Ascetic Settlements

For MT
Vologda region, located some 400 kilometers northeast of Moscow, contains some of Russia's most revered cultural and spiritual centers, primary among which are the monastery settlements of Kirillov and Ferapontovo. Many visitors see the impressive monastic complex at Kirillov every summer as part of the Moscow-St. Petersburg cruise itinerary. The exquisite jewel of Ferapontovo is less frequented, even though it is situated nearby. Both monasteries owe their existence to the rise of the Muscovite principality in the 14th century and the establishment of an Orthodox metropolitanate in Moscow itself. The founding of northern monasteries by clerics from Moscow provided not only places of spiritual refuge and retreat, but also centers of Muscovite influence.

The Kirillov monastery, dedicated to the Dormition of the Virgin, was founded in 1397 on Siverskoye Lake, seven kilometers to the east of the Sheksna River and south of the large White Lake (Beloye Ozero). Its founder, Kirill (1337-1427), was a monk of noble birth at Moscow's Simonov Monastery, where he became the abbot in 1390. By leaving this prestigious position for the north in 1397, he achieved the ascetic life valued by pioneers of Muscovite monasticism while furthering the territorial claims of Moscow. Kirill frequently advised the sons of Grand Prince Dmitry Donskoi and knew the political conditions that drove the northern expansion. The monastery's importance as both a religious center and an anchor for Muscovy's northern flank was recognized by the canonization of Kirill in the 15th century and the naming of the entire monastic ensemble, which consists of two monasteries, for Kirill Belozersk.

During the first century of its existence, the Dormition Monastery was built entirely of logs, but in the summer of 1496, a master builder from Rostov known as Prokhor and 20 masons rebuilt the main monastery church in brick. From the 16th to the 18th centuries, the church underwent several modifications, including the construction of three attached churches.

During the 16th century, the Kirill Belozersk Monastery received major donations that made it one of the largest monastic institutions in Russia, second in size only to the Trinity-St. Sergius Monastery. In 1519, the monastery refectory and its attached Church of the Presentation of the Virgin were rebuilt in brick, but its form has undergone significant changes. The nearby Church of Archangel Gabriel has been less damaged by subsequent modifications. It was constructed between 1531 and 1534 with support provided by Basil III, grand prince of Moscow, who made a pilgrimage to the monastery with his second wife, Yelena Glinskaya, in 1528 to pray for the birth of a male heir.

During the same period, Basil III endowed a second church, dedicated to John the Baptist. Situated beyond the original Dormition Monastery walls, near a chapel erected by Kirill, this church became the nucleus of the "small" Monastery of John the Baptist within the larger Kirillov monastic ensemble.

The function of the Kirillov monastery as a fortress was severely tested at the beginning of the 17th century during the Time of Troubles, when the monastery withstood a prolonged siege. During the second half of the 17th century, Tsar Alexis I decided to reinforce the monastery, whose massive walls are among the last great works of medieval Russian masonry architecture. Parts of the wall are open to visitors and provide an excellent view of the monastery territory, which includes an ancient log windmill and log church that were brought to the museum from nearby villages.

William C. Brumfield / For MT
The Church of the Annunciation is part of the ensemble at Ferapontov Monastery.
Among those villages is Ferapontovo, site of the Nativity of the Virgin Monastery, founded in 1398 on the shores of Lake Borodava, some 20 kilometers northeast of Kirillov. Its founder, Ferapont (1337-1426), was a monk of noble birth from Moscow's Simonov Monastery who had accompanied Kirill on his journey to the north. Within a year of the establishment of the Dormition Monastery on Siverskoye Lake, Ferapont left to form his own spiritual retreat. He was canonized in the 16th century, and the northern monastery that he founded came to be known as Ferapontov, while retaining its original dedication to the Nativity of the Virgin.

The entrance to the monastery is through a picturesque gate that supports two small churches dedicated to the Epiphany and St. Ferapont (1649). The center of the monastery is the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin, rebuilt in brick in 1490, six years earlier than the Dormition Cathedral at Kirillov. The upper walls and cupola of the Nativity Cathedral were substantially modified, starting in the 16th century with work continuing through the 18th century.

The main entrance to the cathedral is flanked by frescoes devoted to the Nativity of the Virgin. They serve as an introduction to the work of one of medieval Russia's greatest artists, Dionisy, who painted the interior of the Nativity Cathedral in 1502 with the assistance of his two sons. The fact that such a renowned artist, accustomed to commissions for frescoes and icons from the court of Grand Prince Ivan III, should engage in work far to the north is further evidence of the close relations between these monasteries and Moscow.

The frescoes, in praise of the Virgin Mary and Christ, are extraordinary in the warmth of their colors and the delicacy of the figures. Due to the remote location and small size of Ferapontov Monastery, these frescoes did not undergo the repaintings typical of many medieval Russian churches and are well preserved, despite modifications to the structure itself. On a bright day, the compact space of the cathedral is suffused with vibrant color. The Ferapontov frescoes are now on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

In addition to the Nativity Cathedral, the main ensemble of the monastery includes the refectory Church of the Annunciation (1530-31) and the Church of St. Martinian (1640), which features a tower roof. The ensemble is linked on the west by a raised gallery with a 17th-century belltower.

One of the great charms of Ferapontov Monastery is its natural setting, surrounded by lakes and forests that convey the haunting beauty of the Russian north. There is no clearer evidence that despite their asceticism, the pioneering monks who came to this region had a superb aesthetic sense.

How to Get There

By car: both Kirillov and Ferapontovo are slightly over a 2-hour drive from Vologda.

Where to stay: Although Kirillov has a small hotel (Rus), better accommodations are available in Vologda, whose main tourist hotel is the Spasskaya.

What to see: In addition to the buildings and their artwork at both monasteries, the St. Kirill Belozersk Monastery has an excellent museum of icons and other church art.