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Uspensky Cathedral

Uspensky CathedralUspensky Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin
Date of creation: 1474 - 1479.
The author: Aristotele Fioravanti
Location: the State Historical-Cultural Museum - Reserve "Moscow Kremlin "
Material: brick, white stone

The five-domed Uspensky (Assumption) Cathedral, Moscow's main church, was the focal point of religious activity. This cathedral, with its five cupolas, was built as long ago as the reign of Ivan Kalita. Metropolitan Peter spent some time in persuading him that he should build a cathedral to the Holy Virgin in Moscow like the Assumption Cathedral in the capital city Vladimir. He told him: 'My son, if you listen to me, you will become renowned above all princes, and all your family and this city will be extolled above all other cities of Russia...' Construction of the cathe-dral began on 4 August 1326. In the following year, Moscow became the capital of the Vladimir-Suzdal principality, and later of all Rus.

By the end of the 15th century the church had become dilapidated, and in 1472 the Pskov architects Kryvtsov and Myshkin began construction of a new cathedral. Two years later, the building was nearing completion when it suddenly collapsed because of an earthquake - an extremely rare event in Moscow. Aristotle Fioravanti, a celebrated Italian architect, was invited to Moscow and entrusted with the task of building the cathedral from scratch in the traditions of Russian architecture. The Assumption Cathedral in Vladimir was once again taken as a model for the building, and so Fioravanti travelled to Vladimir in order to study Russian methods of building. The foundation for the new cathedral was laid in 1475, and in 1479 the new Assumption Cathedral was consecrated by Metropolitan Geronty. Unique examples of ancient art are preserved here: the Byzantine icon of the Virgin of Vladimir (11th century), and the icons of St.George (12th century) and the Holy Trinity (13th century).

Using the Assumption Cathedral as a model, one can observe the principles on which a Russian Orthodox Church is built. The Russian word khram, (that is 'cathedral'), comes from the Slavonic khoromy, which means 'house.' The church consists of three parts: the sanctuary with the altar, as a symbol of the Holy Sepulchre and the Throne of Christ, the central space within the church - the naos (which means 'boat' in Ancient Greek), and the vestibule, where in ancient churches one could find people preparing for Christian baptism, and others who were confessing their sins and temporarily bannedfrom participating in church services.


The Assumption Cathedral has a tall, five-tiered iconostasis, which is traditional for Russian churches. In Byzantium the iconostasis was a modest partition, separating the main area of the church from the sanctuary and the altar. Believers would place their icons upon it while praying before them. In Muscovite Rus very tall iconostases appeared, expressing a profound religious idea. The basic idea of the iconostasis was the unity of the Old Testament and New Testament churches in Christ.

The iconostasis consists of tiers, or ranks,: the first (lowest) tier is local. In central position are the Holy Gates symbolising entry to the Heavenly Kingdom. On the right is the Icon of Christ the Saviour, and on the left that of the Mother of God. The second icon on the right is always the local icon, that is, an icon of the holiday or saint in whose honour the church is dedicated. In the Assumption Cathedral the local tier was a symbol of the unity of the Russian land: it comprises iconsbrought from the apanage principalities which had united with Moscow. The second tier is called deisusny (from the Ancient Greek deisus - intercession). In the centre is the Icon of Christ in Majesty, and to the right and left there are John the Baptist and the Virgin with the evangelists praying to Jesus for the salvation of mankind. The third tier is called festival, and contains icons depicting the major festivals of the Orthodox Church. The fourth tier is for prophets, and in the centre there is the image of the Virgin on a throne with the infant Christ, and to her right and left there are prophets with scrolls in their hands, testifying to the imminent coming of Christ into the world. The final tier is for the Forefathers, with images of biblical patriarchs. The iconostasis is completed with the crucifixion or the image of a white dove as a symbol of the Holy Spirit.

The five cupolas in an Orthodox Church symbolise Jesus surrounded by the four evangelists. The church's cupola symbolises the firmament, and so inside it there is a depiction of Christ Pantocrator, as in the Assumption Cathedral, or of God of the Sabaoth, as in the Archangel Cathedral. The west wall of an Orthodox church usually has a painting of the Day of Judgement. This is the last thing that catches the eye when one leaves the church, and reminds one and all of the trials that we shall all face.

In 1547 the coronation of the first Russian Tsar, Ivan the Terrible, took place in the Assumption Cathedral, while from 1721 it was the scene of the coronation of the Russian emperors. The ritual installation of metropolitans and patriarchs of the Orthodox Church also took place in this cathedral, and their tombs are also to be found here. The patriarchate was abolished by Peter the Great and only restored after the February revolution of 1917. On 21 November 1917 the cathedral was the setting for the installation of Tikhon (Belavin), the Moscow metropolitan, as patriarch. Subsequently he was canonised. After the transfer of the Bolshevik government to Moscow services in the Kremlin cathedrals were prohibited. It was only with Lenin's especial permission that the final Easter service was held in 1918. The final moments of this Easter service was the subject of an unfinished painting by Pavel Korin entitled Farewell to Rus.

There is a story that in the winter of 1941, when the Nazis had already reached the threshold of Moscow, Stalin secretly ordered a service to be held in the Assumption Cathedral to pray for the country's salvation from the invading Germans. In 1990 the Assumption Cathedral was returned to the church, although a museum still operates within it.




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