The Church as a Pivotal Feature
of the Russian Landscape

There is no other monument in Russian architecture as lyrical as the Church of the Intersession on the Nerl.

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In the words of a Russian 19th century philosopher Piotr Chaadayev, “Russia’s importu is in its vastness". Endless expanses, a modest and muted natural beauty – such is the Russian landscape. And yet that is precisely what molded in the Russian person something alien to Europe, panoramic mentality, in other words, the ability to embrace with the mental eye vast expanses of territory, moreover, not only for the purpose of contemplating the natural landscape, but also altering it corresponding to one’s needs, one’s perceptions of beauty. How to determine the size of a meadow, a field, how to best situate a village, and where to place a church, moreover, place it so that it would be visible from the window of every household. Churches were always the pivotal feature of the Russian landscape. This is how writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote about this:

“Having travelled through villages across central Russia, you begin to understand the key element of the Russian landscape: it is embodied in the churches. Converging on the hilltops, like graceful Tsarinas descending towards the broad rivers, nodding to one another from afar with their elegant, chiseled bell towers. From villages unseen by the naked eye, they pierce the heavens with their belfries. And no matter where you might be, even being far away from all signs of life, you are never quite alone. Above the thick green shroud of the woods, you see a tantalizing image of a distant church dome. And for people who were at all times essentially selfish and unkind, evening chimes would ring out and spread across the villages, the fields, the woods, as a reminder that it was time to abandon all earthly cares, and devote some time to reflections on eternity and the needs of the soul. Our ancestors imbued these stones, these belfries with their most cherished thoughts and reflections on the meaning of life.”

Churches not only served as an architectural embellishment to the general landscape, but essentially spiritualized a Russian countryside. Entering a church, gazing upon it, and all taking place inside it, a person felt keenly aware of how wonderful God’s world was. Beauty became a spiritual reality.

Orthodoxy created a special type of church – Cruciform church with a domed roof. The wall murals, icons, the church singing and service, in a word – all the church arts speak of the purport of life, the need to combine the earthly and the heavenly.

In Russia they erected churches and dedicated them to the Saints or to religious holidays. So, when attending a church, a person discovered about the lives of the Saints, or the history of this or that church holiday, thus learning a spiritual lesson.

The church of the Intercession on the Nerl, built in the 12th century by Prince Andrei Bogolyubsky is an internationally acclaimed architectural masterpiece. This miniature building perches on a hill at the confluence of the rivers Nerl and Klyazma. At times during the spring floods the water would come flush up to the walls of the church, and then the image of the dazzling white one-domed church would shimmer above the watery expanse, like a candle glowing above the sweeping flood plains...

There is no other monument in Russian architecture as lyrical as the Church of the Intersession on the Nerl. This remarkably harmonious white-stone church, so seamlessly blending with the surroundings, is often referred to as a poem captured in stone. Legend has it that Prince Andrei Bogolyubsky erected the church in memory of his beloved slain son Izyaslav. Possibly, this explains the mournful vibes emanating from this solitary church on the banks of the Nerl.

The church was dedicated to the new at the time in Russia holiday of the Intercession of the Holy Virgin, which is marked on October 14th. That is when the holiday became widespread in the Russian land, eventually becoming one of the favorite holidays here.

Moscow is inconceivable without its golden domes, just as Istanbul would not be the same without its soaring minarets, or Manhattan without its skyscrapers. Churches and cathedrals are an inalienable part of the city. Many churches were destroyed in the godless years of soviet rule, only to later be reconstructed on the basis of preserved sketches and measurements. However, some of the churches managed to survive, and to this day one can almost on a physical plane perceive inside them a pervading prayerful spirit.

Moscow presently has fewer than 800 churches, cathedrals and bell towers, but not all of them are used for church services. The Russian capital is last in the list of this country’s regions in the correlation of churches and Orthodox population. A particularly acute lack of churches is noticeable in the residential districts of Moscow, where there is one church for every 100 thousand people, which cannot accommodate all those wishing to attend. That is why construction of new churches has become imperative for Moscow.

A large-scale project is presently gaining momentum in Moscow, envisioning the construction of 200 new churches. The project is carried out jointly by the church and Moscow city government, exclusively on donations from the population, ranging from rank-and -file citizens to wealthy philanthropists. Also involved in the program are well-known culture ficures: artists, musicians, people of the sciences and athletes. They all make their feasible contributions, moreover, not only financial, they also contribute their talent and skills. Ordinary workers show up requesting they be given some task or other, so they might be involved in the church-building program. “If it were not for the mass-scale and unanimous support of the Muscovites," noted Vladimir Resin, curator of the project from the Moscow government, if it were not for their desire to have a church in proximity to their homes, it is highly doubtful we would have pulled off so colossal a project.”

“With particular feeling we have laid the corner-stone of a church in honor of Saint Spyridon,” said Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill, “which is being erected at God’s will and thanks to efforts of good people. This is a testimony of how much in-demand churches are in Moscow. Moreover, people are driven by genuine religious sentiments, and not orders from authorities. In our stressful times, when we are all plagued by problems, the church becomes the sole place where man can seek union with God, feel His divine grace, share with the Lord one’s innermost thoughts, repent one’s sins. It is here that people can seek inner peace, an opportunity for profound self-analysis and a chance to change one’s lives for the better. Once we become changed from within, we shall resolve all those problems that our people are facing. To live in a healthy society and enjoy the harmony of the surrounding world, we must find inner spiritual health and harmony.”

“Most churches are erected to last not years, but centuries”, said the Patriarch, underlining that the construction presupposes not just individual church buildings, but whole parish complexes, since in recent time the Church has been intensifying its social activity.

On Lobachevsky street they are erecting a church in honor of Holy Prince Alexander Nevsky, one of the principal Patron Saints of Russian soldiers and the diplomacy. Five years ago at the initiative of teachers and students of the Moscow Institute of International relations it was decided to address both secular and church authorities with a request to encourage the erection of a church in the vicinity of the institute. The commemorable Patriarch Alexii II blessed the construction of a church in honor of St. Alexander Nevsky. However, at the time the noble undertaking was not realized, and only thanks to the “program 200” did it finally make headway.

Holy Prince Alexander Nevsky, who lived in the 13th century, was not only a brave warrior and military commander, but a talented diplomat as well. At the time the Russian land was attacked by enemy forces from both directions: from the east – by the Tatar-Mongol hordes; from the west – the Crusaders, seeking to inculcate Catholicism in Russia. Since the latter intruder was far more dangerous for the fate of the land, Prince Alexander conducted a flexible policy of appeasing the Tatars, while concentrating his principal forces to resolutely rebuff the Crusaders.

In another district of Moscow - Krylatskoye, they have already consecrated the founding stone of a church in honor of Hermogenes the Holy Martyr, who was Patriarch in the Time of Troubles in the early 17th century. At the time the land was virtually in the throes of a civil war that shook Russia to its very foundation. Moscow boyars were demanding that the Patriarch give his blessing to Polish Tsarevich Wladislaw to ascend the Russian throne. The Patriarch refused to compromise his conscience and meet the demands of the traitors, for which he was confined to Chudov Monastery. However, nothing could break his will. While in exile, he continued sending missives to the Russian people, calling on them to close ranks in the fight against the invaders, who had seized Moscow. For this he suffered a martyr’s death. Patriarch Hermogenes’s appeals played a decisive role in the formation of the Home Guard led by Kuzma Minin and Prince Dmitry Pozharsky, which liberated the country from the invaders.

Orthodoxy is the fundamental principle that molded the Russian state and its people for centuries. That is why people feel drawn to the church as something they relate to, as something pivotal, primordial, in their search for life’s genuine values. The erection of 200 new churches shall not only alter the panorama of Moscow, but will transform people’s souls.

Source & Copyright: The Voice of Russia
12 April, 2012