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Cathedral of the Assumption, Russia

Experienced voyagerExperienced voyagerExperienced voyagerExperienced voyager Joshua Brook
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The Cathedral of the Assumption is the Kremlin's oldest and most important church and has been the protector of Russian Orthodoxy since the seat of the Church was transferred here from Vladimir in 1326. Its massive limestone walls and perfectly proportioned five gilt domes endow the cathedral with a certain stern serenity and set the tone for the Kremlin's magnificent Cathedral Square ensemble.

Today's cathedral stands on the site of Moscow's first stone church, built in the 14th century by Ivan Kalita on the advice of Metropolitan Peter, to resemble the 12th century Cathedral of the Assumption in the ancient city of Vladimir. Ivan's cathedral replaced still older structures, including a wooden church dating from the 12th century and a stone building from the 13th century. A year after the construction of the cathedral, Moscow became the capital of the Vladimir-Suzdal principality, and later the capital of all Rus.

By the end of the 15th century the cathedral had become dilapidated and Ivan III ordered that a magnificent replacement be built to honor Moscow's newfound strength and power. In 1472 the Pskov architects Kryvtsov and Myshkin began work on the new cathedral but two years later, just before its completion, a rare earthquake shook the Rus capital and caused the building to collapse. The celebrated Italian architect Alberti Fioravanti was invited to Moscow in 1475 to design and build a replacement and he immediately set about studying examples of traditional Russian architecture in the ancient Rus cities of Vladimir, Suzdal and Novgorod. The Italian's designs were beautifully in keeping with Russian ecclesiastical traditions and the foundations of the new cathedral were laid in 1475 and finished just four years later, when the building was consecrated by Metropolitan Geronty.

The cathedral's subsequent history clearly reflects its role as Russia's central church for more than 400 years. It was the place of the coronation of the first Russian Tsar, Ivan the Terrible, in 1547 and it was here that all the Emperors were crowned from 1721 onwards and the Metropolitans and Patriarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church were inaugurated and buried. The cathedral suffered in times of turmoil just as the population of Moscow did; in 1812 Napoleon's cavalry stabled their horses there, while in 1917 it came under shellfire during fighting between the Bolsheviks and White troops. After the transfer of the Bolshevik Government to Moscow the last Easter service was held in the cathedral in 1918, with the express permission of Lenin, and the cathedral was closed and services banned for the next seven decades. Legend has it that in the winter of 1941, when Nazi troops had already reached the outskirts of an embattled Moscow, Stalin gave the secret order for a service to be held in the Cathedral of the Assumption to pray for the country's salvation. The only other mass permitted to take place in the cathedral was in 1989, to commemorate the tercentenary of the Russian Patriarchate. The church was finally re-opened to the public in 1990 and a museum established to honor its history.

Despite the cathedral's lofty status as the home of the Russian Orthodox Church, its exterior is as surprisingly plain as the Vladimir cathedral Fioravanti was ordered to emulate. Its pale limestone facades are ornamented only with brickwork vaulting, portals on three sides and a series of frescoes sheltered by gables, which were added on the east and west sides in the 1660s.

The Assumption Cathedral's interior is spacious and light and entirely covered with glowing frescoes, which were originally created by the famous icon painter Dionysius and his team of artists, but later restored in the 1640s and once again in Soviet times. As is the tradition in Orthodox churches, the cathedral's west wall features a depiction of the Apocalypse, showing Christ flanked by the saintly host and sinners being delivered to the satanic depths of Hell below. The upper tiers of the north and south walls illustrate the life of the Virgin and the cathedral's pillars are adorned with paintings portraying the saints and martyrs. The cathedral's five cupolas symbolize Jesus surrounded by the four evangelists and feature images of Christ. The west wall features a portrayal of the Day of Judgment, reminding religious visitors to the church of the trials yet to come.

The central part of the cathedral is separated from the chancel by the traditional five-tiered Russian Orthodox iconostasis, which in this case is a lofty 16 meters high. The iconostasis dates mainly from 1652, but with several older icons incorporated into it, including two attributed to the master Dionysius himself and another dating back to the 12th century. This collection of icons, spanning some six centuries, is of enormous historical and artistic value. The Russian Orthodox iconostasis consists of tiers or ranks of icons depicting different saints and feast days relevant to the individual church. The first and lowest rank features local icons, including the icon to which the church is dedicated. In the Assumption Cathedral the local tier was a symbol of the unity of the new Russian state and comprised icons brought from all the principalities that had been united under Moscow. The second tier is called "deisusny", from the Ancient Greek word deisus meaning intercession, and the thirds tier is the festival rank, and contains icons depicting the major festivals of the Orthodox Church. The fourth tier depicts the prophets and the final fifth tier is adorned with images of the Forefathers of the church.

Various other icons adorn the walls of the cathedral, including a copy of the much-venerated Our Lady of Vladimir (now held by the Tretyakov Gallery), which is believed to have been painted by St. Luke himself and to have saved Moscow from the army of Timerlane. Also worthy of note is the 14th century Icon of the Savior of the Fiery Eye, considered to be one of the finest examples of the exquisite workmanship of the Vladimir-Suzdal school.

The cathedral also features some remarkable works of Russian applied art. These include the ornate metal caskets of the tombs of the Metropolitans and Patriarchs of the Orthodox Church and the 16th century stone Patriarch's Seat, built into one of the cathedral's pillars and the place where the head of the church sat when not officiating during services. Visitors should also note the impressive Throne of Monomakh, crowned with a tent-roofed canopy and meticulously carved out of wood for Ivan the Terrible in 1551. The name Monomakh derives from the legendary campaigns of Grand Prince Vladimir, which are depicted in its carvings. The heroic leader supposedly received the famous Crown of Monomakh from the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX, thus confirming Moscow's claim as the "Third Rome" and the heir to Byzantium.

The cathedral is illuminated by twelve gilt bronze chandeliers and several multi-tiered candelabra, dating mostly from the 17th century. Most impressive is the 46-branch Harvest Chandelier, made from the 5,330 kilos of silver that was plundered from the cathedral in 1812 by Napoleon and his French troops, and presented by the Cossacks who recaptured the stolen booty. More info on: www.moscow-taxi.com

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