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Moscow Churches

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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The history of Moscow can be charted by the numerous churches that still dot the Russian capital city. Fire, war, empire, trade, theology, reform and revolution: all can be traced while walking through the city’s winding streets.

Moscow was first mentioned in the ancient chronicles of the Rus’ (the Eastern Slav ancestors of the Belorussian, Russian and Ukrainian peoples) in the 12th century. It was an obscure frontier village that sat on a bluff of a tributary of the great Volga river. However the fortunes of this backwater changed after disaster struck the Rus’ dominions.

In the mid-13th century Kiev, the capital of the Rus’, was sacked and burned by the Mongols. Two-thirds of the population were slain. Commerce with Constantinople and the West was severed and the Rus’ secular leaders were executed. For more than 200 years, the Mongols would exact severe tribute from those princes considered loyal to the Golden Horde and randomly execute those guilty of ambition.

Orthodoxy survived the Mongol onslaught and was the only force to keep the memory of Kievan Rus alive. Fleeing Kiev, holy men and women wandered the remote forests of the north in search of refuge. As the reputations of these ascetics grew, monastic and secular settlements thrived around them.

Meanwhile Moscow flourished. Its clever princes annexed land, exacted tribute for the Mongol Khan (keeping a healthy portion for themselves) and enlisted the support of the Orthodox Church.

Recognizing the preeminence of Moscow, the Orthodox metropolitan of Vladimir transferred the seat of his power to Moscow in the 14th century. Until Peter the Great’s reforms in the 18th century, the rise of Russia and Orthodoxy would be one. The great cathedrals of Moscow’s Kremlin illustrate this marriage of ecclesiastical and secular power.

The 14th-century Cathedral of the Annunciation, with its jewel-encrusted floor and its magnificent iconostasis, was the location of royal christenings and nuptials.

The Cathedral of the Dormition, a 15th-century edifice designed by an Italian, housed the most important relics of the realm: the Byzantine icon of Our Lady of Vladimir, the image of the Savior of the Fiery Eye and the icon of St. George, forcibly removed by Ivan the Terrible from Moscow’s rival city, Novgorod.

The cathedral was also the site of the tsars’ coronations; sublime events that harrowed elements from the Byzantine coronation service of the emperor and the ordination of bishops.

The Cathedral of St. Michael, with its fine Italian Renaissance appointments, protected dead monarchs. Flowers mark the tombs of a few men, their feats remembered by the masses.

Although completed at different times, the cathedrals are remarkably similar in plan: a rational design of Greek cross within a square surmounted by drums and onion domes. With the exception of the onion dome, the plan is similar to the design of Byzantine churches.

If the Kremlin cathedrals are medieval Moscow’s ode to the West, then St. Basil’s is the city’s rejection of the West.

St. Basil’s is a uniquely Russian creation: a cluster of chapels surrounding a principal sanctuary and topped with a tent roof – an element borrowed by the Russian architects from the wooden churches of Russia’s far north.

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Tags: Cultural Identity Russia Russian Orthodox Church Architecture