The Archangel Cathedral

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At the very edge of Borovitsky Hill there rises one of the finest edifices of the Moscow Kremlin. This is the Archangel Cathedral. As legend goes, back in the 13th century a wooden church stood in its place, one dedicated to the Archangel Michael, the recognized patron of the Russian princes in their military affairs. In 1333, a whitestone church was erected on its site to become the main princely cathedral. In 1340, Grand Prince of Moscow Ivan Kalita was buried here. From that time on, the cathedral served as a necropolis.

In the late 15th century, Moscow, now the capital of a powerful centralized state, underwent another round of reconstruction and embellishment. In 1505-1508, a new Archangel Cathedral replaced the old one. Its erection marked the completion of the ambitious construction project in the late 15th-early 16th century Moscow Kremlin. Built to the design of Alevisio Novy of Italy, the Archangel Cathedral combines typical features of the architecture of Venice of the Renaissance period, Byzantium and Early Russia.

The Archangel Cathedral, a five-domed six-pillared edifice, is built in brick, while its sockle and splendid decor are laid in white stone. It was for the first time in Russia that elements of the classical system were employed so extensively and consistently in the design of the facades. The intricately shaped cornices produce the effect of a two-storeyed structure, while double-tiered pilasters topped with carved capitals articulate the facades vertically, each articulation ending in a traditional Russian zakomara enclosing a carved whorl typical of Venetian architecture. The architect paid special attention to the western wall, accenting with whitestone portals the main cathedral entrance which recedes into a deep loggia. The portals were decorated with carved ornament running over a blue painted ground. In 1980, the carved ornament was cleaned and the original colour was restored.

The cathedral interior is austere and simple. Six cruciform pillars divide the space into three naves illuminated by two rows of slit-like windows and magnificent brass chandeliers made by Moscow masters specially for the Archangel Cathedral in the late 17th-early 18th centuries. Built into the western wall are additional four-storey premises, a chapel with wide windows looking out into the cathedral interior.

The Archangel Cathedral had a considerable impact on the further development of Russia architecture. Many buildings were modelled on it in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The Cathedral was first decorated with frescoes in 1564-1565. Some fragments of those painting have survived in the loggia of the western portal and in the chancel. In 1652, Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich gave orders that “the Church of the Archangel Michael be painted up anew and the old paintings be scraped off”. The work was completed in 1666. Taking part in it were nearly a hundred artists from Moscow, Yaroslavl, Kastroma and other cities, supervised by the renowned masters Stepan Rezanets and Simon Ushakov. For many years the frescoes of the Archangel Cathedral remained obscured by the 18th-19th century overpaint and a thick layer of dust and soot. It was only in the 1950s that restorers happened to uncover the well-preserved 17th century paintings. One can mow see that the vaults and upper tiers of the southern and northern walls of the cathedral are traditionally decorated with frescoes illustrating episodes from the Gospel. An appreciable part of the frescoes feature miracles worked be the Archangel Michael who helped people in their efforts to establish and consolidate Christian faith and in their strivings towards goodness and justice. The composition are majestic and monumental, while the radiant festive colour gamut gives one a feeling of jubilation. Particularly vivid are the battle scenes reminding one of the nation’s long and hard struggle for the liberation and unification of the Russian lands. A distinctive feature of the Archangel Cathedral collection is a vast gallery of idealized images of historical personalities comprising over sixty conventionalized portraits of Russian princes. Painted on the pillars are the images of Vladimir Kievsky (died in 1015), Andrei Bogolyubky (apr. 1111-1174), Alexander Nevsky (apr. 1220-1263) and other princes included in the pantheon of Russian saints. The images of the princes buried in the Cathedral are places directly over the tombstones.

The Cathedral’s four-row carved wood iconostasis dates back 1680-1682. The icons of the upper three rows and several icons of the bottom row were painted by Armoury artists under the supervision of the “favoured” icon-painter Fyodor Zubov. They are done in the ehiaroscuro manner typical of the late 17th century with certain elements of perspective arrangement. A vast amount of restoration and research work carried out here in 1979-1980.

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