In many Russian towns, near the districts of modern busy city centres, and sometimes amid the suburban fields, one can see ancient buildings. They look like radiant, fantastic dreams. Witnesses of deeds and events long gone, as if accidentally transferred into our dynamic twentieth century, these beauties of white stone stand austere and majestic.
Modern people, who are accustomed to other forms and other rhythms look at these peculiar shapes and unfamiliar features with astonishment. These forms and these details have the power of drawing one's attention, of carrying one away into the world of other, forgotten images and ideas.
These monuments of the remote past are creations of our distant ancestors, of Russian genius, of experienced craftsmen who showed wonderful skill and breathed their excited spirit into them.
Chains of fortress walls and towers run up the flat green hills, and then down; the towers, cubical or round, are crowned with conical and figured caps. Big five-headed cathedrals rise with full-blooded bulbs or helmet-like domes, alongside plain, one-headed prismatic temples of smaller size. The roofs are sometimes festooned, sometimes very simple, of two or four slopes, either steep or pointed. The walls are stone-bound or covered by plaster that makes them inimitably and fascinatingly mobile in lines and contours. Some are virtually without decorative detail, while others bear facades rich in plasticity, covered with carpet-like depictions of strange beings, with ornamental interlacements.
In most cases these architectural monuments were created by local masters, but when looking at the decorations of some buildings we sometimes feel influences from outside.
There are towns where only two, three, or even one monument of old Russian architecture have been preserved. And there are also some happy places that are literally bestrewed with these inimitable structures. These structures are not simply scattered over the country but they make up large, complex units. Sometimes these monuments are of different epochs and differ in many ways, but there is still something that unites them- perhaps through lively juxtaposition or even sharp contrast-and this something is the unity of artistic culture and artistic media. Entering the premises of such complexes-a monastery or a system of town fortifications-you cannot help but marvel at this miracle; indeed, you find yourself in a sanctuary, in the captivity of fascinating works of great architects.
There is something that adds considerably to the fascination of the ancient architecture.
It is its unity and closest, indissoluble connection with the environment. Ancient Russian architects were always careful in choosing places for structures they built. They were not only practical people, but also exalted poets with complex and subtle spiritual constitution. They knew the influence architecture had on people, as well as the influence of nature on human emotions. And when these two are combined, the effect is much greater.
The town cathedral was at the same time the main public building. It was to emphasize the importance of the town itself, to add to its beauty, and to be the dwellers' pride. It was always built in the central, most visited place. But if the structure was being erected far from the centre, in the vicinity of a lonely district or in the country, then quite different considerations were taken into account. Here a note of intimacy appeared in the architecture, and more delicate strings, greater depths were touched upon.
A hill, a pond, a group of trees - all had great importance for the architect and were adjusted in size and shape to the object to be built. The ledged, rugged skyline of Russian forests was in harmony with pointed dome shapes; erect faceted bodies of churches contrasted with gentle windings of the river bank lines. Russian architects were true magicians as far as the silhouette of the structure was concerned. It was always exquisite and extremely graceful.
And one more feature of the ancient Russian architectural monuments was the integral unity of basic architecture and supplementary sculpture and painting.
On facades of the buildings one can often see sculptural relief. Rigorous and changing climate made the usage of external painting and frescoes next to impossible. Sculpture fitted more here. But is does not mean that ancient Russian architects were indifferent to colour problems. Already the cathedrals of Kiev Russia and Novgorod excelled in carefully-chosen general colours. Alternating layers of stone, brick, and mortar, in which small pieces of crushed brick were introduced, made Sofia in Kiev and its numerous "contemporaries" immitably light-rosy and reddish in colour, which perfectly harmonized with green gress and trees. Those who have seen the colourful boulder masonry of the Cloister in Solovky will once and for all understand what great importance colour had in Old Russian architecture. The golden heads of Kremlin cathedral, the bright and intense colourfulness of the Cathedral of Saint Basil and of many other architectural monuments of the seventeenth century are really wonderful. But on the outside it was the material itself-building and decorative-that was the core of the emotional expression. Sometimes the role of the sculptural relief was reduced to a minimum. Often it was limited to unimportant, simple details, but sometimes-generally in Vladimir-Suzdahl architecture-the role of plastic work increased greatly.
While in external decoration priority was given to sculpture, relief, and sculptural ornamentations, on the inside of the temples it was painting that played the most essential role. Everything-from the floor stone plates up to the arches-was covered with frescoes, like a continuous carpet embracing architectural parts all around.
Wall surface and arches were divided into big separate parts which, in conformity with church regulations, were assigned to definite religious themes. Church painting canons had been long worked out by them. But a living feeling of reality broke through these dogmas and canons; realistic portrayal of people and events often superseded conventionality.
The artistic means also differed in many ways; in richness of compositions, in largeness or smallness of scale, in character of the painting and, lastly, in colour. On entering the church, one plunges into a "world of colour", as if dissolved in a gentle, mostly bluish smoke-grey colour scale which makes up the general background of the paintings. The famous Novgorod Nereditsa and the frescoes in Ferapontov Cloister painted by the elder Dionisy are all shrouded by ash-blue colours. And on this general background, thin, straight, brownish-red lines define the boundaries of various portrayals. Figures of saints are everywhere, outlined with soft, melodious lines, recherche contours. White clothes, ochre images, golden-brown details...
Russian monumental art heritage is really boundless. The authors of the album do not undertake to give a systematized picture of all the historic material. The aim of the publication is a limited one: to show some outstanding stone memorials of ancient Russia, the creations of Russian folk art - temples, defensive fortifications, and other structures, samples of decorative sculpture, paintings, and some typical buildings rarely reproduced in publications, so that readers looking through the album could sense all the ingenuous charm of those creations of the time long gone. The pages are arranged in such a way that the lookers can admire the monuments from different angles, different sides, closely and in the distance, can feel the material - the stone itself.
The album opens with the memorials of the Xllth century - the time when Russian monumental architecture had been just shaping itself, and then at once dashed to the heights of craftsmanship. The buildings differ very much. The austere, chary of details, plaster-covered Georgiyevsky Cathedral in Staraya Ladoga, towering over the ruins of old fortifications, looks at itself in the leaden waters of the Volkhov river.
Temples of the Vladimir-Suzdahl principality are of a very different kind. Majestic, regal, monumental Dmitriyevsky and Uspensky cathedrals of the city of Vladimir appear before the eyes as white-stone monuments richly decorated with bas-relief work and various skilfully-executed details. There are sculptured portrayals of Tsar David, of griffins right out of a fairytale, of pagan centaurs, angels, birds and other creatures, the fusion of Russian pagan art of the B.C. era, of influence from the East and Christian mythology.
From Vladimir the reader is carried to western Russian boundaries, to the panorama of steep, hilly slopes and banks of the fortress of Izborsk which was a part of the outer defensive fortifications of the city of Pskov.
There is another example of the same defensive fortification theme development - the unique defensive complex of Solovetsky Cloister situated in the far Russian North, in the Onega inlet of the White sea. Cathedrals and churches of XVI-XVIII centuries are surrounded by necklace of low, squat walls which seem to emerge right out of the deep sea. The walls and towers, crowned by conical wooden coverings, are faced with huge boulders, each many metres in diameter, overgrown with lichen of rusty-red colour.
Hidden in the boundless area of Vologda province, the beautiful Kyrillo-Belozersky Cloister rises to the skies. There are no huge stone blocks of Solovetsky complex here, but, on the contrary, fine-figured, lacy brick-work and ceramics, which determine the general architectural harmony. Wall cuts are delicate to perfection, and tower contours are incredibly diverse.
11 miles from the town of Kyrillov the widely-known Ferapontov Cloister is situated. Thousands of people regularly come here to see famous paintings by Dionisy in the Cathedral of Birth of the Virgin. Refined drawing, grey-blue general tone of composition are sure to be engraved in memory forever.
Having returned from Ferapontov Cloister, the reader finds himself admiring monuments near Moscow; Savvino-Storodzevsky Cloister and Troitse-Sergiyevskaya Lavra.
Then - ancient Moscow with the necklace of cloisters which in the old days formed a belt of fortresses defending the capital: Andronikovsky Cloister, where the great Russian painter Andrey Rublev was buried; Novo-Devichy Cloister and others. The reader can feel how tremendous, how vast was the scope of construction work in Moscow in XVI-XVII centuries.
New pages... The inimitable fourteenth-century temples near Moscow; the church in Kolomenskoye village (its melodious rhythm delighted composer G. Berlioz), the church in the neighbouring Dyakovo village, the marquee-crowned Church of Transfiguration in Ostrovo village. All those temples are isolated from other buildings and matchlessly join the landscape. As if wishing to underline the lyricism of a lonely temple, the authors then suddenly change chord to energetic major key, ringing splash of magnificent decorative architecture of the city of Rostov the Great: tens of various architectural volumes, "bundles", "bunches", "bouquets" of rich bulbous cupolas and towers; palaces and galleries, walls and bellfries.
From here, we continue to the brick many-headed temples of the near-by city of Yaroslavl. One can hardly take his eyes off complicated figured brickmasonry with coloured majolica insertions when admiring the famous Church of John the Precursor in Tolchkovo village.
Then the reader travels to one of the most outstanding monuments of the late XVIIth century - the many-circled temple in Filly village, refined and fascinating in its white-stone fretwork beauty.
Finally, back to Moscow. The Moscow Kremlin with its surroundings, stone fairytale of the Cathedral of Saint Basil appear as the apotheosis of Russian national architecture. And again we see towers, this time those of the Kremlin walls. Spasskaya tower, with the famous clock whose striking is daily broadcasted all over the country; Nabatnaya tower; and the small, richly decorated Tsarskaya tower. The famous Moscow cathedrals with their gilded cupolas. ..
Every epoch prompts architectural means and forms of its own, and new architecture does not resemble that of the past, but corresponds to present-day ideas. At any rate, the conceptions of beauty develop through studying the most perfect samples of every art period, and that was the aim of the authors of this album.
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