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Three Pearls of Smolensk City’s Pre-Mongolian Architecture. Part 3.



The third monument of the XII century and another architectural pearl of the city of Smolensk is the Church of John the Evangelist.

The Church of John the Evangelist stands on the left bank of the Dnieper River, almost across from the Church of Peter and Paul, west of the fortification site of the “Old Wooden Town”, on the road leading to the Smyadyn suburb of Smolensk.

The church was built during the reign of Prince Roman Rostislavovich, that is, between 1160 and 1180. It is believed that it was a part of a palace complex of the Prince’s suburban residence.

Prince Roman Rostislavovich occupied Smolensk’s throne from 1160 till 1180 (except the break during 1174—1177). On the Dnieper’s bank according to the prince’s wish this church was erected and devoted to the name of John the Evangelist. In the “Ipatievskaya Chronicle”, under the year of 6688 (or 1180 AD), in a praising word concerning the prince, which was written on the occasion of his death, it says that the temple was erected under his care, as he “sought the forsaking of his sins for his soul’s sake.” Noting that the construction of the church was fully completed before Prince Roman’s death, and it had been already decorated with church plate, the foundation of the church should be dated back to 1176.

This was a one-domed, cruciform shaped, triapsidal temple, to which on the northern and southern sides small burial vaults-apses were adjoined as well as a gallery that girded the building on three sides. As further excavations showed, the interior of the temple was refashioned shortly after the construction was completed. New floors were laid; notably, the floor of the central apse was remarkably beautiful and richly ornamented. At the same time, in the northern and southern apses altars were made, which was, obviously, related to devoting these side-chapels to some other saints.

The church was painted with murals: apart from numerous fragments of frescoes, a large number of special wide-headed nails was discovered, which were used to fix the murals to the walls of the building. The palette of these fragments is diverse. In the central section of the temple upon two blocks of brickwork the painting was represented in the way of circles with quatrefoils inscribed into them. Remains of polychrome ornaments in the shape of red colour circles with obscure figures inside them were opened on the inner side of the surface of the northern apse’s semi-cylinder. According to the “Ipatievskaya Chronicle,” the icons in the church of John the Evangelist were richly adorned with enameled brass and gold.

During its long existence, the church suffered many reconstructions and what has survived to the present day is its significantly altered appearance. The church existed in its original form till the beginning of the XVII century, when, due to military activities related to the fighting for Smolensk, it became desolate. The temple also suffered during the unsuccessful attempt of Mikhail Shein to seize the city in 1633, when the Russian army built its camp near it. It is believed that after the Polish captured Smolensk, the church of John the Evangelist was turned by them into a catholic church – kostyol, and when the city returned into the Russian state in 1654, it was renewed and turned into an Orthodox temple again. In the second half of the XVII century, it was almost completely destroyed, which was preceded by a large fire. Its traces have been noticed in all the sections of the building. After that, there came the time of the temple’s desolation and decay – its dome and vaults were lost, as well as its pillars and a section of the western wall.

In 1763 and 1786, restoration works were carried out in the building, which caused the temple to lose its original appearance. The vaults and the crown (small octagon) were rebuilt; a refectory and a belfry were adjoined (destroyed in 1941-43). The lower temple was filled with dirt in the XVII century, when the top section of the temple fell down. During the works of the XVIII century, the ruins were only leveled down and upon them new pillars were erected and a wooden floor was laid, which was replaced in the XX century with a concrete one (in 1994-1995, a wooden floor was laid on top of it) that is still there today.

From the ancient building only the frame-box of the outer walls survived partially, but even they were remade beyond recognition: outer lesenes with half-columns and string cornices on the apses were chiseled off, narrow ancient windows were built up and instead of them new, wide ones were made. Facades were covered with thick plaster that covered the traces of the destroyed ancient details. But the builders of the XVIII should be given their due, who, of course, not out of their respect for the ancient times and the historic significance of the building, but out of considerations for saving the materials, kept the more or less solid sections of the old walls adding to them and building them up with new bricks and doing their work so masterfully that from these remains we are still able to make our judgment about the main traits of the original architecture of the monument.

Surveys of the temple of John the Evangelist started only in the Soviet times. In 1924, I. M. Hozerov and S. D. Shiryaev made an on-site investigation of the building and some light excavations. They established the fact of the presence of the apses outside the temple, at the eastern corners. In 1929, P. D. Baranovsky cleared the facades of the temple from the plaster of the XVIII century to clarify their ancient forms and make the future survey of the monument easier. In 1950, Baranovsky surveyed the monument again; in particular, he opened up the northern portal of the temple. Gathered material allowed to start practical reconstruction of the original details of the building. Lower sections of the half-columns and string cornices of the apses were laid out up to the present day surface. Nevertheless, the complete restoration of the building was not continued, since it would require to dissemble and re-lay the ruined ancient parts of the walls, in other words, it would lead up to the loss of the genuine remains of the monument of the XII century and the construction of its new “full-size mockup.” Small, but very substantial surveys were done in 1961 by M. H. Aleshkovsky due to the expected vertical and horizontal planning of the temple’s site. In 1967, the monument’s surveys were continued by Smolensk Architectural-Archeological Expedition.

Researchers repeatedly noted the resemblance of architectural forms of the churches of Peter and Paul and of John the Evangelist. Even the assumption was made that the same masters participated in their construction. New data, obtained during excavations, brought significant changes to the reconstruction of the original layout of the church, but, nevertheless, it made the two monuments even closer, so that, basically they are twins.

The temple of John the Evangelist, as far as we can judge by its reconstruction, was a significant step in the development of Smolensk architecture. It presents us with the crystallization of the type of a temple with galleries and eastern apses, well conceived both in terms of classical composition of the layout and in constructing its volume. It could be that the increase of the height of the temple and the slender profile of its windows were dictated by the number of the tiers of the galleries and the desire to keep the significance of the main volume. This type of temples played a major role in the legacy of Smolensk architects.

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