Orthodox monastery returns to glory

Few Orthodox monasteries in Russia can claim a more illustrious history than the one founded to the northwest of Moscow in 1479 by Saint Joseph Volotskii.

St. Joseph-Volokolamsk Monastery serves as a spiritual and intellectual center for the Orthodox Church, as well as a site of great historic significance. Photos by William Brumfield.

Monasteries in Russia range from small retreats sequestered in virtually unknown locations to magnificent institutions such as the Trinity-St. Sergius Monastery, near Moscow, with its many churches filled with art. But few Orthodox monasteries can claim a more illustrious history than the one founded to the northwest of Moscow in 1479 by Saint Joseph Volotskii. In a secular modern age we often overlook the power and significance of such monasteries in shaping the Russian state.

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Located 23 km north of the town of Volokolamsk (northwest of Moscow), the Dormition-St. Joseph Volotsky monastery rises like a mirage from a low terrain dotted with ponds. Medieval Russian monasteries were skillfully arranged near bodies of water that could provide everyday needs and at the same time reflect the walls and domes of sacred architecture. The view of the monastery was even more impressive at the beginning of the 20th century, when a great bell tower still stood at the center. This superbly designed structure, whose nine levels reached a height of 75 m., was destroyed during the battle for Moscow in the fall of 1941.

The founder of the monastery, St. Joseph (1439?-1515) proved to be a militant defender of Orthodoxy and proponent of the strong central authority of the Muscovite state. Born Ivan Sanin, of a noble family in service to Prince Boris of Volotsk (Volokolamsk), Joseph took monastic vows at the age of twenty and moved to the monastery of St. Pafnuty at Borovsk. On his deathbed Pafnuty appointed Joseph his successor (1477), but Joseph quickly alienated the monks with his attempt to introduce a strict system of monastic service and behavior. Two years later he founded his own monastery near Volokolamsk, close to the ancestral home.

In his new monastery, dedicated to the Dormition of the Virgin, Joseph introduced his rigorous monastic rules. But his activity extended far beyond the monastery walls. He was known as an implacable opponent of heresy on the issue of the divine nature of Jesus Christ and wrote a book advocating the “fierce punishment” (including execution) of those identified as heretics.

Joseph considered the authority of the grand prince of Moscow to be divinely bestowed, but in return he expected secular authority to defend with unwavering zeal the positions of the Orthodox Church.  Joseph was also an outspoken proponent of monastic privileges, including the accumulation of property and the extensive use of art in monastery churches. His uncompromising clerical views became a source of controversy, yet they triumphed in the 16th century and became a part of state policy.

For all his clerical view of the world, he was anything but a reclusive ascetic. He was dedicated to the role of visual arts in the Orthodox Church and supported the work of one of medieval Russia’s greatest painters, Dionisy (ca. 1440-1502).

The main entrance to Monastery is through the Holy Gates, surmounted by the brightly colored Church of Sts. Peter and Paul. The earliest church over the Holy Gates was built in 1589 by Ivan the Terrible’s notorious henchman, Maliuta Skuratov. (Ivan the Terrible was a constant patron of the monastery, and the Skuratov-Belsky’s were a prominent noble family.)

The church and gates at its base were reconstructed in 1679. Although relatively small in size, the structure’s fanciful architectural details, five golden cupolas and columns of ceramic tile establish a festive tone for the entire monastery.

Of the early monastery buildings, only the old part of the Church of the Epiphany survives from 1506. The church was attached to a refectory (monastery dining hall) that was great expanded in the mid-16th century. In 1682 the upper part of the original church was rebuilt in a decorative style similar to the Gate Church, with five golden cupolas and rows of ornamental gables.

The centerpiece, of course, is the Cathedral of the Dormition, originally completed in 1486 and decorated by the great medieval painter Dionisy. His work was lost when the cathedral was greatly expanded in 1688-1696. Nonetheless, the cathedral remained a treasure of art, both inside and out. The high facades are delineated by some of the best architectural ceramics in Russia, including tiles in the “peacock eye” motif, so named because of the resemblance to the “eye” of a peacock feather.

The interior, with its four monumental columns, was completely repainted in 1904 in the style of church art of the 17th-century. Saints and biblical scenes appear throughout on a gold-tinted background. The great icon screen dates from the mid-18th century, although its baroque statuary was, unfortunately, removed in the 1840s. The icons themselves date from the late 17th and mid 18th centuries. A crypt beneath the cathedral contains sarcophagi, including that of the grim Maliuta Skuratov.

A fitting frame for the entire monastery is provided by its picturesque walls and towers, rebuilt in the latter part of the 17th century. A number of the towers, with soaring pinnacles, are also decorated with ceramic tiles. Reflected in the monastery ponds, the walls enclose a space graced throughout with gardens.

The Dormition-St. Joseph Volotsky Monastery has witnessed many troubled episodes in Russian history, including Polish occupation during the Time of Troubles (early 17th century), vandalism during the Soviet period, severe damage during World War II and turbulence in the 1990s. Its current revival represents a triumph over these many complications.

Today the monastery serves as a spiritual and intellectual center for the Orthodox Church, as well as a site of great historic significance. But beyond these obvious values, it is also quite simply a place of remarkable beauty.

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