Kolomenskoye: Monument to the grandeur of medieval Muscovy

This royal estate on the banks of the Moscow River is a beautiful place to visit any time of year.

Photographs by William Brumfield

Among the many landmarks in Moscow’s system of spacious parks, none has greater historical significance than Kolomenskoye, picturesquely located on a high bluff overlooking the Moscow River in the southeastern part of the city. Encompassing some 390 hectares, the Kolomenskoye Park contains a number of sectors, but the centerpiece is the royal estate and its extraordinary 16th century Church of the Ascension, one of the Russian monuments on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

The first mention of the village of Kolomenskoye dates to 1336. Its name relates perhaps to settlers from the fortress town of Kolomna, located at the confluence of the Moscow and Oka Rivers some 65 miles southeast of Moscow. During the 14th century, Kolomenskoye became a favored retreat and hunting estate for the Muscovite grand prince and his retinue. Although little is known of its early appearance, the estate and village buildings were presumably built of logs in the traditional manner.

During the reign of Basil III (1479-1533) this bucolic site witnessed the construction of one of Russia’s most remarkable churches, undertaken by Basil in supplication to God for the birth of a male heir. Dedicated to the Ascension, this was the first of Muscovy's great tower churches that culminate with St. Basil’s on Red Square. More than 200 feet in height, the aptly named Ascension Church was among the tallest buildings in medieval Muscovy. The upper structure is especially notable for its distinctive steeply-pitched tower known as shatior, from a Turkic word meaning “tent".

Preliminary foundation work for the church apparently took place in the fall of 1528, and work on the main structure began the following year. The birth of a son, whom Basil and his second wife, Yelena Glinskaya (ca. 1510-1538), had so fervently sought, occurred on August 25, 1530.

With the birth of Ivan IV (subsequently known as the Terrible), the Ascension Church was transformed from an offering of supplication to one of gratitude.  In September 1532, the structure was consecrated by Metropolitan Daniil, spiritual leader of the Russian Orthodox Church. The ceremony was attended by Basil, his wife and their infant son.

How to get there

The Kolomensloye Park is located near the Kolomenskoye metro station (green line).

The following year Basil died of a sudden infection, and his wife became regent for the 3-year old Ivan. Her death almost five years later—perhaps of poison—foreshadowed the great turbulence during Ivan’s full reign as Tsar, from 1547 to 1584.    

The distinctive form of the Church of the Ascension, and in particular its "tent" roof over an octagonal tower, has led to comparisons with the design of Russian wooden churches, yet the notion of a prototype in wood has been disputed by many historians. Not only is there no evidence of wooden “tent” churches antedating the Ascension Church, but at least one predecessor in brick has survived: the Church of the Intercession built around 1510 within the grand prince’s compound at Aleksandrova Sloboda, north of Moscow.  

The imaginative leap of the bold design for the Ascension Church remains a historical enigma. The technical problems of balancing so much vertical weight had been solved by the Italian architect known in Russia as Bon Friazin in his design for the Bell Tower of Ivan the Great, the dominant feature of the Moscow Kremlin. Yet the plan of the Kremlin bell tower is simpler than that of the Ascension Church, with its cruciform base and complex tower.

Evidence suggests that another Italian master – possibly the one known as Petrok Malyi in written documents – guided the resolution of this difficult structural challenge. He was an experienced engineer, and the Ascension Church brilliantly displays the skills required by a fortification engineer as well as a designer of large sacred structures.

Its walls, which rest on massive brick vaults reinforced with iron tie rods, vary in thickness between 8-10 feet – considerably wider than needed for the weight of the "tent." The walls are further supported by the buttressing effect of the cruciform design. The raised terrace that girds the lower part of the church is reached by three staircases, each with a perpendicular turn that would have increased the visual drama of ritual processions.

The main block of the tower, edged with massive pilasters, leads upward to three tiers of pointed gables, or kokoshniki, after the pointed design of the traditional festive headdress for Russian women. This ornament is echoed at the top of the octagonal form of the next stage.  

Above the octagon, the "tent" ascends in a pyramidal shape of eight facets delineated by limestone ribs. The rise is accentuated by a rhomboid pattern, also in limestone, that narrows toward the top of each facet. This pattern was more clearly visible before the walls were whitewashed before the 1980 Olympic Games. The tower concludes with an octagonal lantern, a cupola, and a tall iron cross.

The vertical impression created by the Church of the Ascension was intensified by its steep perch above the Moscow River with a view of the princely domains. Its location in the middle of a compound of wooden structures, including a large palace of haphazard form (burned in 1571 and twice rebuilt), created an ensemble whose silhouette was undoubtedly richer than it is today, when the surviving masonry monuments are viewed in a splendid isolation.

Among those nearby monuments are the graceful bell tower and Church of St. George. The tower has been tentatively dated to the mid-16th century. With its conversion to use as a small church in the 17th century, the tower gained a wooden extension that served as a vestibule. In 1840-1842, the wooden additions were replaced by the diminutive Church of St. George, designed by the architect Evgraf Tyurin. Adjacent to the St. George ensemble is a simple but imposing brick structure built in the later 17th century as a water tower for the royal compound.

The entrance to the verdant mall overlooking the Moscow River passes through a structure known as the Front Gateway, built in 1671-1673. At the top is a spire and bell gable, whose bells were connected to a clock mechanism.

Beyond the gateway to the west is the festive church dedicated to the Kazan Icon of the Virgin, an icon especially venerated by the Romanovs. Built in the mid 17th century, the Kazan Church culminates in five blue cupolas decorated with golden stars. The main entrance is marked by flanking stairways that lead to the vestibule. Near the northwest corner is a bell tower in a highly ornamental style typical of the 17th century.

Indeed, the apogee of Kolomenskoye’s glory occurred in the mid-17th century, when Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich (1629-1676) built his grand, rambling wooden palace there in 1667-1668. The young Tsarevich Peter (later Peter the Great) was a frequent visitor; but when he established his new capital of St. Petersburg, the Kolomenskoye estate and palace fell into neglect.

In the early 1760s, Empress Catherine II (the Great) viewed the wooden palace as an unsustainable nuisance and had it razed. Smaller versions were later built, but none of lasting significance. A reconstruction of the palace now exists in another sector of the park.

Along the grassy park leading westward to the Back Gateway are a few examples of historic wooden architecture, including a log house originally built in 1702 near the northern settlement of Arkhangelsk for use by Tsar Peter I during an inspection visit. The house was reassembled at the newly founded Kolomenskoye Museum in 1934.

The Kolomenskoye sector is just one of the treasures to be found at the park, which also includes the monumental Church of the Decapitation of John the Baptist at Dyakovo. The Kolomenskoye Park and Museum deserve many visits, both for the historical monuments and for the natural setting, beautiful in any season of the year.


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