the figures in the northern part, which were undoubtedly painted by the head of the team. All researches investigating the cathedral ascribe them to Dionysus. Although the frescoes have been studied for over a hundred years, there is no agreement among the researchers about the year of their production, with the dating varying from 1479 to 1515.

Apart from these fragments, which are few in number, the very system of painting dates back to the 16th century. It is known that before repainting the cathedral in the 17th century, the early frescoes were “transferred” and most of the compositions were repeated. Wall paintings in an Orthodox church mirror its symbolism, while bringing out and elucidating the main dogmas, and are closely related with the service. The motifs indispensably present in the church paintings of the Cathedral of the Assumption are noted for their clear-cut, well-thought-out and lucid compositions, On the vaults of its five domes various images of God are depicted –“The Pantocrator”, “The Vernicle”, “The Lord of Sabaoth”, “Savior Emmanuel” and “Holy Virgin of the Sign”. The upper part of the cathedral is taken up by illustrations of the Gospel- church feasts on the vaults, and parables and miracles in two upper rows on the walls. Their arrangement corresponds to the sequence of services held during the year. The next two rows present the life of the Holy Virgin and illustrations to the solemn singing in her honor, the great chants, associated with the consecration of the church. The chanting cycle first appeared in Russian monumental painting somewhere the 15th and 16th centuries when Russia began to consider itself as the successor of Constantinople, as “The Land of the Holy Virgin”. The ideological trends of the time are also reflected in the frescoes of the lower row. Presented here are huge pictures showing the seven Ecumenical Councils in the 4th-7th centuries, which formulated the main Christian dogmas and fought heresy.

Over a hundred figures of martyrs and warriors, among them the Russian princes Vladimir, Boris and Gleb, are painted on the pillars, which support the church vaults just as the saints supported Christian faith with their life and martyrdom. The western wall is taken up by “The Last Judgment” a huge composition. In general, the frescoes of the Cathedral of the Assumption are among the brightest illustrations of the political and ideological views of the nascent Russian autocracy.

The main part of the frescoes in the Cathedral of the Assumption dates back to the 17th century. The first czar of the new dynasty, Mikhail Fyodorovich Romanov, commenced wide-scale reconstruction and beautification of the Kremlin. Under a special edict issued in 1642, about a hundred and fifty artists were brought to Moscow from different towns to decorate the cathedral. The czar’s icon painters Ivan and Boris Paisein and Sidor Pospeyev headed the team. An immense volume of work was handled within two short summer seasons. It is exactly those paintings that have reached us, although with considerable losses. Among the factors behind their poor preservations, were inadequate temperature and moisture conditions, leaking roofs, soot and, as a result, numerous refurbishing. The frescoes were cleaned and washed for each coronation ceremony. Twice, in 1771-1773 and 1856, they were fully repainted in oil. Early in this century the over paint was removed but the original painting was again renovated and the background was gilt. Restoration work was continued in 1960-1985. The over paint was mostly removed yet the remaining repetitions, gilt of later periods and numerous refurbishing of damaged spots prevent comprehensive appreciation of the 17th century painting manner. It is only in the chancel where frescoes were first discovered in 1985 and preserved in their original shape that individual compositions give one an idea of the brightness decorative value, succulence of pure colors and thorough modeling of 1642-1643 paintings.

The restoration work started in 1910 assumed particular scope in the first ten years following the revolution, discovering under the metal settings and later over paint a rich collection of early icons. Thus, 12th-17th century icons of all trends and schools known in Russia, as well as works by Byzantine and Balkan artists were found.

In 1344, Greek artists and their Russian pupils decorated the first cathedral building with frescoes and probably they painted some surviving icons. Among these it the breast-size image of Christ pantocrator which already in antiquity became known as “The Saviour of the Firce Eye” an epithet conveying the idea of the stern and formidable image. Considerable dimensions and the visage create the impression with pronounced wrinkles on the forehead, hollow cheeks and penetrative eyes. The tension is heightened by the contrasting combination of dark green and almost white colors in the depiction of the face and the bright red coloration of the mouth.

It is likely that “The Trinity” icon of the middle of the 14th century was in the first cathedral building. The icon illustrates the Old Testament story about the appearance of three angels to patriarch Abraham. Arranged in a semi-circle, they preside over repast. Below are smaller figures of minor characters- Abraham carrying fruit on a platter his wife Sarah kneading the dough and his servant slaughtering the calf. But the purport of the icon is not confined to illustrating the scriptural story of the patriarch’s hospitality. It symbolizes one of the most worshipped Christian feasts. The angels personify triune God, the calf being slaughtered signifies Christ’s sacrifice, while the grapes in Abraham’s hands and the bread in Sarah’s hands accentuate the Eucharistic quality of the composition. The fourteenth century painting was uncovered but partly on the figures of the angel on the right-hand side and Sarah. In continuing the cleaning the restorers discovered on the upper over paint layer the signature of Tikhon Filatiev, one of the czar’s leading painters who renovated the icon in 1700. While preserving the old iconography, he produced an entirely new work of art in which the influence of West European painting- direct perspective, three- dimensional chiaroscuro modeling of figures and well-developed still life is well in evidence.

In 1395, troops led by powerful Tamerlane were approaching Moscow. In preparing for the defense, the Muscovites brought the miraculous icon “The Holy Virgin of Vladimir” from the city of Vladimir by Prince Andréa Bogolyubsky in the mid-12th century and became the city’s main relic and protector against enemy raids. Shortly after the ceremonial meeting of the icon in Moscow, Tamer lane’s troops unexpectedly retreated, which was associated with the intercession of the miracle-working image. From that time “The Holy Virgin of Vladimir” was considered as the main relic and protector of Moscow Russ. At present the miraculous icon is preserved at the State Tretyakov Art Gallery, while the Cathedral of the Assumption keeps two replicas of the size of the old icon. They were painted shortly after the renovation of the original. While reproducing its main features, they nevertheless mirror a different ideology and different stages in the development of early Russian painting. The earlier, so-called reserve, replica was produced in the first third of the 15th century by a contemporary of Andréa Rublev. The figures of the Holy Virgin and the child are delineated with a gently rounded line; the visages are modeled with mild strokes of liquid translucent paint and have no tragic quality of the Byzantine Prototype. Metropolitan Varlaam made the other replica in 1514. The artist replicated not only the painting, but also the gold setting of the first half of the 15th century with the depiction of church feasts with the figures of Fathers of the church and Russian bishops between the feast scenes. This is a typical early 16th century portrayal with overly elegant elongated proportions of figures and exquisite radiant color.

Three icons painted by non-Russian artists. - "The Queen did stand", "Glorification of the Holy Virgin" and "The Apostles Peter and Paul"-date back to the period between the 14th and 15th centuries. At that time many Greek and Balkan artists, having escaped from the Turkish invaders, were working in Russia. "The Queen did stand" and "Glorification of the Holy Virgin" illustrate liturgics chanting. "The Queen did Stand" are the opening words of psalm 45, a version of the Diesis prayer. The vestments of enthroned Christ combine imperial and bishopric attributes, while the Holy Virgin wears the formal attire of a Byzantine empress. A Balkan, probably Serbian artist painted the icon in the last quarter of the 14th century. The combination of bright succulent colors with abundant gilt accentuates the solemnity of the image.

It was only in 1991 restores completely uncovered the icon "The Apostles Peter and Paul" painted by a Greek artist who worked in Russia in the early 15th century. The icon suffered much from numerous renovations, the original golden ground was lost, while repeated patching spoiled the shape of the legs. Fortunately, later repairs practically did not affect the majestic figures of the supreme apostles.

Evidently, "The Assumption of the Holy Virgin" was painted for the consecration of the cathedral in 1479. The icon is intricate compositionally and has a narrative quality. Rising over the couch on which rests the body of the Holy Virgin, is the figure of Christ with Maria's soul in the shape of a swaddled baby. Besides the apostles paying homage to the diseased, there are holy fathers, "Wives of Jerusalem" and the host of angels. Over that scene is St. Mary's ascension to the open gates of Paradise, with angels carrying the apostles on clouds. The abundance of characters and strictly symmetrical composition underscore the significance of the scene. The expressiveness of the characters and subdued colors with the inclusion of vibrant shades make the icon akin it mid-15th century productions.

The icon "Metropolitan Peter. A vita icon" produced in Dionysus' workshop at the turn of the 15th century represent different manner. The first Moscow metropolitan, one of the most revered Russian saints, is shown during service, clad in holiday vestments decorated with pearls and precious stones. He blesses the flock with the right hand, while holding the Gospel in a precious setting in the left. His figure, elongated and ethereal, seems to soar in the air against a light background. Border scenes illustrating the main events in the saint’s life, among them the construction of the Cathedral of the Assumption surround the central composition. The icon is painted in light translucent colors creating the impression of ease and festivity.

Another fine artist of the late 15th century painted "The Apocalypse” on the subject of "Revelations of St. John the Divine", one of the most tragic books of the New Testament, which tells about the vision of the end of the world and the Last Judgment shown to the Apostle John by God. The appearance of the radiant and formidable deity is alternated in the book with the depictions of the penalties imposed on our sinful earth. The icon illustrates the text very comprehensively, yet the artist does not observe the sequence of events, thus creating his own picture of the world. In the upper row the scenes taking place in Heaven, the second row shows the suffering and peril of people on earth and the lower row presents episodes of the Second Advent- the peril of the sinners and the triumph of the righteous. The theme of the Apocalypse was popular in Russia at the end the 15th century. According to the old chronology, the year 1492 was the year 7000 and so the end of the world was expected. However, the icon "The Apocalypse" in the Cathedral of the Assumption with its well-balanced composition, elegant figures, graceful postures and gestures of its numerous characters and radiant palette with the predominance of red and white colors, does not express horror in expectation of the end of the world but rather hopes for the salvation of the righteous Orthodox Russian state, as if the artist had been inspired by the words of Filofey, one of the authors of the "Moscow the Third Rome" theory according to which "all Christian countries are flooded with disbelief, and only the kingdom of our sovereign alone is standing by Christ's mercy".

In 1547, the Kremlin suffered from a devastating fire, which destroyed practically all its buildings. Young Ivan the Terrible who had just been crowned as Russia's czar began restoration work, which continued until the mid-60s. The authors of the ambitious Kremlin beautification, plans were Metropolitan Makary. Sylvester, the archpriest of the cathedral of Annunciation, the czar's confessor, and the czar himself. New frescoes decorating the churches and palace buildings and also numerous icons were intended to glorify Russia and its autocratic ruler. In a rather intricate manner, using scriptural motifs and allegories, they told about the baptism of Russia and the inheritance of the glory of ancient Rome and Orthodox Byzantium by the Russian rulers, while glorifying the deeds of Ivan the Terrible. The Cathedral of the Assumption was also on the programmed, although the fire had spared it. In 1551, a praying platform was made for Ivan the Terrible to the right of the metropolitan's stone platform, close to the grand southern door. It is most likely that Novgorodian masters did this unique piece of work. Diverse decorative motifs are represented and diverse wood carving techniques once widespread in Russia are employed here. At the base are four round sculptures of fanciful beasts which carry a structure square in plan with intricately shaped columns, rail posts and valances, terminated with a whimsical tent carrying numerous kokoshniks, rosettes and vases. In literature this contraption is often referred to as Monomach's throne having in mind the texts inscribed on the doors and the twelve low-relief’s on the walls illustrating "The Tale of the Princes of Vladimir", the story of how the Monomach crown, and other regalia were brought to Russia. "The Tale" appeared at the turn of the 15th century, authored by Russian ideologists who sought to substantiate the legitimacy of the Moscow princes' authority.

The unification of Russian lands under Moscow was accompanied by the unification of the cults of local saints, resulting in the emergence of the centralized Russian Church. Simultaneously the number of icons in the cathedral considerably increased. They were now placed in icon-cases standing along the walls and round the pillars. The property of the cathedral is listed in the earliest of the surviving inventories made in the early 17th century. Many large icons of local saints were painted specially for the cathedral. Among the surviving ones are the hagiographic icons of Alexander Svirsky and the thaumaturgies St. Zosima and St. Savvaty of Solovetsky Monastery. Their appearance followed the canonization’s that took place in 1547 and 1549. The numerous border scenes acquainted the viewer with their life and miracles. The icon "The Holy Virgin of Bogolyubovo with the lives of St. Zosima and St. Savvaty" was painted to the order placed by Metropolitan Philip Kolychev, once Father Superior of Solovetsky Monastery who had done a lot for the monastery’s prosperity. Shown in the center are the Holy Virgin and the devotional group of monks headed by the saints, the founders of the cloister. The artist noted the insular position of the monastery and reproduced its structures with a fair degree of accuracy.
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