Fantasy in Stone: The remarkable limestone cathedral at Yuryev-Polsky

Architectural historian and photographer William Brumfield explains why this early 13th-century cathedral covered with fantastic carvings is the final monument of a rich Vladimir-Suzdal culture before the Mongol invasion.

Yuryev-Polsky. Cathedral of St. George, east view. August 22, 2013

At the beginning of the 20th century, Russian chemist and photographer Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky developed a complex process for vivid, detailed color photography. His vision of photography as a form of education and enlightenment was demonstrated with special clarity through his photographs of medieval architecture in historic settlements northeast of Moscow, such as Suzdal and Vladimir, both of which he visited in the summer of 1911. 

Vladimir. Cathedral of St. Demetrius, east view. Summer 1911

Prokudin-Gorsky’s photographs from these trips provide a remarkable pre-revolutionary insight into what can be called a distinctive culture, exemplified by limestone churches built in the Vladimir area during the medieval period. The most unusual manifestation of this architecture is an early 13th-century cathedral covered with fantastic carvings in the settlement of Yuryev-Polsky, center of a small principality in the region.

Vladimir. Cathedral of St. Demetrius. West facade, relief carving on upper tier. Summer 1911

Legacy of Vladimir Monomakh

But first, we must survey the origins of Vladimir. The Vladimir fortress was established in 1108 on the Kliazma River by Vladimir Monomakh, who ruled as Grand Prince in Kiev from 1113 to 1125. His reign is considered one of the most productive in the history of Kievan Rus’ and, with his guidance, the area around Vladimir became a new center of political and economic power in the lands of the eastern Slavs. 

Yuryev-Polsky. Cathedral of St. George, north view. August 22, 2013

Under Monomakh’s descendants in the second half of the 12th century, Vladimir and surrounding settlements witnessed a surge in church construction with a form of limestone known as white stone. A notable example in Vladimir is the Cathedral of St. Dimitry (St. Demetrius of Thessaloniki), built between 1194 and 1197 as part of a palace ensemble of Vsevolod (III) Yuryevich, grandson of Monomakh and ruler of Vladimir from 1174 to 1212. 

Cathedral of St. George. West view, main entrance portal. August 21, 2013

Vsevolod Yuryevich understood the uses of architecture in projecting authority and he supported the construction of stone churches, not only as an expression of religious devotion, but also as a statement of power. The carvings on the facades of the St. Dimitry Cathedral form an expression of that power, beginning with a depiction of the Biblical King David on the upper part of the west façade (the main entrance). 

In addition to these iconic depictions of divinely anointed rulers, the carvings include representations of Christ, as well as an array of saints and personages from the Old Testament. Many of the carved blocks depict ornamental figures or heraldic motifs such as lions, while the spaces between the columns of the facade arcading serve as niches for statues of saints.

Cathedral of St. George. West portal, carved limestone capitals. August 21, 2013

The origins of this elaborate display have been the subject of much discussion. Romanesque architecture and sculpture in central Europe are probable sources, although the specifics of this transfer are unknown. The influence of carved church facades in the medieval Caucasian kingdoms of Georgia and Armenia has also been suggested. The glories of Byzantine culture form another likely source, for Vsevolod had spent several years in exile in Constantinople before his return to rule the Vladimir principality.

An oriental touch

Cathedral of St. George, northwest corner. Attached column with carved heads. August 21, 2013

The full measure of the tendency toward ornamentalism was revealed in the limestone cathedral constructed in Yuryev-Polsky by Prince Sviatoslav Vsevolodovich (1196-1252), one of the sons of Vsevolod III. Founded by Grand Prince Yury Dolgoruky in the middle of the 12th century, the settlement of Yuryev-Polsky had been included in the Vladimir principality. With the distribution of lands among Vsevolod’s sons in 1212, it became the seat of a small principality ruled by Sviatoslav. 

Yury Dolgoruky had commissioned a limestone church dedicated to St. George, his patron saint, within the earthen ramparts of the town’s kremlin (citadel) (The name Yury is the Slavic form of George). Built in 1152, the structure fell into disrepair and, in 1230, Sviatoslav undertook a rebuilding of his grandfather’s church. 

Cathedral of St. George. West facade, carving of heraldic lion with foliate tail. August 21, 2013

The new St. George Cathedral was completed by 1234 in a striking design, with a high vertical pitch crowned by a single cupola. The lower part of the structure was covered in a profuse “carpet” of low-relief limestone carving. 

Although considerably smaller than the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin in nearby Suzdal, the Cathedral of St. George is similar in having three large extensions for the portals of the north, west and south facades. As at Suzdal, the west extension is considerably larger: two stories, with an upper level replacing the usual choir gallery within the main structure. 

Cathedral of St. George. West facade, right side, upper level with row of saints. August 21, 2013

Because the St. George Cathedral lacked a choir gallery, the interior of this four-piered church was unusually spacious and well illuminated by two tiers of unobstructed windows. The interior walls would have been painted with frescoes, but the more striking iconographic display remained on the exterior. 

In the name of

Cathedral of St. George. Southwest corner. August 21, 2013

It is thought that the Cathedral of St. George was built to celebrate a major victory of Sviatoslav’s forces over the Volga Bulgars in 1220. Consequently, the biblical scenes, saints and church fathers that appear in the relief carving signify the divine protection extended to the prince and his people. 

In addition, the surface was covered with a low relief vegetal pattern carved when the blocks were already in place. The dense ornament covered the lower structure, including the attached columns, so that the architectural details - clearly delineated at the Cathedral of St. Dimitry in Vladimir - were subsumed within a monolithic carved block.

Cathedral of St. George. South view with portal. August 22, 2013

The exuberance expressed in the form and decoration of the Cathedral of St. George at Yuryev-Polsky is indicative of the relative wealth of the grand principality of Vladimir in 13th-century Rus’. Yet, three years after the completion of the cathedral, this flourishing culture would meet its end with the Mongol invasion that devastated the Vladimir area in the winter of 1237-38. 

Miraculously, the cataclysm spared Vladimir Region’s white stone churches, including the Cathedral of St. George. Sviatoslav himself survived, although his older brother Yury Vsevolodovich (1188-1238), Grand Prince of Vladimir, was killed in a decisive battle with the Mongols.

Cathedral of St. George. South porch, southeast corner with carved lion in strapwork. August 21, 2013

After an active life involved in frequent struggles among Russian principalities, Prince Sviatoslav spent his final years in prayer and religious devotion at the Monastery of the Archangel Michael, which he had established adjacent to the territory of the St. George Cathedral. He died at the advanced age of 55 in 1252. Several decades later, a chapel dedicated to the Holy Trinity was attached to the northeast corner of the St. George Cathedral and the remains of Prince Sviatoslav were reinterred there. 

Resurrected ruins

Cathedral of St. George. South facade, limestone carving. Martyred saints and heraldic lions. August 9, 1994

Although the St. George Cathedral had survived the Mongol invasion, the upper part of the structure collapsed in the 1460s - a distressingly frequent event among Russian churches during the 15th century. Soon thereafter, Ivan III, Grand Prince of Moscow, commissioned the architect Vasily Yermolin to rebuild the shrine as part of a campaign to restore the luster of the ancient centers of the Monomachos princes in Suzdalia, now absorbed into Muscovy.

In 1471, Yermolin completed his task successfully, judging by the sound state of the structure. However, he showed limited concern for the cathedral’s earlier appearance. Perhaps, there was little choice, since the original design, which had elevated the large central cupola and its supporting cylinder high above the main walls, proved to be unstable.  

Cathedral of St. George. South facade, limestone carving. Carved masks & gryphon.  August 9, 1994

Furthermore, the patterned carving that covered the facades could not have been recreated without a prolonged, painstaking study of the hundreds of fragments scattered like a puzzle around the partially collapsed structure. (There are some 450 carved blocks in the reconstituted building).

Although many of the carved elements were restored to the new walls (even if haphazardly), many of the remaining blocks were used for the vaulting or for other hidden structural purposes and, thus, remain unseen. Some fragments even made their way into the surrounding peasant houses. 

Cathedral of St. George. Interior with early 19th-century paintings by Timofey Medvedev. At bottom: The Last Supper. August 22, 2013

As a result, much of the extant surface resembles carved chaos, with the exception of the relatively intact north wall. Not only are there blocks depicting separate motifs, but there are also at least three large stone icons (including the Transfiguration of the Savior) composed of several sculpted blocks.

Withstanding the test of time

Cathedral of St. George. Interior,

During the late 18th and 19th century, the ancient cathedral was encased in additional structures that threatened to overwhelm the structure that Yermolin had rebuilt. In the first half of the 19th century, the interior was redone with wall paintings attributed to Timofei Medvedev, a self-taught artist of serf origins. Much of this artwork has survived and shows a highly accomplished assimilation of Italian Renaissance painting.  

Despite several initiatives, late 19th-century plans to restore the St. George Cathedral were not realized. An adjacent cathedral, dedicated to the Trinity and built in a ponderous red-brick manner, was consecrated in 1915 with the goal of replacing the enlarged Trinity Chapel attached to the St. George Cathedral.

Cathedral of St. George. Carved limestone fragment (sleeping maiden). August 22, 2013

After the closing of the St. George Cathedral in 1923, restoration work began in earnest under the direction of the renowned specialists Peter Baranovsky and Igor Grabar. Completed in 1936, their major accomplishments were continued in 1957-62 and in the 1980s by Georgy Vagner.      

Through the dedicated efforts of scholars and museum specialists, the Cathedral of St. George in the Yuryev-Polsky Kremlin stands as the final monument of a rich Vladimir-Suzdal culture before the Mongol invasion.

Cathedral of St. George. Southwest view with early 20th-century Trinity Cathedral on left. Background: Archangel Michael Monastery. August 21, 2013

In the early 20th century, the Russian photographer Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky developed a complex process for color photography. Between 1903 and 1916, he traveled through the Russian Empire and took over 2,000 photographs with the process, which involved three exposures on a glass plate. In August 1918, he left Russia and ultimately resettled in France where he was reunited with a large part of his collection of glass negatives, as well as 13 albums of contact prints. After his death in Paris in 1944, his heirs sold the collection to the Library of Congress. In the early 21st century, the Library digitized the Prokudin-Gorsky Collection and made it freely available to the global public. A few Russian websites now have versions of the collection. In 1986, the architectural historian and photographer William Brumfield organized the first exhibit of Prokudin-Gorsky photographs at the Library of Congress. Over a period of work in Russia beginning in 1970, Brumfield has photographed most of the sites visited by Prokudin-Gorsky. This series of articles juxtaposes Prokudin-Gorsky’s views of architectural monuments with photographs taken by Brumfield decades later.

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