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Cathedral of St. Michael the Archangel, Russia

Experienced voyagerExperienced voyagerExperienced voyagerExperienced voyager Joshua Brook
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The five-domed Cathedral of St. Michael the Archangel was the last of the great churches to be erected on the Kremlin's Cathedral Square and was the exulted burial place for the rulers of Muscovy, from the Grand Duke Ivan I (1328-1341) to Tsar Ivan V (1682-1696), the half-brother of Peter the Great.The cathedral was built between 1505 and 1508 by the Italian architect Alevisio Novi on the site of an ancient cathedral of the same name. Unlike the very traditionally Russian Cathedral of the Assumption, the Cathedral of the Archangel clearly reflects architectural influences from the Italian Renaissance, including Corinthian capitals and Venetian-style shell scallops along the building's gables.

Also rather uncharacteristic of traditional Russian ecclesiastical architecture is the cathedral's asymmetrical layout, the differing sizes of its silver and gilt domes, the addition of several smaller chapels in the 16th century and the attachment of buttresses along the south wall when it cracked in 1773.

The entrance to the cathedral is via the west portal, decorated with a faded fresco depicting Christ and the saints above, and the mass baptism of the Russian people during the reign of Prince Vladimir on either side. The cathedral's dimly lit interior is covered in frescoes dating from the mid-17th century, which were created by a team of Russian artists under the supervision of Simon Ushakov, Stepan Rezanets and Fyodor Zubov. The original frescoes by the master icon-painter Dionysius deteriorated and had been removed together with the plaster by the 1650s. The frescoes, painted in somber, earthy colors, feature depictions of The Apocolypse, in its usual place on the west wall, The Adoration of the Magi and The Annunciation. The south wall illustrates the deeds of the Archangel Michael, chosen by the Muscovy Princes to be the heavenly patron of Russian warriors, and the cathedral's four thick pillars are adorned with full-length depictions of early Russian rulers, martyrs and saints. The southwest columns features a stylized portrait of Alexander Nevsky, the great Russian military leader who came to glory when he routed the Swedes on the Neva River in 1240 and defeated the Teutonic Knights on the ice of Lake Peipus in 1242, but pride of place goes to Prince Vasily II, in whose reign the new Archangel Cathedral was built and whose image is painted on the column opposite the cathedral's main entrance.

The cathedral's impressive four-tiered scarlet and gold iconostasis was installed in 1813, to replace the previous one destroyed by Napoleon and his French troops during the campaign of the year before. It contains icons dating mainly from the 16th and 17th centuries, but with an older 14th century icon, thought to have been commissioned by the wife of Dmitry Donskoy. The iconostasis' first tier features an icon of St. Michael the Archangel, portrayed wearing full armor and with sword drawn, as befits the patron saint of Russia's rulers, who used to come to the cathedral to pray before setting off to war.

The interior of the cathedral is crammed full of the tombs of all of Russia's leaders from the 14th to the 18th centuries, excluding Boris Gudonov, who is buried at the Trinity Monastery of St. Sergei, outside Moscow. Amongst others, the Cathedral is the resting place of the Moscow Prince Ivan Kalita, who moved the seat of the Orthodox Church from Vladimir to Moscow in 1326 and who died in 1341, Dmitry Donskoy, the Russian leader that inflicted the first major defeat on the Mongols in 1380 and Mikhail Romanov, the founder of the Romanov dynasty which ruled Russia for over 300 years. Unfortunately, the tombs of the notorious Ivan the Terrible and his sons, Ivan and Fyodor, are hidden away in a chapel behind the iconostasis and not accessible to visitors. From the turn of the 18th century onwards, all the Tsars from Peter the Great onwards were interred in the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg, apart from Peter II, who died suddenly of smallpox in Moscow on the eve of his wedding in 1730 and was hastily buried in the Archangel Cathedral. The bodies laid to rest in the cathedral all lie in stone sarcophagi carved in the 17th century, to which bronze encasements were added in 1903, inscribed with their names and dates in intricate Old Slavonic script. More info on: www.moscow-taxi.com

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