The building of the Archangel Cathedral in 1505-1508 marked the completion of the restructuring work in the residence of the Grand Dukes contemplated and executed under Ivan III, Grand Duke and sovereign of "All of Russia"(1462-1505). Under his rule was achieved the unification of the Russian lands which had delivered themselves of the Mongol-Tartar yoke in 1480 thereby enhancing the international prestige of the State of Muscovy that was rapidly gaining in strength. The process was reflected in the grandiose building projects that were launched in the Kremlin. The ideological programmed that underlay the developments in the Moscow Kremlin, as was intended by their commissioner, a noteworthy part was allotted to the Archangel Cathedral, the principal cathedral of the grand dukes that was to become the burial place of the Moscow princes and tsars. To this cathedral, dedicated by tradition to Archangel Michael, the patron saint of the grand dukes in their feats of arms, they would come to pray before going into battle or leaving for the Horde, asking for endurance and strength of mind. Here their younger brothers were sworn in, here came the tsar at the head of the solemn procession following his crowning ceremony.
The Archangel Cathedral built under the direction of the Italian architect Alevisio Novi stands on open ground at the edge of mount Borovitsky and may be considered the most original of all the monuments making up the integrally complete ensemble of Cathedral Square in the Kremlin. The new cathedral built on the site of a small white-stone church erected in 1333 under Ivan Kalita (1325-1341) was not merely higher and bigger than its predecessor; it astounded its contemporaries by its unusual resemblance to the Italian palazzo.
The facades of the Archangel Cathedral are covered with a well-defined austere order decor: the intricately profiled plinth is topped by two rows of pilasters crowned by a carved capital of the Corinthian order. A sham arcade, the upper part- by broad slatted panels, embellishes the lower part of the wall. The strict lines of the cornices underscore its horizontal sections. The semicircular zakomary gables, once decorated with gothic unusual for a Russian church are the round medallion windows in the central zakomara of the western facade. The initial two-colored facades combining redbrick walls with white decorative details also served to accentuate the order architecture.
The order decor typical of Italian architecture seems to have been "superimposed" by Alevisio Novi on the traditionally Russian construction pattern made up by the six-pillared cross-and-dome church with the canonic five domes and zakomary gabled roof. Its inner structure shows a definite link with Old Russian architecture. The split-pattern interior, hemmed in with massive almost square- shaped pillars dividing the structure into three naves, is its typical feature.
In keeping with the Russian tradition Ale Visio set up in the western part of the Cathedral a khory-gallery for the family of the Grand Duke during service. Abutting on the main building was a narrow four-storied structure. The peculiar Khory on its third story jutted out into the interior of the main building in the shape of a large two-arched window. An innovation was the form of the main entrance to the Cathedral made to resemble a perspective portal set into a deep loggia, which along with the steps formed the parvis. The portals of white stone crowned with carved acroteria are decorated with finely chiseled stylized floral patterns typical of the Italian Renaissance.
With time the Archangel Cathedral suffered several changes that altered its initial appearance. In the second half of the 16th century two side-chapels were added to its eastern wall: The Chapel of the Intercession, later renamed into St. Uar's chapel, and the chapel of John the Forerunner. The time an open gallery was imposed on the northern, western and southern walls of the cathedral that was to houseguests of honor during solemn ceremonies. In the 18th century the gallery was taken down and the central dome lost its former helmet-shaped form and acquired the form of the "onion cupola"; the southern facade was partially blocked by white-stone buttresses, the zakomary gables acquired lancet-shaped contours and lost the decorative finals. Obviously at this time the vaults and domes lost their initial red-and-black glazed-tile surface. In the 19th century there was added to the southern wall of the cathedral a two-story chamber for the ministers of the church, restructured into a one-story chamber in the 20th century.
The present murals inside the Archangel Cathedral were painted between 1652-1666 under Tsar Alexi Mikhailovich whose orders were “to cover the church of Archangel Michael anew with wall paintings removing all that was made before”, inasmuch as the 16th century murals made at the time of Tsar Ivan IV had begun to peel off by the mid-17th century. Before work was begun a written account was made of all the initial compositions and their sites, which helped preserve the main idea and the compositional pattern of the 16th century paintings.
The system of their sitting and the composition of these murals are quite unusual. Instead of the traditional painting of Christ the Almighty the central cupola displays the composition “Fatherland”, an illustration of the Christian doctrine on the tri-one nature of God: “So there are three witnesses, the Spirit, the water, and the blood, and the three are one”(1 John. 5,7). In the flaming-red circle of Glory is the Father garbed in robes of white, on his knees in the Son. Between them soars the white dove denoting the Holy Spirit. Faith in the Trinity holds the central place in the Orthodox Symbol consisting of the twelve apostles, a summary of the basic doctrines of the Christian faith. The northern wall of the main vault depicts the first General Council of the Church convened at Nicaea in 325 on the initiative of Constantine the Great. The Council established the Symbol of Faith and the unity of the imperial power with Christianity. Henceforth concern for the strengthening the church and protecting the faith became the prime mission of the state. “Fatherland”, reiterated in the central part of the main vault, opens a cycle of compositions devoted to the Symbol of Faith. The scenes “Annunciation” and “Birth of Christ” depicted on the southern wall of the vault interpret the third element of the symbol: “He has come from the Heavens to save us, embodied in man from the Holy Spirit and Virgin Mary.” The theme resounds in a mighty chord on the western wall of the cathedral where it assembles from the adjoining vaults. The grandiose panorama of the emerging world comes before our eyes: from God’s creation of the world to Doomsday that decides the ultimate fates of the living and the dead.
The southern and northern walls depict compositions dealing with the feats of Archangel Michael who the first to rise in struggle against Satan. The cycle of “feats” given much room to subjects on military themes. This is not accidental: the idea of the paintings came up during the time of Ivan the Terrible’s victorious wars where the tsar was compared with the Biblical Gideon who had conquered the unfaithful, and the Emperor Constantine who had done much for the acknowledgement of the Christian faith. The third story of the southern wall shows the victory of the Israelites under Gideon over the Madian troops. This Biblical scene was associated with Ivan the Terrible’s victories over the Kazan and Astrakhan khanates for in Russia the Tartars were looked upon as the descendants of the Biblical Madians.
The northern wall depicts the “Apparition of the Star Cross to Emperor Constantine” forecasting a victory over Maxentius, the last emperor who attempted to revive pagan Rome’s former grandeur. This victory of Emperor Constantine laid the beginning for the emergence of Christianity as a state religion. Divine help in combating non-Christians is the basic idea of the compositions where the principal character is Archangel Michael, the champion of Christian faith. A single blow of his sword fills the enemies’ hearts with trepidation and brings confidence to the ranks of Christians. No other than Archangel Michael has been sent to Emperor Constantine at rest in his tent to interpret the apparition of the star cross, the symbol of victory over pagans.
The subject of “non-avariciousness” has also been interpreted in the mural paintings of the Cathedral. Its protagonists came out against the accumulation of wealth and land by the perfection. Five compositions on the second story of the southern wall tell the story of the boy Vasily who had found gold. The boy had disclosed the treasure to the Father Superior of the monastery and was sent along with several monks to get the treasure. The monks appropriated the gold and drowned the boy. On their return to the monastery they told the father that Vasily had deceived them and ran away. Archangel Michael saved the boy from the deep waters and transported him to the monastery. The evil doings of the monks were exposed; they repented and gave back the gold. The story of the boy Vasily that emerged in the Duchies Monastery in Afon was already known in the 15th century in Russia. In the 16th century Metropolitan Makarius included it into the “Velikiye Minei-Chetyi”, a multicolumn collection of the lives of saints. The appearance of this subject on the walls of the Archangel Cathedral was apparently due to the criticism of the church’s land ownership launched in 1550 at the “Stoglavy” church Council with the aim of consolidating the single-state policy of the Moscow sovereign.
Single statehood blessed by the church, the alliance of the state and the church are the essential idea of the mural painting in the Cathedral of the Grand Dukes. The idea of the tsar genealogy took its final shape only in the mid-16th century and received its fullest reflection in the “Book of Tsar Genealogy” which depicts Russian history as a single chain of saintly Moscow sovereigns and their ancestors, “God-chosen scepter-holders” who by their battle feats have earned the “Wreath of Glory” in the struggle against the heretics for the “Purity of faith”. The idea of glorifying the genealogy of the grand dukes and tsars is fully pronounced in all its vividness and consistency in the Archangel Cathedral. There are over 60 conventional portraits of the Russian dukes on the pillars and along the first story of the wall murals. This unique gallery opens with the images of Duchess Olga, the “forerunner of the Russians’ reverence for God”(eastern facet of the northwestern pillar, second story) and that of Grand Duke of Kiev Vladimir Svyatoslavich who baptized the Russian land (western facet of the northeastern pillar, second story). The adjoining facets of the same pillar depict Vladimir’s sons- Boris and Gleb who perished during internecine warfare for the Kiev throne and were canonized for their martyrdom. The first Russian saints Boris and Gleb were honored in Old Russ as patron saints of the Russian military in defense of their native land against its foes.
The great Duchy of Vladimir is represented first of all in the image of Andrei Bogolyubsky (northern facet of the south-eastern pillar, first story), a formidable and influential voyevoda, the first Duke to reject the Kiev throne. For the first time the principal role among all Russian principalities went to the Vladimir-Suzdal land. The northern facet of the southeastern pillar (first story) shows the Grand Duke of Vladimir Alexander Nevsky, a valiant military chief known for his wise policy. His son Daniel was the founder of the dynasty of the Moscow Dukes and “the first to raise the authority of the Moscow Dukes, leaving behind a long-lasting memory of a kind, just, prudent ruler, and elevating Moscow to take the place of Vladimir”(N.M.Karamzin). Daniel’s son Ivan Kalita was already a Grand Duke of Muscovite. The Archangel Cathedral is an old burial place of Muscovite rulers, hence the rather full genealogy of the Muscovite Dukes represented in the murals. On the walls of the cathedral over the tombs are the “probable” portraits of the entered remains of the Grand and appendage dukes. Among them are the Grand Dukes Ivan Kalita, Simeon the proud, Dmitri Donskoy, Ivan III and Vasily III, who contributed greatly to Moscow’s growing authority and the making of a unified Russian state (first story of southern wall).
Ninety-two painters selected by Simon Ushakov, the famous icon painter of the 17th century, took part in painting the murals of Archangel Cathedral, among them Stephan Rezanets, Sidor Pospeyev, Yakov Kazanets, Fyodor Zubov and Fyodor Kozlov – painters from the Armory of the Moscow Kremlin, Iosif Vladimirov from Yaroslavi, Guriy Nikitin and Sila Savin from Kostroma among talented masters from other Russian towns. The paintings in the Archangel Cathedral are monumental and majestic showing the obvious tendency of the masters to spaciousness and simultaneously to simple and clear composition unburdened by subject-matter detail. The depicted events are shown in their gradual development, the characters’ movements are restrained and inwardly grounded. The elongated proportions impart a special elegance to the figures. The faces are painted in a firm plastic hand, the soft painting technique typical of 17th century icon painting. The rich princely robes are decorated with a diverse ornament resembling the patterns of rich imported textiles popular in Old Russ. The color scheme is reserved. With pure colors: golden-yellow, green, light-blue, blue, pink, and red. A special “serenity” of the color harmony, its integral unity with a fresh world outlook is a distinguishing feature of the Cathedral.
The custom to use the church as a burial place was adopted into Russia from Byzantium where the honor was conferred on those who “did not die even after their death”: kings, high officials, and patriarchs. The custom gave rise to the straggle dynasty. Family tombs were usually dedicated to Archangel Michael who according to Christian mythology guided the deceased into the kingdom of the dead. A family necropolis of this kind was the Archangel Cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin. Starting from the 14th century representatives of the ruling dynasties of Muscovite: the Ryurik and Romanov families were buried here. The burials of the Ryurik Dukes run along the walls of the Cathedral following a definite order. The southern wall was reserved for the Grand Dukes and close relatives of the Grand Dukes, the northern- for dukes fallen into disgrace who had been put to death. Amend them are the burials of the Stravinsky Dukes- Vladimir Andreyevich and his son Vasily, the victims of Ivan the Terrible’s oprichnina policy.
Ivan the Terrible gave special attention to the building of his own burial vault in the southern (deacon) part of the altar premises. The need for a special vault was due to the title of “Tsar” conferred on him, an act that firmly established the autocracy in Russia, which had by the 16th century developed into a strong uniform state. Nearby are the burials of Ivan’s sons: Ivan Ivanovich who fell victim to his father’s wrath, and Fyodor Ivanovich, who succeeded to his father. The burial vault of Ivan the Terrible has preserved in part 16th-century murals that were discovered during the restoration work of 1953-1956. A foremost attraction is the composition “Farewell to the Family on the Deathbed”. It shows a dying duke with his eldest son standing at the head of the bed whose shoulders the dying duke embraces with his right hand. Sitting at the foot of the bed is the duchess with her younger son in her lap. In the background are the angels and Satan struggling for the dying man’s soul. The scene fits the description of the last moments of Vasily III, father of Ivan the Terrible, as described in the “Book of Royal Genealogy”.
In 1963 the burial vaults in the deacon niche were opened for the sake of archaeological studies. The well-known anthropologist M.M Gerasimov, using the remains discovered in the sarcophaguses, restored the outward image of the Tsars Ivan the Terrible and Fyodor Ivanovich.
The Archangel Cathedral is also the resting place of Ivan’s youngest son, prince Dmitry who died in 1591 in Uglish under the age of eight. In 1605 he was canonized as an innocent babe who had been murdered: according to one of the versions Boris Godunov’s men killed him. Since 1606 the shrine with prince Dmitry’s relics has been stationed at the southeastern pillar. In the 1630’s carved white-stone canopy was set up over the grave with an open-work cast bronze grating running along the bottom part: the stylized vines are entwined around figurines of unicorns symbolizing according to Christian mythology purity and innocence.
The burial vaults of the Romanov dynasty are located at the base of the pillars in the central part of the cathedral. This is the final resting place of the founders of the Romanov dynasty: Tsar Michael Fyodorovich and the Tsars Alexei Mikhailovich, Fyodor Alexeyevich and Ivan Alexeyevich – the father and half – brothers of Peter the great. After the founding of St. Petersburg as the new capital the Archangel, Cathedral in Moscow lost its significance as a burial place for the royalty. Russian emperors starting with Peter the Great were buried in the SS peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg. Since that time only Emperor Peter II, the grandson of Peter the Great, who died in the 1730 was buried there: he died in Moscow of smallpox. Altogether there are 46 tombs in the Cathedral. The deceased were interred in white-stone sarcophaguses that were buried under the floor. In the first half of the 17th century brick gravestones with white-stone plaques decorated with finely carved floral ornaments and Slavonic scripture were set up over the burials. In the early 20th century the gravestones were encased in cooper- and – glass containers.
The iconostasis of Archangel Cathedral, which has been preserved to our days, is made of four ranges: Prophets, Deesis, Church Feasts and Local. Over the Prophets Range is the Crucifix with the Mother of God and John the Theologian in the foreground, carved of wood and painted by artists Fyodor Zubov and Mikhail Milyutin. The prophets Range shows the prophets from the Old Testament holding unfurled scrolls with texts of their prophecies on the Incarnation – the appearance of Jesus Christ the Savior on earth. In the center of the range IS Mother of God on the throne with the Christ child in her lap – a figurative tale of Isaiah’s prophecies “The Virgin will be with child and shall bear a son, and they will name him Immanuel which means “God is with us”. The subject of the Deesis Range is prayer to God for the humane feat of Mother of God who had given the work the Savior, and John the Forerunner, the last in the line of Christian prophets, the direct predecessor of Jesus Christ the judge, enthroned in his glory. This principal image unites all the ranges of the iconostasis.
The Church Feasts Range depicts the events from New Testament that enjoy a solemn celebration in the church. Usually the festive icons follow the course of the church year with its days devoted to Christian holidays and saints. Yet sometimes they follow the biblical events in chronological order. The consecutive order of biblical events is observed in the left part of the Church Feasts Range depicting Christmas, Candelas Day, Epiphany, the Resurrection of Lazarus, Enter into Jerusalem, Crucifixion.
The lower tier of the iconostasis is known as the Local Range. In its center is the Holy Gates, the symbolical entry into the Heavenly Kingdom, Paradise. On the northern and southern doors also leading to the altar are images of angels and canonized deacons assisting in the sacraments. The second icon to the right of the Holy Gates is the church image of “Archangel Michael and his Acts”, the oldest in the iconostasis of Archangel Cathedral. The artistic peculiarities of the image make it possible to date the icon to 1399 when the cathedral enjoyed the artistic gift of Thespians the Greek who came to Russia from Byzantium. The creation of this monumental image was infused with lofty civic ideals: unity against the enemy and faith in the ultimate victory that inspired Russian people. Medieval Russ had faith in the help of its Godsend protector Archangel Michael. The majestic figure of the Angel in his scarlet cloak and shiny Armour, sword in hand (the painting of the sword has almost disappeared) stands out against the gold background of the icon. “Your image is fiery and full of wonderful; goodness”, “the pure reflection of the divine light” – with these words the author of the hymn dedicated to Archangel Michael sings him praise. The eighteen medallions encircling the central part of the icon depict the Acts of Archangel Michael glorifying him as an ideal warrior ready at any time to flight all evil for the triumph of good. The Old Russian master created an epic image of the “perfect military leader of the perfect regiment of heavenly forces”, full of noble feelings and invincible force.
Quite an unusual composition is observed in the second icon left of the Holy Gates, the so-called “The Annunciation from Ustyug”. The peculiarity of the image is discerned in the embodiment of the good news brought by Archangel Gabriel: on our Lady’s bosom “as through as a haze” one can discern the image of the still unborn child Christ. The icon was painted in the second half of the 16th in the times of Ivan the Terrible, and is a copy of the Novgorod icon of the 12th century of the same name that was brought to Moscow after the fire of 1547 and preserved in the iconostasis of the Cathedral of the Annunciation (now in the Treytyakov Gallery).
All the icons in every ranges of the iconostasis with the exception of the Church image and “The Annunciation from Ustyug” were painted in 1679-1681 by the tsar’s icon-painters who may have been working under Fyodor Zubov, one of the best masters of the Armoury, and a close assistant of the famous painter Simon Ushakov. The icon “Crucifixion” from the festive tier is the only one that bears the painter’s signature, “painted by Mikhail Milyutin”.
All the other icons, following the medieval Christian tradition were left unsigned. The 17th century icons are executed in a new artistic manner employing the rules of linear perspective and an active light-and-shade depiction of the figures.
For a long time it was considered that the woodsmen frame of the iconostasis of the late 17th century was smooth and that the lavish décor of its central part and local Range were added during restoration work in the interior of the Cathedral after the invasion of the French in 1812. The latest studies, however, have given ample proof that smooth and carved forms had come into being from the start, i.e. in the late 17th century. The serene rhythm of the smooth pillars in the three top ranges gives way in the central part of the iconostasis to a wired play of light and shade. The central pillars in the upper tiers and those of the local tier are covered with lavish lace-work carvings of vines. The pillars are crowned with splendid Corinthian capitals. The high relief carving was performed by exceptionally talented masters of the 17th century in the best traditions of the “Moscow baroque” style known for its grandiose, luscious nature and passionate elation. Initially the carved décor of the iconostasis was both gilded and silvered with additions of red and blue paint. Apparently the iconostasis lost its polychrome coloring in 1853 after a thorough repair job of its frame following which all the carved elements were again gilded and the blue background replaced by one of crimson red. In the 1770’s the holy Gates with the chipped paint were replaced by a new gilded carved gate embellished with six oval icons painted on metal with the traditional image of the Annunciation and four Evangelists in the center.
Archangel Cathedral is a unique cultural monument incorporating the creative spirit of the Italian architect and royal icon painters. The murals give a clear-out depiction of the principal political ideas of the epoch ruled by the first Russian Tsar Ivan the Terrible. The Cathedral is an inalienable part of the living history of the Kremlin, Moscow and the Russian state.