Russia – The Novodevichy Nunnery


Gate Church of the Transfiguration, Novodevichy Nunnery

 

Novodevichy, corner turret

Our tour of the Novodevichy Nunnery was like stepping into a fairy tale from long ago. The complex is beautifully built with white stone set against pink and red brick in what later came to be came known as the Moscow Baroque style.  Its four corners are marked by richly decorated round turrets that tower above you. The convent has also been kept intact and unchanged since the 17th century. In 2004 Novodevichy became a Unesco world heritage site.

Main gate, Novodevichy Nunnery

Novodevichy was founded in 1524 by Grand Prince Vasily III, son of Ivan the Great. It was built to commemorate the victory of Russia over Polish and Lithuanian forces in 1514 for the town of Smolensk. The oldest building in the convent complex is the Smolensky Cathedral built in 1524 – 1525, and later renovated by Prince Vasily’s son Ivan the Terrible in the 1550’s. Smolensky cathedral was modeled after The Assumption Cathedral located at the Kremlin and because of this its architecture is different from that of any other building in the complex. Unfortunately, while we were there the building was undergoing restoration and was blanketed by scaffolding. Built at the same time as the cathedral is Prokhorov’s Chapel, which still receives prayers today.

Prokhorov's Chapel

Prokhorov’s Chapel, front view

 

Prokhorov’s Chapel, trim detail

 

Prokhorov’s Chapel, ceiling detail

 

Prokhorov’s Chapel, rear view

The remainder of the convent complex was built around the cathedral and was designed to also fully function as a military fort. The entire complex is surrounded by towering walls, in places up to 11 meters high and 3 meters thick, and it has a total of 12 watch towers surrounding the perimeter. The convent was strategically placed along the banks of the Moscow River and on the only southern access road into Moscow. Part of its mandate at the outset was to serve as a first defense post protecting Moscow, but because of its well situated location it also became a convenient military barracks and outpost. The nunnery has also seen battle. During Napoleon’s Russian campaign, French forces attempted to blow up the convent, but quick thinking nuns extinguished the fuses as soon as the soldiers left.

Novodevichy’s Protection of the Holy Virgin Temple

 

Church of the Dormition of the Mother of God and refectory, Novodevichy Nunnery

 

Chapel, Novodevichy Nunnery

Over the course of its history the convent had close ties to the Kremlin and was well favoured by the elites of Russia. Many of the nuns came from high ranking families, including the royals. This was often not the choice of the women themselves. In historic Russia, as with many other parts of the world, if a woman became troublesome it was often her fate to be sent to a nunnery. Looking around the complex I had occasional feelings that the walls were meant as much to keep some people in as they were to keep invaders out.

Residence, Novodevichy Nunnery

It has been suggested that Prince Vasily actually founded the convent in part as a way to exile his ex-wife Solomonia because she did not bear him an heir. Perhaps the most famous of Novodevichy’s unwilling residents is the half sister of Peter the Great, the Regent Sophia, who ruled Russia from 1682 – 1689. When Peter turned 17 he seized power and Sophia was arrested and forced into the nunnery. It is the Regent Sophia who ordered the construction of many of the buildings in the complex including the Church of the Transfiguration and the famous bell tower.

Novodevichy Bell Tower, undergoing restoration

 

Administration building, Novodevichy Nunnery

Novodevichy is still an operating convent, but the order is now small. The church maintains the convent mostly out of desire to preserve the site and the large number of important religious relics and icons which are housed here.

Present day nuns at Novodevichy

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Comments

  1. jrkrideau says

    Bloody h. Warn us before you hit us with that kind of thing!

    I have seen a few photos but nothing like this. It is absolutely gorgeous.

    Thanks.

    I have always wondered where the Northern colours have come from. They are so brilliant to someone who comes from a city that celebrates limestone. Grey is good!

    Unfortunately, while we were there the building was undergoing restoration and was blanketed by scaffolding.

    This is standard. Most tourist areas plan carefully to do maintenance just as you arrive. Experience in Istanbul, Athens Paris and Versailles seems to confirm this, anyway.

    quick thinking nuns extinguished the fuses as soon as the soldiers left.

    Uh, quick thinking & nun is a redundancy in my experience. They probably had the fire-quenching materials in place before the Battle of Borodino. Hell, probably two weeks after the nunnery was founded.

    Looking around the complex I had occasional feelings that the walls were meant as much to keep some people in as they were to keep invaders out

    Definitely. A nunnery in many European countries were gentile prisons for some women. The more noble you were the more likely a comfortable stay. Just don’t try to leave.

    On the other hand, I remember reading an article about nuns in Canada in the 19th and early 20th C. It made the point that if a young woman did not want to become a house wife the possible career opportunities were very limited. But as a nun, they included becoming CEOs of major hospitals, school principals, exciting opportunities to work in missions in Canada or overseas, building new schools and hospitals in Canada or overseas, possibly progressing to managers of major missionary or humanitarian efforts. I am probably missing some.

    Given a highly repressive patriarchy, becoming a nun might not have been a bad career move. Pretty dubious from our outlook but in 1892 it may have made sense.

    I have no idea if this applies to Russian Orthodox nuns though I would not be surprised to hear tales of them battling Cossacks around Irkutsk, or subtly blackmailing the governor in Yekaterinburg to build a new school.

  2. voyager says

    jrkrideau, thanks. It was a very special place to visit.
    And thanks also for the info on Canadian nuns. That’s interesting. If those were my choices I might also join a convent.

  3. rq says

    I have no idea if this applies to Russian Orthodox nuns though I would not be surprised to hear tales of them battling Cossacks around Irkutsk, or subtly blackmailing the governor in Yekaterinburg to build a new school.

    Sounds like a book in the making.
    As is the info about Canadian nuns -- would probably require a dose of secret/unrequited love, too.

    The photos are gorgeous. But I concur with Charly.

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