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Andrei Muraviev, the author of "A Journey to Russia's Holy Lands" in 1845, called Lake Belozero and the adjoining land "the Russian Thebes in the North", by analogy with the Egyptian desert where early hermits found refuge in the first few centuries of Christianity. The space some 500 kilometers across from the monastery [St. Sergius'.- Auth.] to Belozero, the writer tells, and farther afield, was all monastic land, dotted with cells and hermitages.

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The cloister established by St. Sergius of Radonezh(*) engaged in wide-scale colonization. In the 14th century, it founded 13 secluded monasteries, with another two to follow in the next. Its monastery-building mission was continued by its colonies and the colonies of its colonies, of which the Monastery of the Reverend Father Superior Cyril of Belozero, the largest in the North, was the most industrious. St. Cyril (1337-1427), a native of Moscow, was the greatest of Sergius' disciples. His life story written by Pahomy Logophet, a celebrated hagiographer of his time, has truly a historic value.

Cyril, whose secular name was Kuzma, was made a monk by Archimandrite Theodore at the Simon Monastery in Moscow, where he became the superior, even if briefly, in 1388. St. Sergius of Radonezh, who happened to visit the Simon Monastery in those years, would, first thing, to the community's great amazement, walk into the bakery and converse with his favorite disciple about the "benefits of sanctity" for hours.

The boundless northern expanses across the Volga, uninhabited and deserted, hidden among dense forests, beckoned Sergius' successors. Between the mid- 14th and the late 15th centuries, the majority of new monasteries were built in the lands of Kostroma, Yaroslavl beyond the Volga, and Vologda. "Great Russia was in this way established in the upper Volga country," wrote the famous historian Vladimir Klyuchevsky in the 19th century, "by the joint efforts of the monk and the peasant raised in the spirit breathed into Russian society by the Reverend Sergius."

According to legend, as he prayed in front of a Virgin icon one day, Cyril heard a voice commanding him to go the Belozero land (in the west of today's Vologda Region). Taking the miraculous icon with him, Cyril secretly left the monastery together with monk Ferapont, who had already been to Belozero. Cyril, already 60 years of age, and his companion had crisscrossed the lake country before they ascended atop Mount Maura, the highest hill around. Lake Siverskoye splashed at its foot, and a limitless panorama unfolded before their eye-woodlands spreading away toward the horizon, blue splashes of lakes glistening amidst billowing hills and winding rivers. Lake Siverskoye lapping its flat shores seems to change its color with the mood-at sunset in fair summer weather, its water soaks up the rosy hues of the evening sky. Confronted with the white-walled retreat towering above the calm lake, anyone coming to these parts today feels transposed centuries back.

Cyril liked the place. The wanderers set up a wooden cross there and dug out a cell nearby Cyril stayed on, while Ferapont moved on, after a brief pause, to make himself a cell some 15 kilometers from Cyril's.

Gradually, anchorites and local villagers started gathering around Cyril, and he realized that his time of seclusion and silence was over. He oversaw the building of a small wooden church consecrated to the Dormition of the Holy Virgin in 1397. These modest beginnings opened a page in the history of a sanctuary known to these days as the St. Cyril of Belozero monastery He introduced rigid abstinence and self-restraint- monks kept nothing except icons and holy scriptures in their cells, not even water jugs or mugs, so they had to walk a long way to the refectory to take a drink of water, and never locked their cell doors, an example given by monks at the monasteries at Mount Athos. Their Rule forbade monks to take alms from lay people and, still worse, buy up villages offered to them by princes and gentry As Cyril's life story goes, he had magic powers to work miracles-a bowl emptied of Eucharist wine was refilled, after his prayer, for the mass. At times of famine, he multiplied bread at the cloister and gave it away to all needy

With the vigorous founder at the head, the monastery was a hard-working community where everyone knew his job-writing a manuscript, learning from the books, making fish-nets,

* See: V. Darkevich, "The Monastery of St. Sergiy", Science in Russia, No. 2, 2000- Ed.

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building monastic cells. Some fetched firewood to the bakery and kitchen, others baked loaves and meals. Tilling the surrounding land was the community's chief purpose.

In his missives to the Grand Duke in Moscow and his local princeling, the superior of Belozero "extolled, in the humble and simple phrases of the Russian half-bookish style, the ideal of just and humane governance", wrote G.P. Fedotov, a religious philosopher of the early 20th century To the prince of Mozhaisk, Cyril sketched what may be called an across-the-board platform: supervision over courts, lifting of customs, punishment of thieves and robbers, and ardent piety. Cyril, who owned 17 manuscripts, helped create Russia's largest library at the time. A 17th century inventory put the number of its books at 2,092.

After Cyril's death, his monastery became the largest Russian cultural center in the North and also a mighty stronghold on the borders of the realm. Communal living and faithful adherence to established rules survived here until the mid-16th century. True enough, whereas during Cyril's lifetime, the monastery was only beginning to take possession of land grants, after his demise its wealth swelled rapidly. In 1582, it had title to nearly 20,000 desiatines of cropland (1 desiatine was equal to 1.09 hectares), not counting wasteland and woodland. Self-restraint was thrown off, and the monastery turned into the richest barony in Northern Russia.

The monastery was growing rich with much help from princes and gentry In its turn, it remained a loyal ally of Moscow's grand dukes and czars who had given it land, money and valuables, and title to saltmines. Subsequently, after it had acquired brine pits on the White Sea shore, the monastery took up extensive salt trading operations on the Northern Dvina, in Vologda, Tver, Rostov the Great, Torzhok, Uglich, and Dmitrov. It supplied many cities and towns with fish and grain, and plenty of various wooden utensils, such as ladles, bowls, and spoons. The generosity of Muscovian rulers helped the monastery fill its sacristy with fabulous riches, such as jewelry of precious metals and gems (crosses, chalices, and panagias or bishops' chest-worn badges, with relics encased inside), and pearl-embroidered clothing. Little remains, however, of the former riches at the Cyril Museum of Art and History, for example, a shroud with the image of Cyril of Belozero (dating from 1587), a 16th century carved wooden cross, the case of the "St. Cyril of Belozero" icon (1614). Early moves to strip the monastery of its wealth started as early as the late 18th century, and early in the 19th century some 400 items of its wealth were melted into silver bullion. Its hand- crafted utensils and other treasures were finally destroyed or carried off in the 20th century

The monastery's core, Old Town, sits on lakeshore. It contains a majority of the cloister's churches, including the dominant silhouette of the Cathedral of the Dormition, put up in 1497, the principal and oldest stone building of the ensemble. It was built by Rostov craftsmen-a team of 20 masons and "bricklayers" under Prohor of Rostov. The Great Church, as it was called in chronicles, was subsequently girdled with chapels and annexes under cupolas, making the cathedral a uniquely picturesque sight to view. In architecture, it is typical of Northeastern Russia, where church architecture was heavily influenced by Moscow-with its cubic bodies and three massive apses, a tier ofzakomaras, or peaked wall sections, and a row of arrowhead- like kokoshniks (tympanums), and, finally, a solid dome drum with slit windows. The dome was typically helmet-shaped (rather than today's two-tiered baroque). Initially, the cathedral had a majestic pyramidal top, again a typical design of the time.

All other buildings were erected in the 16th and 17th centuries, not so much of necessity as of desire to commemorate a particular event, such as visits by royal pilgrims. To give an example, even before the Cathedral of the Dormition was built, the monastery had played a notable role in the merciless struggle for the Moscow crown in the mid-15th century between Basil II the Dark and Dmitry Shemiaka. When Basil II, blinded and banished to Vologda,

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arrived for prayer at the Cyril Monastery in 1447, hegumen Triphon discharged him from his vow, sworn to "by kissing the cross", not to seek the Muscovian crown. On this encouragement, the Grand Duke marched his troops on Tver, and then captured Moscow by a surprise attack, meeting no resistance. After a prolonged strife and a succession of military debacles, Shemiaka was finally poisoned in 1453.

In the 16th century. Old Town was encircled by fortress walls with a Holy Gate. A small cube-shaped church, dedicated to the Archangel Gabriel, with a St. Constantine and St. Helen annex (to commemorate the birth of Basil III), was built from the funds of Muscovian Grand Duke Basil III and his second wife, Helen Glinskaya(*), who came here in 1528 to pray to God to give them an heir, the future Ivan IV, the Terrible. After the birth of the child, they donated money for the construction of a church of St. John the Baptist, with an annex devoted to the Reverend Cyril, completed within 1531 to 1534. The church is perched on top of the hill where St. Cyril had come to live in a cave. A stone arcade with a large wooden cross was later built over the cave.

The erection of the Church of St. John the Baptist on the hill was soon followed by a cloister with cells, auxiliary rooms, a cemetery, and a church of St. Sergius of Radonezh with a refectory, all completed between 1560 and 1594. This new group of buildings formed a so-called Minor, or St. John the Baptist, Monastery, closely adjoining Old Town, from which it was separated by a fence. The St. John cloister gives the impression of a country estate. The green hill hemmed in by centuries-old trees and crowned with a hilltop church towers over a plain crossed by a stream, the Sviaga.

A new page in the history of the St. Cyril of Belozero Monastery is closely associated with the name of Basil Ill's son, Ivan IV the Terrible (1530-1584). The new czar visited the cloister, which he had held in great veneration since his childhood days, three times. The first time was when he was still a teenager, the second visit was at the peak of his power and glory, when, after the capture of Kazan, the capital of a Moslem khanate, and cure from a grave illness, he went on a pilgrimage to several famed monasteries. On that visit, Ivan IV rewarded St. Cyril of Belozero with two villages, Shidnem and Kobylino, in memory of a miraculous portent (St. Cyril, he said, appeared to him in a dream to warn him against entering the reception hall before three in the afternoon. Actually, it caved in before that deadline, crushing many princes and other nobles to death.). The czar came here on his third visit, accompanied by wife Maria and sons Ivan and Feodor, in 1569, at the height ofoprichnina, when the future looked uncertain to the distrustful autocrat and he was thinking of abdicating and retiring to a monastery Ivan IV confided his secret thoughts to several monastery elders he conversed with in a solitary cell, and to convince them how serious he was he donated a huge sum to the monastery An entry made in the monastery's Provisions Book in 1572 says, "IvanVasilievich, the czar and autocrat of all Russia, on a pilgrimage here, donated two thousand rubles, for the hegumen and the community

* See: G. Makarenko and T. Panova, "The Poison All High Life Pervades...", Science in Russia, No. 2, 2000.-Ed.

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to pray to Our Lord for the health of the czar." Eventually, shortly before his death, Ivan IV the Terrible took monastic vows at the St. Cyril Monastery

Situated far from Moscow and reliably protected by strong walls, Ivan IV found the monastery fortress an ideal place of exile for many of his imaginary enemies, many of whom had deserved a far better treatment for their devoted service to the Russian State. They included the Muscovian clergyman, Silvester, a well-read and devout man, who used to have much influence on the young czar, and General Vladimir Vorotynsky, stoutly loyal to the autocrat. Ivan IV was enraged by the sepulcher added to the Cathedral of the Dormition to honor the general's memory in 1554. Nobleman and General Ivan Sheremetev, who had distinguished himself in the battle for Kazan and against the Crimean Tatars, found refuge from the despot's persecution as a monk at the St. Cyril Monastery In later years, the Muscovian Metropolitan loasaf, who had fallen out of favor with the ruler, and Simeon Bek Bulat, a Kassim khan whom Ivan IV pronounced the nominal "Czar of Muscovy" during the years ofoprichnina and who had been forcibly made a monk under False Demetrius I, found their end at the monastery

During the Time of Troubles (late 16th and early 17th centuries), the monastic community and all people associated with them, started modernizing their weapons, buying ammunition, and raising the monastery walls still higher in anticipation of hostile attacks. In 1611, the monastery had 30 cannon, gunpowder cellars, and stocks of cannonballs. Its residents included about 200 monks, 200 infantrymen, and nearly 400 servants. The fortress gave shelter to the population of surrounding villages, connected in one way or another with monastic life, and craftsmen and tradesmen and their families from nearby quarters. By the time the monastery was besieged, up to a thousand people had assembled in it. In December 1613, a combined force of Poles, Lithuanians and Cossacks launched an assault against the fortress twice, both times in vain. For some years to follow, the interventionists pillaged the environs, but shunned the fortified monastery itself. Its defenders sent out scouts to follow the individual bands' movements and intercept their messages, destroying the marauders jointly with royal troops. Since some enemy bands continued to roam the Belozero country as late as 1618, the St. Cyril Monastery at Belozero remained the Muscovian state's military outpost in the North for six years.

This threat spurred on hurried construction of defenses. So solid they were that a first- rate specimen of 17th century military engineering and a key strategic stronghold of Northern Russia at the time has come down to us almost intact.

Work to build a so-called New Town at the St. Cyril Monastery started in 1653 and was finished in around 1680, having more than doubled the monastery's overall area. An enclosed polygon of heavy walls mounting high towers was in defensive strength no worse than, and even superior to, the fortresses of many Russian cities. The Muscovian crown grudged no money on the construction of the fortress:

CzarAlexei Mikhailovich (1629-1676) authorized appropriation of a fabulous amount- 45,000 rubles-to the monastery,

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and Boris Morozov, a nobleman who had been his mentor and educator, contributed another 5,000 rubles. Construction was directed by the talented local architects, Cyril Serkov and Semeon Shamm.

The solid walls of New Town have an average height of 11 m and are 7 m thick. They consist of three tiers. The bottom tier has embrasures through which the garrison can engage the enemy at close quarters from its vaulted rooms within the walls, which also had arms and ammunition stores. The second tier, supported on arches, has a gallery on the inside and embrasures in the outer wall parapet. The third tier, with pillars supporting a roof, has the largest number of embrasures, some of them adapted for high trajectory cannon fire, so it is slightly wider on the outside. Passages were provided between all wall sections and the tiers were linked with one another inside so troops could freely move around the citadel. The brickwork fortress stands on a mother rock foundation, and piles were driven into it at many places.

The new fortress wall has four blind-walled comer towers (Blacksmith, Therapont or Muscovy, Vologda, and Belozero); another two had gates to and from the world outside at midpoints of the walls (Kazan and Leaning towers). On Siverskoye lakefront, the builders retained the Old Town defenses, having added a few touches of modernity With their height of 20 to 30 m and diameter of 20 m, the comer towers make an awe-inspiring sight. Jutting out of the walls and having numberless embrasures, the towers could deliver flanking fire at the enemy Their polygonal shape made them less vulnerable to enemy cannonballs. A solid brickwork pillar at the center of each tower supported the vaulted ceiling of the bottom story and log flooring of the other ones (from four to six). The central pillar of each tower is hollow inside, housing wooden stairs connecting the stories. Originally, the towers had board lockouts on top, offering a view of over 20 km away.

In addition to their defensive role, the towers could be used as stores, workshops, and living quarters for the monastery's residents and hands. They were also a place were bad-smelling and noisy jobs, such as fish cleaning, smithies, and copper utensil making, were moved here out of the range of living quarters and churches.

As the monastery grew in size, its barns, cellars, wax shops and other services multiplied. Early in the 17th century it had only a few kitchens, water was heated for bread baking in a separate hut, another special hut was used to brew honey kvas, and yet another hut was used to store drinking bowls and tablecloths. The building of New Town spawned flour mills, granaries, stables, and hostel cells for visitors. All these auxiliary services have not survived the rigors of the last few decades. In our day,

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the spacious New Town court overgrown with thick grass is dominated by two showpieces of Russian wooden architecture, a church of the Deposition of the Veil, a small chapel Grafted in 1486 of the type that used to be set up first thing by new settlers in Northern territories. Not far from it stands a flour windmill of the type known in the North as "post mill", from a central pillar, round which the mill frame turned on a special support. A log-size lever could turn its sails windward.

A group of 17th century buildings in the southwestern comer of Old Town is associated with the name of the disgraced Patriarch Nikon (1605-1681). Stripped of his priesthood, he was first exiled to the nearby Therapont Monastery where he lived under strict surveillance for 10 years, and was, for the last five years of his life, incarcerated at the St. Cyril Monastery He used to pray at the St. Euthymius gabled church (built in 1653), which was at his time connected by a passage to the solid building of the Great Hospital Ward. The two-storied 17th century cells, long since rebuilt beyond recognition, next to the church were the prisoner's last refuge.

The monastery lost some of its historical and cultural role in the 18th century Peter the Great, who visited it on the eve of a Swedish invasion, did not see it more than an impregnable fortress in a land of lakes and rivers.

The St. Cyril Monastery is celebrated for its uniquely picturesque asymmetric architecture closely linked to the surrounding plains. The single-dome Cathedral of the Dormition overlooks the fortress walls and tent-roofed towers. All other churches, with zakomaras and tympans, either single-domed or gable-roofed, tiptoe on their basements above their stairways and porches. Next to them are the jagged lines of high-roofed cells and quarters, the bright colors of their individual parts contrasting with their snow-white outer walls. The decor of 16th century buildings, and even some towers, is accentuated by rims of Pskovian and Novgorodian design patterns of brickwork fashioned into rectangular and triangular recesses, earthenware balustrades, and belts of red glazed tiles decorated with floral designs. The close association of both Novgorod and Pskov with the Belozero culture, and as far afield as Moscow, particularly in the late 15th and 16th centuries, evidenced themselves in various area of art. Indeed, monasteries help blend the different local schools into a mainstream of Russian art.

The process did not bypass painting either, as is evidenced by the rich art collection at the St. Cyril Cathedral. In particular, the wall frescoes in the square core of the Cathedral of the Dormition were painted in 1641 by Liubim Ageev, one of the most brilliant painters in Russia at the time, and "comrades". His fresco cycle devoted

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to the life of the Holy Virgin is based on various scripture texts (back in Moscow from the St. Cyril Monastery, Ageev, a court painter, joined a team of other craftsmen to paint frescoes for the Cathedral of the Dormition in Moscow's Kremlin). In 1650, Ivan Timofeev and Sebastian Dmitriev, both from Yaroslavl, turned to apocalyptic subjects to paint frescoes for the cathedral's porch. Suspense and nervous excitement in anticipation of the end of the world, were stirred up by the onset of church reform initiated by the Patriarch Nikon, and intensified in the years of Petrine reforms in the early 18th century

Several old iconostases have preserved completely intact at the St. Cyril Monastery In particular, the 60-icon iconostasis of the late 15th century at the Cathedral of the Dormition, a unique iconographic assemblage in the history of Russian art, has come down to our days hardly with any icons lost. Another iconostasis dating to 1572 is housed in the church perched on the Holy Gate. It was built in 1569 to 1572 from funds donated by Ivan IV's sons. This explains why the church was dedicated to the donors' namesakes, St. John Climacus and St. Theodore Studites. A third, four-tiered iconostasis stands in the Church of Transfiguration, built in 1595 overthe Water Gate, which served as the main entrance to the monastery from lakeside. The subjects of its icons are directly related to the political conception of Moscow as the Third Rome, which was current at the time. The dei-sis tier consists mostly of Russian saints, in particular, St. Andrew, alleged to be the first to bring the Word of God to Russia; the metropolitans Peter and Alexy regarded as the defenders of the Russian race; and Rostovian miracle makers Leontius and Isajah, who baptized the lands of Rostov the Great. Next followed the images of St. Cyril of Belozero and, probably, Demetrius Priluksky, both of whom had spread Christianity in Northern territories.

In 1924, a museum preserve was opened on the territory of the monastery closed by the Bolsheviks, Russia's new rulers. Beginning in the early 1950s, restoration of the monastery's buildings was given a new direction, largely under the influence of research undertaken by architect S.S. Podjapolsky Work started under a cohesive plan in the 1960s to remove later additions from original icons. A firstever team of experts from the Moscow Restoration Research Laboratory up-graded to institute status within a few years, came here in 1969. With later modifications peeled off, the icons at the Cathedral of the Dormition reveal excellent 15th century artwork. The local collection of 17th century chased silver work (icon frames) was suddenly found to be one of the richest among the stocks of Russian museums. The singular iconostasis of the Church of St. John Climacus, with its imposing half-figure deists tier and decorative icon shelves, all crafted in Vologda, has been restored as well.

In our days, researchers arc working at the St. Cyril Monastery to improve old painting restoration techniques. Their principal task is doing as little harm as possible to the relics and only making whatever is absolutely necessary to preserve the originals for future generations to admire.


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Vladislav DARKEVICH, Dr. Sc. (Hist.), RAS Archeology Institute, NORTHERN THEBES // Beijing: China (ELIBRARY.ORG.CN). Updated: 07.09.2018. URL: (date of access: 16.07.2024).

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