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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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