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Bogoroditse-Rozhdestvensky Cathedral (Suzdal)

Bogoroditse-Rozhdestvensky Cathedral in Suzdal

Twenty six kilometers north of Vladimir, on the Kamenka River – a tributary of the Nerl’ River, there lies an ancient Russian city of Suzdal. The city’s scenery is so beautiful that everyone who first gets here has the impression of being in a city of a fairy-tale, where time itself has stopped. The whitestone walls, fancy azure-blue cupolas lavishly spotted with golden stars, paved walkways and paths – and all of it drowns in the green foliage of blossoming trees and bushes. The Suzdal Kremlin forms the city’s center; and it is on its territory that our world wonder is located – Bogoroditse-Rozhdestvensky Cathedral (Cathedral of the Holy Virgin’s Nativity).

Bogoroditse-Rozhdestvensky Cathedral is an Orthodox temple located on the territory of the Suzdal Kremlin, one of the most interesting monuments of ancient Russian architecture; it is an integral part of the Vladimir-Suzdal Museum-Reserve. Bogoroditse-Rozhdestvensky Cathedral is included in the UNESCO’s World Heritage Objects list under the name “Whitestone monuments of Vladimir and Suzdal.”

The city started to be built at the present location of the Suzdal Kremlin museum complex long time ago – in the XII century. Here, in the Kamenka River’s bend the first earthen fortifications were built and the first city cathedral was built.

Bogoroditse-Rozhdestvensky Cathedral (XII-XVI centuries) – is the Suzdal’s oldest building. According to tradition, it was built on the spot of the Cathedral of the Holy Virgin’s Dormition, founded by Vladimir Monomakh at the end of the XI century, which was the first Christian church in Suzdal. This temple was huge and majestic. Massive construction with six pillars (or four pillars) with one dome was laid of thin bricks – plinths, and painted by the best Byzantine masters.

As early as in just half a century though, because of poor foundation for such a gigantic edifice, the cathedral began to crumble and on the order of Yuri Dolgoruky it was taken down. In the middle of the XII century (in 1148), on the spot of the former cathedral, a new huge temple was erected out of chiseled whitestone – porous limestone, which was similar in its architectural style to the Dormition church in the Kievo-Pecherskaya Lavra. It was set on a massive foundation built into in a deep ditch. The massive four-pillar chetverik of the temple was crowned with three keel-shaped domes on high drums. The central dome, probably, rested on an additional platform, and little domes rested upon the eastern corners of the building.

The first documented mention of the cathedral was made in the Laurentian Chronicle in the year of 1222, when upon the old foundation of the former cathedral, on the order of the Vladimir Prince Yuri Vsevolodovich the third building was erected, surrounded by three narthexes also functioning as buttresses that strengthened the walls. The Cathedral was enlarged and decorated with bass relief pictures, female masks, engravings and framed with arcature of columns. The construction lasted from 1222 till 1225, when bishop Simeon re-consecrated the cathedral and changed its name from Uspensky (Dormition) to Bogoroditse-Rozhdestvensky (Holy Virgin’s Nativity).

In 1233, the cathedral’s interior was repainted with frescoes, and the floor was laid with terracotta tiles.

In 1445, during an invasion of a Kazan Khan, the cathedral caught on fire and its vaults fell in. It took a long time before the recovery was carried out: only in 1530, on the order of tsar Vasili III, it was dissembled down to the arcaded frieze and built anew. Instead of three heads, five heads were made, with tall brick light drums having narrow slot windows. In this appearance, having gone through some minor reconstructions of the XVII-XVIII centuries, the cathedral is preserved till our days.

In 1634, on the order of Bishop Serapion, the cathedral was repainted again; also during this time in 1635-1636, the chancel of saints Feodor and John was built. Under metropolitan Illarion, huge choirs were dissembled, and in their place five altars were set: of Archangel Gabriel; John the Forerunner’s Beheading; great martyr Dimitry; the Lord’s Ascension; and Three Holy Hierarchs (Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzen and John Chrysostom).

Inside, the cathedral was as majestic as on the outside. One of its main peculiarities – the Golden Gate, is a unique specimen of applied decorative art of Suzdal masters. During the restoration works in the cathedral in 1938, on the walls of the south apse ornaments of Monomakh’s time were discovered, as well as some unique ancient frescoes of 1233.

The necropolis of the Rozhdestvensky cathedra is of a special interest. One should start getting familiar with the burial grounds from the graves at the main entrance in the west narthex. At the entrance on the right side in an arcosolium there is a whitestone slab with a poorly preserved inscription. Feodor Ivanovich Skopin-Shuysky is buried here, who died in 1557 and took monastic vows before his death under the name of Feodosy.

The genealogy of Skopin princes stems from the older son of Basil the Pale — Ivan the Big Skopa. Next to Feodor Ivanovich under the floor there is a whitestone tomb of his son, Vasili Feodorovich, who participated in the Livonian War in the rank of a voivode in 1570. In 1579—1582, he was on par with Ivan Petrovich Shuysky during Pskov’s defense from the army of Stephan Bathory. He died in 1595, having received schema under the name of Jonah. Vasili Feodorovich was the father of a young commander, hero of the Time of Troubles, Mikhail Vasilievich Skopin-Shuysky.

In the northwest section of the cathedral there is a shrine of the Shuysky princes. In the very corner there is a restored tomb of the prince Ivan Ivanovich nicknamed “Pugovka” (Little Button). He was a younger brother of Tsar Vasili Ivanovich and the last one in the Shuysky’s lineage. During the times of the Times of Trouble, between 1610 and 1620, he was in Polish captivity in Warsaw. By the decision of Polish Sejm, on February 15 of 1620, Ivan Ivanovich was released to Russia.

After Polish captivity, all possessions were returned to Ivan Ivanovich: “a number of houses in Suzdal alone that belonged to him.” In the third year upon his return, he married Martha Vasilievna Dolgorukova; thus becoming a close relative of Tsar Mikhail Feodorovich. In the last years of his life, Ivan Ivanovich took a monastic vow under the name of Jonah.

Along the west wall the following people are buried: tsar Vasili Shuysky’s great grandfather — Mikhail Vasilievich Shuysky, a younger brother of Vasili Vasilievich Bledniy (Pale), who died in 1472; tsar Vasili’s grandfather — Andrey Mikhailovich, who died on December 29 of 1543.

In the right south-west part of the cathedral there is a tomb of prince Gorbaty-Kisly (Kislitsa) Mikhail Vasilievich, who died in 1535, and of his wife from the family of Hovrins-Golovins, who took a monastic vow under the name of Alexandra. Their son, Feodor Suslo is also interned here. When the tomb’s arcasolium was opened in 1934, Mikhail Vasilievich’s remains were missing. Mikhail Vasilievich, second in rank to the Shuysky’s princes, belonged to the most powerful and intimate boyars of Vasili III. He sat at the tsar’s wedding with Yelena Glinskaya among the kisly people (meaning sour), that is, representing the bride’s party. This is how he got his nickname Kislitsa. On his deathbed Mikhail Vasilievich received schema under the name of Zacheus.

In a walled-up niche of the north wall, opposite the second pillar on the left, there are burials of the last representatives of the Nogtev-Suzdalsky’s princes — Ivan Semenovich and Daniel Andreyevich, who traced their genealogy from the fourth son of Suzdal and Nizhny Novgorod prince Konstantin Vasilievich — Dimitry Nogot-Odnook.

Ivan Semenovich Nogtev — was a prominent figure of Ivan IV’s times. In 1537, he was a voivode in Serpukhov. The same year he was transferred to Murom. In 1538, he became the commander (voivode) of a big regiment. He died in the 1540s.

Prince Daniel Andreyevich was also a voivode at the time of Ivan IV. He participated in the Livonian War, taking part in the crushing of the armies of Devlet Giray in 1572. Under Tsar Feodor Ivanovich he was a viceroy in Veliky Novgorod. He died in 1599. A silver gilded bowl is kept in Suzdal museum with an inscription, “The Cup of Daniel Nohtev,” as well as the icon of St. Nicolas with an inscription on the back side, “Prince Nohtev’s.”

In the northern narthex, at the west wall, the highest spiritual hierarchs of Suzdal are buried.

In the right south narthex there is a shrine of the Velsky’s princes. It was a major and quite powerful family under Ivan III, Vasili III, and Ivan IV. The oldest one among the buried ones – Feodor Ivanovich was the great grandson of the great Lithuanian Prince Algirdas, Gediminas’ son. In 1482 he fled from Lithuania to Moscow under Ivan III. Among his ancestral lands was the city of Bely; that is why they received the last name of the Velsk princes. Tsar Ivan III married refugee Feodor Ivanovich to his niece, Ryazan princess Anna Vasilievna to draw them closer to himself.

The main land domains of the Velsky’s, which they received from the tsar, were in the Suzdal district; therefore, Suzdal was the center where the Velskys had their fortified palaces.

His sons are also buried in the Suzdal Bogoroditse-Rozhdestvensky Cathedral: Dimitry Feodorovich, Ivan Feodorovich and Andrey Feodorovich, as well as Dimitry Feodorovich’s son — Ivan Dmitrievich.

There are reports of even earlier burials in Suzdal’s history. But their locations remain undiscovered.

The first burials within the cathedral built by Monomakh are those of Yury Dolgoruky’s children: Ivan and Svyatoslav. Svyatoslav’s burial ground was found in the cathedral during excavations done by archeologist A. F. Dubynin.

There are also around 30 burials of spiritual leaders in the Suzdal Cathedral.

In the 1930s, worship services in the cathedral ceased, and scientific and archeological surveys began. By the 1960s, later added constructions were removed and the building acquired the look of the XVI century, except for the onion domes with stars.

In August of 2005, the cathedral, which had been under reconstruction for a long time opened its doors again. The last stage of reconstruction was recovering the frescoes and whitestone elements.

South of the cathedral, there is the cathedral’s belfry built in 1635, which is quite well-matched with it in size. It was built at the order of bishop Serapion. Massive vos`merik (octagon structure) with its wide bell arches ends with a tent with three rows of dormer windows of different shapes. Under the tent, there is a little roof over the frieze – a ledge, which is a characteristic element of the fortress towers.

At the end of the XVII century, clockwork with chimes was set in the belfry, which strikes every hour and every quarter of an hour. Now it is repaired, and one can hear it chime in the Kremlin. On the second floor of the belfry two altars were made. At the end of the XVII century, by the order of the metropolitan Illarion the church was enlarged, and an altar section was added to it, which was connected by a gallery with the hierarch’s chambers. On the northern side, the belfry was also circled by a passing gallery and on the eastern side – a tall porch was added to it with an octagonal tent.

In 1719, in a big fire the gallery and passages fell in and were restored only in 1968.

The Principal’s Chambers

The Superior’s chambers (XV-XVIII centuries) – is a complex of stone buildings, the oldest part of which is in the south-west corner – the bishop’s house that dates back to the end of the XV century. Facing the cathedral, the chambers are surrounded by a low stone wall with a gate; on the opposite side – by an earthen embankment. On the outside – over the chambers, a little dome of the home refectory church can be seen, which has been recovered in the forms of the XVI century: with an eight-slope roof, beautiful gallery upon the arches and a tall porch, similar to the second porch facing the belfry. The Superior’s chamber complex includes living facilities, some household buildings, the refectory and the above mentioned bishop’s home refectory church. At the end of the XVII century, under metropolitan Illarion, all these buildings that formerly stood apart were joined into one unique ensemble by passages, galleries and secrets stairways. At the same time, a huge Krestovaya Palata (chamber) for solemn receptions was built which occupies the area of 338 square meters and has tall ceilings nine meter high. A Suzdal historian, doorkeeper Anany Fedorov wrote about this chamber, “And that is like a wonder… the vault is one piece and it has no pillars, being upheld in an unshakable manner.” Unfortunately, the original vault has not survived till our days; it was restored in the 1967-1970s.

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