Orthodox Russia did not have a widespread tradition of building monuments in the form works of sculpture. The role of memorials, that is guardians of memory of the days gone by, was entrusted to cathedrals and monasteries. On the one hand, they reminded of the events from the Evangelical and Church history in whose honor their holy altars were consecrated. On the other hand, cathedrals in Rus and Russia became reminders of some episodes of the national history. A military campaign successfully conducted or a battle won merited the construction of a cathedral or foundation of a monastery in praise to the Lord. Every time an hair was born to a prince or the tsar, ground was broken for a church or bell-tower. Every time a Christian died, large contributions were made for the commemoration of the deceased before God. In this way, everyday affairs coexisted with the events from the Holy Scriptures, and histories of the Russian church and the Russian state became intertwined. Cathedrals were treasured and venerated as sacred objects and that is the main reason why they have survived from the ancient times in greater numbers than civil structures.

Cathedral of the Assumption in Zvenigorod is the oldest and most ancient witness of the past events in Muscovite Rus. His present-day location is all but inconspicuous: sitting atop a high mountain, which, in fact, used to enclose the entire olden town, on the west, north and east it is shielded from the human eye by conifer-clad hills and separated from them by deep ravines. Nor can it be seen from the noisy motorway squeezing its way in between the mountain base and the Moskva River. However, the south side, from across the river, affords a spectacular view of the Cathedral – from the Upper Posad (merchants’ town) and the road near Shikhovo and Lutsyno villages. From a long way off, one can marvel its slender white head crowned by a cupola cum helmet, as it keeps a reposeful watch over the river valley below.

What is so unique about this seemingly plain-looking building? What are those events which the Zvenigorod Cathedral serves as a monument to and a reminder of?

In order to find answers to these questions, one must try to pierce through the historical period of the Cathedral’s early days and understand why it is attributed to the so-called early Muscovite architecture.

Early Muscovite architecture is generally understood to represent the whole of the remaining and lost architectural monuments of the Great Principality of Moscow, a period when the centralized Russian state was being formed around its capital Moscow. Early Muscovite architecture reflects a heroic period in the history of our country, when the rulers of the principality pursued a two-fold policy – to gather Rus split up by feudal fragmentation, on the one hand, and to fight against the foreign invasion, on the other. That distant epoch also laid the foundations of the present-day Russian statehood.

Timeline of the early Muscovite architecture spans a historic period of about one and a half century. It started with the construction of the first Cathedral of the Assumption in 1326-1327 in Moscow and ended with the collapse of the second Moscow Cathedral of the Assumption in 1474.

There is very little remaining from the beginning of that period; we can judge about the first stone buildings in Moscow Principality only on the basis of church foundations unearthed during archaeological excavations. First of all, it is the foundations in the Kremlin of Moscow: Cathedral of the Assumption (1326) and Cathedral of the Archangel (1333), Church of Venerable John Climacus (1329) and Church of the Transfiguration of the Saviour on Bor (1330); remnants of a small Church of the Annunciation and the lower row of the Church of the Nativity of Our Lady (1393), and, secondly, the remnants of churches in Kolomna: foundation of the Cathedral of the Assumption in Kolomna (1379-1382), fragments of the churches in the Bobrenev and Staro-Golutvin Monasteries, Church of St. John the Baptist-on-Gorodische near Kolomna. However, the chronicles testify that not less than 17 stone churches were built in that period. One can also add to that list the no longer existing cathedral housing a refectory of the Chudov Monastery (1365) and the white-stone walls built by Prince Dmitry Donskoy in 1367 in Moscow.

However, edifices belonging to the early Muscovite architecture that have survived in their entirety date back only to late XIV – early XV centuries. Among them are the Cathedral of the Assumption in Zvenigorod (built in the 1390s), Cathedral of the Nativity in the Savvino-Storozhevsky Monastery (first quarter of the XV century), Trinity Cathedral in the Trinity Sergius Monastery (1422-1433), Cathedral of Our Saviour in the Andronikov Monastery of the Saviour (1410-1427). There were numerous churches and cathedrals built in the same timeframe that have not survived until the present day. To name a few, Cathedral of the Assumption in the Simonov Monastery (1405), cathedral of the Ascension Convent (1407) and Cathedral of the Annunciation (1416) in the Moscow Kremlin, as well as the Church of the Annunciation in Dorogomilovo.

As we can see, out of a relatively large number of original structures built in the Principality of Moscow only two churches in Zvenigorod, one in the Holy Trinity Sergius Lavra and another one in Moscow have made it to the present day unscathed. Notably, the construction of the first three churches is linked to the personality of the prince of Zvenigorod Yury Dmitrievich – the most illustrious figure in the history of Zvenigorod. Yury laid a foundation that defined the subsequent history of Zvenigorod. He restored the kremlin, an important military outpost of the Principality of Moscow in the west, after it had been destroyed by the army of Tokhtamysh Khan in 1382, and founded one of Moscow’s most important spiritual “storozhas” – monastery in Zvenigorod. To this end, he invited Venerable Sabbas, a disciple of Venerable Sergius, one of the main gatherers of the Russian lands, to Zvenigorod. On the town’ and monastery’s hills he built two cathedrals, which, as chance had it, became the most ancient surviving monuments of Muscovy Rus.

Second half of the XIV century to the early XV century is considered the most glorious period in the history of quiet Zvenigorod in the vicinity of Moscow. Never again would it rise as high in the matters of state as it did in that time when it was mentioned in manuscripts of Ivan Kalita (1331, 1339), Ivan Krasny (1358) and Dmitry Donskoy (1389). According to those documents, the city was always part of the appanage of the great prince’s second eldest son. That period is akin to a flash of bright light that illuminated all the following years of Zvenigorod’s history. The city’s golden age under Yury Dmitrievich’s rule found its congealed expression, as it were, in the form of the two unique cathedrals. While Moscow and other towns in the Principality lost their monuments attesting to that pivotal time period, Zvenigorod, on the contrary, following the loss of its self-dependence and then due to poverty and shabbiness, has managed to preserve its patrimony which now has regional and national importance. Moscow, the capital of the Principality and, later, of the Tsardom, which received the majestic appellation of the “Third Rome” and bravura status of an “heiress” to Constantinople, had many small old buildings from the days of its first princes that stood in the way of its growth; so, without giving it a second thought, it got rid of them either by renovating or fully destroying them and used the freed-up space for the construction of more lofty buildings. Having lost over the course of time its status as an udel’ny (appanage) town, Zvenigorod did not have sufficient funds to renovate, let alone rebuild its ancient cathedrals.

Thus, Zvenigorod’s political decline made it the center and cultural “capital” of the early Muscovy period centuries later.

It might appear that Zvenigorod experienced a new revival in the middle of the XVII century, when Russian Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich paid special respects to the Savvin Monastery in Zvenigorod. However, the revival in question benefited only the monastery and had very little effect on the town proper. Benevolence shed by the Tsar was an inadvertent and subtle testimony to the grandeur of that early epoch when Zvenigorod was under the rule of Dmitry Donskoy’s son and could commission Venerable Sabbas of Storozhev and Andrei Rublev, the disciples of Venerable Sergius.

Recently, there have been arguments made in pseudoscientific literature alleging that in that crucial period of its history Zvenigorod was an alternative to Moscow and that it was Zvenigorod rather than Moscow that had all chances of becoming the “Third Rome”. Such arguments are greatly overstrained and totally groundless. Can one view the remaining monuments in Zvenigorod as a sign of political counter-balance to Moscow’s power? Did the prince of Zvenigorod seek to undermine Moscow’s important position of the capital city by laying claims with his nephew on the princely throne of Moscow, of all cities?

B.A.Ognev, a distinguished scholar, who wrote his thesis on the early Muscovite architecture published by the Zvenigorod Museum last year, believes that at the time of the construction of the Zvenigorod cathedrals Yury Dmitrievich “did not need to oppose the general Moscow ideology with his own retrospective views, and his architectural tastes of a ktitor obviously had to go along with the general Moscow tastes.” Therefore, Zvenigorod churches built by the prince are not the works of the local Zvenigorod architecture, but rather monuments to the general Moscow architectural style. The main argument in favor of this hypothesis relates to the close affinity between the two churches – Cathedral of the Assumption in Zvenigorod and Church of the Nativity of Our Lady in the Moscow Kremlin built by Princess Eudoxia, Dmitry Donskoy’s wife and Prince Yury’s mother, in 1393 (only some fragments of the church in question remain today). There can be no doubt that the both edifices were constructed by the same team of builders – the best one that there was in the Principality of Moscow at that time.

All scholars are unanimous in acknowledging the uniqueness of the architectural solution effected in the Cathedral of the Assumption in Zvenigorod, the oldest one among the Muscovy buildings, which have been preserved intact. In the same way as Moscow is considered a cultural and political heir to the Principality of Vladimir-Suzdal, Moscow architecture borrowed from Vladimir’s architectural canon of the XII-XIII centuries. The cathedral in Zvenigorod ties together the Vladimir and Moscow traditions: it exhibits both elements borrowed from the Vladimir-Suzdal architecture, which are missing in other Moscow monuments, and new techniques that were probably tested by Moscow builders on the no-longer-extant churches. B.A.Ognev identifies several innovative solutions used during the construction of the Assumption Cathedral. It is the smallest one among the above-mentioned religious structures from the early Muscovite period. That is why architects’ main objective was to “trick” churchgoers by creating the illusion of a large building. In order to achieve this, they broke the traditional symmetry of a cross-domed church: they enlarged the chancel, widened apses, and at the same time created more space for congregates by moving internal eastern pillars, as well as the cupola more to the east. All those efforts led to an incongruity between the internal and external divisions of the building, which was noticeable to an expert but not to a layman. Another feature, i.e. the cathedral’s raised position on a tall base (around 1.5 meters), would be afterwards replicated in all Moscow churches. The third “tricky” element relates to upward foreshortening (tapering) of the structure’s numerous elements: the church’s main cube, apses, dome drum, which created the illusion of a very tall building. Instead of friezes of blind arcades, which divide facades into two rows and typify the Vladimir-Suzdal style, the Cathedral of the Assumption features three carved horizontal bands, while the rooftop acquired complex kokoshniks around the cupola. Perhaps the most striking peculiarity of the Cathedral’s architecture found its expression in sophisticated mastery and thoroughness of stonemasonry workmanship unmatched by any other building constructed afterwards. “Skilful combination of internal and external forms, well-thought out interconnection between them and their subjugation to the overall concept speak of the builders’ skill and experience”.

The topic of the early Muscovite architectural style is inseparably linked to the aspects of interior decoration. Due to the lack of accurate information about the construction dates, one might try to challenge the seniority of the Cathedral of the Assumption among the remaining architectural monuments of Muscovy. However, there is no denying the fact that the cathedral has preserved the oldest examples of mural painting in Muscovy, which can well count as its main treasure. Most of art historians agree that the fresco paintings preserved inside the Cathedral are works of the most famous Russian icon-painter Venerable Andrey Rublev, who was beatified in 1988 “through his feat of icon-painting”. The mastery of that icon-painter was so God-inspired and accomplished that the Church acknowledged his works as “theology in paints”. Thus, the Cathedral in Zvenigorod reposits the most visible feat that brought fame upon that saint.

Starting from the XIX century, the academic community has known of Rublev’s frescos on the east facets of the chancel pillars in the Assumption Cathedral – lower pieces “The Appearance of the Angel to Venerable Pachomius the Great” and “Prince Josaphat Conversing with Venerable Barlaam”. The latter mural depicting grey-haired elder and a young prince listening intently to his teaching was interpreted by many as an analogy to spiritual bond between Venerable Sabbas and his spiritual son Prince Yury. The first mention of those frescos hidden by the iconostasis was made in the printed literature in 1847. By moving icons in the Veneration tier of the iconostasis toward the chancel’s side doors scholars of antiquity could marvel at the ancient frescos, but for a span of sixty years they could only dream of seeing the images higher up above them. This dream of seeing all of the frescoes on the chancel pillars at once came true in the autumn of 1918, when members of the Commission for preservation and disclosure of early Russian art headed by the famous painter and art scholar I.E.Grabar’ dismantled the iconostasis and reassembled it in a way that made the frescos visible to people entering the cathedral. It was then when the first restoration of the ancient works of art was conducted. Since then the list of the already known works has been expanded to include depictions of triumphal crucifixions and Martyrs Florus and Laurus. Art experts believe that the martyrs’ images were a reminder to the posterity of God’s help granted to the Russian people in the victory on the Kulikovo Field. According to the lore, it was on those saints’ day that Holy Prince Dmitry received a blessing for the battle from Venerable Sergius.

In 1969-1972, a group of art restorers under the leadership of V.V.Filatov uncovered from underneath older layers of paint the remaining fragments depicting images of holy forefathers and prophets on the walls of the dome drum, holy evangelists on sail vaults, a small fragment of fresco “Assumption” on the north wall and fresco painting of scenes from the life of St. John the Baptist in the Chapel of Oblation.

Unfortunately, a large portion of the original paintings was knocked off in the XVIII century, when the murals fell into disrepair and grew washed out and dark because the cathedral had not been renovated in many years. In those times, people were neither aware of the artistic value of the frescos, nor were they well-versed in the matters of restoration. They could not think of a better way to “embellish” the cathedral than to knock-off the decrepit and flaking plaster and, after putting a fresh coat of stucco, paint the church anew. In 1986, archaeological excavations conducted in the area around the cathedral yielded piles of pieces of frescos broken into tiny shards and buried underground. Now they are on display at the Zvenigorod Museum. In 2001, the best-preserved fragments were examined by an expert from the State Research Institute of Restoration O.V.Lelekova, who made a conclusion about the exceptional artistry of their icon-painters: “fragments of the wall paintings in the Assumption Cathedral in Zvenigorod are peerless, they do not bear any resemblance to anything whatsoever: we have never come across anything of this kind in our studies of mural paintings”, “judging by its sophisticated technique, materials and execution, this art does not look like wall painting…it is not so much a fresco rather than a tempera imitating paint finish of miniatures found in the best manuscripts of the XV century.”

Cathedral of the Assumption in Zvenigorod also produced three famed icons – “The Saviour”, “Archangel Michael” and “St. Paul the Apostle” – known to the entire world under the name of the “Zvenigorodsky Chin” (Row). They are also unanimously attributed to Venerable Andrey Rublev. Nowadays, they are the highlights of the State Tretyakov Gallery’s art collection. The icons have been reprinted in millions of copies and are rightfully regarded as outstanding masterpieces. People will probably never stop arguing over which cathedral they were originally meant for, but, according to a source in the late XVII century, at that time they were kept in the Cathedral of the Assumption and besides there were more than three. Today, the cathedral has the fourth icon from the same chin (row) – icon of St. John the Baptist. It has been proven that its boards and fragments of canvass are identical to the boards and canvass on the icons in the Tretyakov Gallery, but unfortunately the XV century painting is no longer there – in the XVIII century the original canvass was torn off and the icon was painted anew.

As Zvenigorod became subjugated to Moscow, Cathedral of the Assumption did not lose its importance as the main church of the udel, and, in later years, of the district. On the one hand, throughout its entire subsequent history, one comes across deferential references to its antiquity and former role made in various sources: it had the status of a cathedral church; in comparison to other churches it owned large parcels of land, which were not secularized in the XVIII century; its rectors often had the rank of archpriests and headed the first town church district. On the other hand, the cathedral happened to be some distance away from where most townsfolk lived (in the XIX century Gorodok was inhabited only by the cathedral clergy), from a new merchant and tradesmen’s center of the town and its congregation was rather small. Still, to reiterate, it is thanks to those circumstances that its original look did not suffer any serious modifications.

On many occasions the ancient monument faced the threat of destruction. It was to live through the Polish intervention in the XVII century and the French army’s invasion in 1812. In the middle XIX century, the townspeople themselves decided to pull it down and build a new church in honor of blessed Prince Alexander Nevsky in Gorodok. The cathedral was saved only though personal intercession of Emperor Alexander the Second.

In the soviet years, the cathedral shared the fate of numerous Russian religious buildings. In mid 30s, it was closed down and then, once again, found itself in jeopardy of demolition in 1936. This time around, it had something to do with the plans to build a stadium in Gorodok. However, members of the academia and cultural figures came to the cathedral’s rescue.

It was by miracle that the ancient building survived through the Great Patriotic War, which severely damaged monuments that predated the cathedral in Zvenigorod, such as churches in Smolensk and Novgorod. The front line skirted Zvenigorod and after the war another miracle took place – in April 1946, the cathedral was handed over to the local Christian community. Since then until the early 1990s, the cathedral had a special status – it was one of a handful of the functioning churches in the area around Zvenigorod. This also defined the cathedral’s role at the beginning of the next decade: with barriers to church ministrations removed, it was the parish in Gorodok with its archpriest archimandrite Hieronymus (Karpov) appointed in September 1984 that took an active part in the opening and consecration of churches in the neighboring area. By the decree of His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II, dated March 6, 1995, Father Hieronymus was appointed the first Father Superior of the revived Savvino-Storozhevsky Monastery and the cathedral itself was granted the status of monastic metochion.

Having survived until the present day, the cathedral has preserved not only its walls, but also numerous sacred objects of the Zvenigorod land. First and foremost, they include iconostasis dating back to the late XIX century. Printed sources rarely mentioned it, and if they did than only by repeating the description given in the first 1847 edition dedicated to the Zvenigorod cathedral, as a “five-row iconostasis of mediocre workmanship.” This description is true, but only with regard to the later icon paintings. In 1998, most of the iconostasis underwent restoration, later additions were removed, and now every visitor can enjoy the splendid paintings from the XVII century.

In addition to the main church icon, the Zvenigorod Cathedral which is dedicated to Our Lady, as it was called “House of the Blessed” in old times, now contains several venerated images of the Virgin Mary: Our Lady of Kazan (XVII century), Our Lady of Tolga (XVIII century) and Our Lady of Kiev Brotherhood (XIX-XX centuries).

The icon of Our Lady of Kiev Brotherhood came from the destroyed Cathedral of the Trinity in Kozino village near Zvenigorod. After its closure and demolition in the 1930s, the icon ended up in the hands of a local resident Yevdokiya Mikhailovna Babkina. When the icon was kept in her possession, people would come to her house and pray before the image. On the very first day when the Cathedral of the Assumption in Zvenigorod was reopened in 1946, Yevdokiya Mikhailovna brought the icon to Gorodok. The icon is venerated in Zvenigorod as miracle-working; it is reputed to have not only cured many people and answered many prayers of request but also saved the town from the advancing enemy during the Great Patriotic War: legend has it that the icon was carried through the town streets when the enemy was approaching Zvenigorod.

The cathedral also provided safekeeping for an icon depicting Venerable Sergius of Radonezh and Sabbas of Storozh presented to the Savvino-Storozhevsky Monastery by the Holy Trinity Sergius Lavra on its 500th anniversary. In 1995, as the monastery reopened, the icon was transferred back there from the cathedral. The cathedral also exhibits an embroidered veil with the image of Venerable Sabbas of Storozh. In the late 80s of the XX century, Father Superior of the Moscow Holy Danilov Monastery archimandrite Eulogius (now Archbishop of Vladimir and Suzdal) gave Father Hieronymus a piece of the Zvenigorod Saint’s relic (Venerable Father’s holy head had been kept at the Danilov Monastery until it was returned to the Sabbas Monastery in 1998). That piece of the holy man’s relic was kept in the church placed on that very embroidered icon.

Apart from the relics of Venerable Sabbas, the cathedral is also home to more than one hundred and fifty pieces of relics of various Christian saints. Notably, two chests containing the relics are placed next to another invaluable sacred object – frescos executed by Venerable Andrey Rublev.

The years 2001-2002 saw the restoration of the Church of the Holy Epiphany near the old Assumption Cathedral. Originally, there used to be a wooden church in that place built in 1893. It was burned down in the 20s of the XX century and has now been restored thanks to benefactors’ efforts. On the one hand, the newly-built church was needed to take some liturgical load off the ancient cathedral; on the other hand, it is to be used as a baptistery (its wooden predecessor was most likely designed to perform the same function at the end of the XIX century – it was not by accident that it was consecrated in honor of the Holy Epiphany).

In its long history, Cathedral of the Assumption has never undergone a large-scale architectural restoration. Its objective would be to restore the cathedral’s original look distorted by changes made in the XVIII-XIX centuries. That would include archaeological works in the area surrounding the cathedral with the stripping of cultural layer and building of perimeter walk, restoration of the original look of window apertures and, if possible, recreation of zakomara roofing with three rows of kokoshniks.

However, our care should not be limited to the cathedral only. The whole of the Zvenigorod Kremlin should be put under the patronage of the Church and the state. It has miraculously survived until the present-day and may perish now because of our carelessness. In wintertime, people come to the kremlin in droves to go sledging and skiing on its slopes. In springtime, dry grass is frequently set on fire. In summer, athletes often use the kremlin’s ramparts for running exercises. Car racing aficionados also took a liking to its ramparts where they practice extreme driving and assault its steep slopes. Numerous residents of Zvenigorod come to Gorodok to dig into its slopes for sand. All those actions will inevitably cause slopes to slide and completely destroy the monument. To make things worse, the kremlin and the surrounding area have become a “place of pilgrimage” for holidaymakers, who make fires and picnics, leaving a trail of trash behind them. Sometimes trucks purposefully dump garbage in its ravines. Nowadays, the Zvenigorod Kremlin is overgrown with weedy shrubs and cluttered with fallen trees, so it gives an appearance of a jungle forest in Africa rather than a capital city. Attempts to privatize unbuilt areas in the kremlin also pose threat to the monument.

Throughout the ХХ century, there have been issued several decrees proclaiming the Zvenigorod Kremlin a conservation area, but any conservation area would be non-existent, if its status were only paper-thin, unsupported by actual security and maintenance arrangements.

Unless decisive measures are taken in the nearest future to transfer the kremlin’s territory protected by the federal state to the hands of the state cultural authority, which would be held responsible for its preservation, we might become witnesses to an appalling cultural disaster – ruin of the extraordinary ancient monument.

The Kremlin of Zvenigorod with its unique Cathedral of the Assumption should become an example of reverential and caring treatment by people, and such treatment can have a powerful effect. The kremlin ought to become a center where members of the Church and the culture-loving public can come together to promote spiritual and patriotic values among the young people by getting them involved in self-directed studies of history and art of the “Russian Renaissance” period which was inspired and marked by the deeds of Venerable Sergius of Radonezh, Sabbas of Storozh and Andrey Rublev.

Monuments are created to appeal to people’s memory; a nation that has lost its historic memory and has nothing to remember, will have no future.