Style History- Russia- Early & Middle Muscovite periods (1230–1630)

28 May

Early Muscovite period (1230-1530)

The Mongols looted the country so thoroughly that even capitals (such as Moscow or Tver) couldn’t afford new stone churches for more than half a century. Novgorod and Pskov however managed to escape the Mongol yoke, and evolved into successful commercial republics. Many dozens of medieval churches, from the twelfth century on, have been preserved in these towns.

The churches of Novgorod, such as the Saviour-on-the-Ilyina-Street (1374), are steep-roofed and carved in a rough manner. Some of them contain magnificent medieval frescoes. The tiny and picturesque churches of Pskov feature many novel elements – corbel arches, church porches, exterior galleries, and bell towers. All these features were introduced by Pskov masons to Muscovy where they built numerous edifices during the fifteenth century, including the Deposition Church of the Moscow Kremlin (1462) and the Holy Spirit Church of the Holy Trinity Lavra (1476).

The fourteenth-century churches of Muscovy are sparse, and their dating is disputed. Typical monuments-found in Nikolskoe village near Ruza (1320s?) and Kolomna (1310s?)-are diminutive single-domed fortified churches built of roughly-hewn (“wild”) stone and capable of withstanding brief sieges. By the time of the construction of the Assumption Cathedral in Zvenigorod (1399?), the Muscovite masons managed to regain the mastership of the pre-Mongolian builders and solved some of the construction problems that had puzzled their ancestors. Signature monuments of early Muscovite architecture are to be found in the Holy Trinity Lavra (1423), Savvin Monastery of Zvenigorod (1405?), and St. Andronik Monastery in Moscow (1427).

By the end of the fifteenth century Muscovy was so powerful a state that its prestige badly needed magnificent multi-domed buildings, on the par with pre-Mongolian cathedrals of Novgorod and Vladimir. As Russian masters were unable to build anything like it, Ivan III invited Italian masters from Florence and Venice. They reproduced ancient Vladimir structures in three large cathedrals of the Moscow Kremlin, and decorated them with Italian Renaissance motives. These ambitious Kremlin cathedrals-the Dormition Cathedral, and the Archangel Cathedral-were imitated throughout Russia during the sixteenth century, with new edifices tending to be larger and more ornate than their predecessors (for example, the Hodegetria Cathedral of Novodevichy Convent, 1520s).

Apart from churches, many other structures date from Ivan III’s reign. These include fortifications (Kitai-gorod, Kremlin (its current towers were built later), Ivangorod), towers (Ivan the Great Bell Tower), and palaces (the Palace of Facets, the Uglich Palace). The number and variety of extant constructions may be attributed to the fact that Italian architects persuaded Muscovites to abandon prestigious, expensive and unwieldy limestone for much cheaper and lighter brick as the principal construction material.

Middle Muscovite period (1530-1630)

In the sixteenth century, the key development was the introduction of tented roof into brick architecture. Tent-like roof construction is thought to have originated in the Russian North, as it prevented snow from piling up on wooden buildings during long winters. In wooden churches (even modern ones) this type of roof has been very popular.

The first ever tent-like church built in brick is the Ascension church of Kolomenskoe (1531), designed to commemorate the birth of Ivan the Terrible. Its design was prone to most unusual interpretations. It is likely this type of design, never found in other Orthodox countries, symbolised high ambitions of the nascent Russian state and liberation of Russian art from Byzantine canons after Constantinople’s fall to the Turks.

Tented churches were exceedingly popular during the reign of Ivan the Terrible. Two prime examples dating from his reign employ several tents of exotic shapes and colours arranged in a complicated design. These are the Church of St John the Baptist in Kolomenskoye (1547) and Saint Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square (1561). The latter church unites nine hipped roofs in a striking circular composition.

Saint Basil’s Cathedral (1555-61) is a showcase of medieval Russian architecture. This tent-like church at Ostrov near Moscow is considered typical for Boris Godunov’s reign.  
Archangel Cathedral, Kremlim, Moscow The complex of the Assumption Cathedral in Rostov.  
Ivan the Great Bell Tower, Moscow Kremlin Holy Trinity Lavra (1423)  
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