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Cathedral of the Annunciation, Russia

Experienced voyagerExperienced voyagerExperienced voyagerExperienced voyager Joshua Brook
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To the south of the Faceted Palace stands the nine golden dome-topped Church of the Annunciation, the private church of the Russian Grand Dukes and Tsars. It was here that members of the ruling family were married, their newborn heirs to the throne baptized and their confessions heard. The cathedral is an incredible amalgamation of churches and chapels from the 14th to the 16th centuries and is the second oldest cathedral in the Kremlin. The cathedral stands on the site of a church built by the son of Dmitry Donskoy, Vasily I, the foundation of which was incorporated into a triple-domed structure by the Pskov stonemasons Kryvtsov and Myshkin between 1148 and 1449 on the orders of Ivan III.

The cathedral was badly damaged in the fires and riots that swept through Moscow in 1547 in the wake of Ivan the Terrible's coronation, and was restored between 1562 and 1564. The Tsar ordered that the cathedral's gallery be enclosed, four domed side chapels added and two false domes constructed on the oldest eastern section of the building, bringing the dome total to nine. The domes, roof and the tops of the apses were then coated entirely in gold, supposedly stolen from the ancient city of Novgorod after Ivan sacked it, giving rise to the cathedral's, nickname "gold-topped". A covered gallery was added to the interior to allow Ivan the Terrible to observe services from behind a grill. In 1572 the Tsar marriage for the fourth time, contrary to the rules of the Orthodox faith which accepts only three marriages, and he was prohibited from attending general services. Not wanting to anger the notorious ruler, the church authorities decreed that he could watch services from his enclosed gallery and must enter the church via a separate porch-covered entrance (the Groznensky or "Terrible" Porch), which was constructed in the same year as his marriage. It was from this porch in 1584 that Ivan the Terrible is reputed to have witnessed a cross-shaped comet streaking through the skies, which he took to be an omen foretelling his imminent death. And sure enough, the Tsar died just a few days later.

The cathedral's interior is divided into the royal chapel and three galleries, each lavishly ornamented with carved columns and window frames and frescoes, and paved with agate-colored slabs of jasper, brought here on the orders of Ivan the Terrible from a cathedral in the city of Rostov.

Beyond the galleries lies the royal chapel, small and confined by the pillars supporting a gallery from which the female members of the ruling family would have observed services. The chapel's magnificent restored frescoes were created in 1508 by a team of icon-painters from the Iosifo-Volotskiy Monastery, led by the monk Theodosius, son of the gifted painter and creator of the original murals in the Archangel Cathedral, Dionysius. The frescoes were badly damaged by time and fire and frequently repainted over the centuries, and were thought irretrievably lost, but Russia restorers succeeded in recovering part of the 16th century masterpieces. The most interesting original frescoes include images of the Last Judgment in the northwest corner of the cathedral, a depiction of The Apocolypse, and episodes from the life of the prophet Jonah, including a portrayal of his stay in the belly of the whale. The frescoes covering the vaults of the northern gallery indicate something of the intellectual and cosmopolitan nature of Russia's 15th and 16th century ancestors, and feature depictions of ancient Greek philosophers, scholars and historians holding scrolls with philosophical and Christian teachings on them. These ancient sages include Aristotle, Ptolemy, Thucydides, Plutarch, Socrates and Plato, the latter proclaiming "We must hope that God will send us a heavenly Teacher and Guide." The intermittent pilasters are decorated with portraits of Virgil and Homer and the cathedral's columns are adorned with images of the Russian Grand Princes, Dmitry Donskoy and Vasily I.

The cathedral's iconostasis, which dates from 1405 and survived the fires of 1547, is probably the most prized ecclesiastical work in all of Russia, as it combines the works of the three finest 15th century icon painters; Theophanes the Greek, Prokhor of Gorodets and Andrei Rublev. Amongst others, the iconostasis' first row features the icons of Christ Enthroned, the Ustyug Annunciation (whose central panel is a copy of the 12th century original now on display in the Tretyakov Gallery) and The Lady of Tikhvin, thought to date from the 16th century. The second tier features icons mainly by Theophanes the Greek, including images of St. John the Baptist and the Archangel Gabriel, and the third tier combines the work of Theophanes with that of Rublev, the latter's most notable work being an icon devoted to St. Michael the Archangel. More info on: www.moscow-taxi.com

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