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Ancient Russian temples

Ancient Russian temples are located on the European territory of Russia. In Russian architecture, this period is called "Pre-Mongol". The Russian Orthodox Church adopted the Byzantine rituals of worship, so the temples were built according to the Byzantine canons. They had a cross-domed structure.

On the territory of Russia and Ukraine (former Kievan Rus) more than 50 ancient Russian temples of the pre-Mongol era have been preserved, but a significant part of them has been restored in later times. They have lost their authenticity of the pre-Mongol period. The invasion of the Mongol army of Batu Khan into the Russian lands took place in 1237.

In this review on the online guide Geomerid you can read about the ancient Russian temples in Russia, which have preserved their authenticity and cultural value. 

1.    The Church of John the Baptist, Kerch – 10 century
2.    St. Sophia Cathedral, Novgorod – 1045
3.    St. Nicholas Cathedral, Novgorod – 1113
4.    Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin, Novgorod – 1117
5.    St. George's Cathedral, Novgorod – 1119
6.    Cathedral of the Nativity of John the Baptist, Pskov – 1137
7.    Church of Peter and Paul, Smolensk – 1146
8.    Transfiguration Cathedral, Pereslavl-Zalessky – 1152
9.    Transfiguration Cathedral, Pskov – 1156
10.    Church of the Intercession on the Nerl, Vladimir – 1158
11.    Assumption Cathedral, Vladimir – 1186
12.    Dmitrievsky Cathedral, Vladimir – 1194
13.    Church of the Savior on Nereditsa, Novgorod – 1198

Follow the hyperlinks to read in detail about each temple and see a large number of photos

Church of John the Baptist, Kerch - 10 century

The Church of John the Baptist in Kerch was built in the 10th century by Byzantine builders, with the foundation and part of the walls preserved from the 6th century Christian church. In Kiev and Novgorod, as well as other cities of Kievan Rus, churches of the 11th century have been preserved to this day. Thus, the Church of John the Baptist in Kerch can be called the oldest Christian church in Russia. 

The foundation, fragments of the external altar walls and columns have been preserved from this ancient church. They can now be seen in the Church of John the Baptist. In the 10th century, the church was partially destroyed during the storming of the city by the squad of Prince Mstislav Vladimirovich, but it immediately began to be restored. During the reconstruction of the 10th century, Byzantine builders recreated exactly the architecture and interior of the ancient church of the 6th century. They also preserved the special brick masonry from the plinth, which was used by the masters of the 6th century. 

St. Sophia Cathedral, Novgorod – 1045

The Cathedral of Holy Wisdom, or just the Cathedral of St. Sophia in Veliky Novgorod, the most ancient stone church in the Rus, was laid down in 1045 by Yaroslav the Wise after the fashion of the St. Sophia Cathedral in Kiev. The churches of the northern Rus differ from those that were built in the southern lands. 

The northern churches are low buildings with thick walls and narrow windows. It is explained by the severe northern climate. However, despite this, the ancient architects designed a monumental church reaching the height of 38 meters.

St. Nicholas Cathedral, Novgorod – 1113

St. Nicholas Cathedral is in the center of the Yaroslavovo Dvorishche (Court). However, the cathedral has a very large cultural value, so it must be considered not as a part of the Dvorishche but as a separate sight of Novgorod the Great.

St. Nicholas Cathedral was built in 1113. The cathedral was laid down by prince Mstislav Vladimirovich, a son of grand prince Vladimir Monomakh and English princess Gytha of Wessex.  St. Nicholas Cathedral was the main church of the prince`s side of Novgorod, as well as the center of veches (town`s meetings). It was just there that residence of Novgorod princes was located. The residence was laid down by Yaroslav the Wise.

Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin, Novgorod – 1117

The Antoniev Monastery (St Anthony`s Monastery) stands along the right bank of the Volkhov. The monastery was founded in 1106 by St. Anthony of Rome (Antony Rimlyanin). There remained the ancient Nativity church built by the founder of the monastery. There are many legends about Antony Rimlyanin. 

The main church of the monastery, the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin, was laid down in 1117 and consecrated in 1119. The Nativity Cathedral is the third oldest stone building in Novgorod. The Nativity Cathedral was often burnt and reconstructed but in several places there still remained the frescoes of 12 century.

St. George's Cathedral, Novgorod – 1119

St. George`s Cathedral in the St. George Monastery was founded in 1119. It is one of the oldest Orthodox churches in Russia. In those years, most of the churches in Novgorod and Pskov were low, but St. George`s Cathedral impresses with its scale and grandeur.  

 St. George `s Cathedral was founded by order of Grand Duke Mstislav I. He was the son of Prince Monomakh and the English Princess Gita of Wessex. The construction of the temple lasted 11 years. In 1130, the cathedral was consecrated in honor of St. George. After the construction was completed, all the walls of the cathedral were painted with frescoes in the 12th century.

Cathedral of the Nativity of John the Baptist, Pskov – 1137

The Cathedral of the Nativity of St John the Baptist, one of the most ancient temples of Pskov, is just opposite the Varlaam tower on the opposite bank of the Velikaya river. Formerly, it was the main church of the Convent of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist.

Scientists used to have discussions about the date of construction of the Cathedral of the Nativity of John the Baptist. The chronicles mention it for the first time in 1243, when a monastery was formed around the temple. However, studies have shown that the Cathedral of the Nativity of John the Baptist was built in the period from 1137-1150. During the construction of the cathedral, a plinth was used, which was also used in the construction of Novgorod temples in the first half of the 12th century.

Church of Peter and Paul, Smolensk – 1146

The Church of Peter and Paul on Gorodyanka is the most ancient surviving Christian temples in Smolensk. It was built in 1146 and dates back to the architecture of pre-Mongolian period. The church was built by Prince Rostislav Mstislavovich, a grandson of Vladimir Monomakh. 

The one-domed, four-piers church of Peter and Paul has the characteristic features of the Byzantine architecture. It was built from thin buff brick (plinthiform brick) but looks strong because of its proportions and high dome. The inscriptions of 12 century were discovered on the walls of the church.

Transfiguration Cathedral, Pereslavl-Zalessky – 1152

The small single-domed Cathedral of the Transfiguration of Savior is the oldest church of both Pereslavl-Zaleski and the entire Yaroslavl region. It is in the center of Red Square where the prince’s residence was located in the 12 century.

The cathedral was laid down in 1152, in the reign of Prince Yuri the Long-Armed, the founder of Moscow. Seventy years later, on May 30, 1220, a prince Alexander was born at the prince’s residence. He was was nicknamed «Nevsky» after the Neva battle and the Battle of the Ice. Today a monument of Alexander Nevsky is at the cathedral near the place of his birth.

Transfiguration Cathedral, Pskov – 1156

The Mirozhsky monastery, one of the oldest ones in Russia, is on the left bank of the Velikaya, at the place where the Mirozha river joins the Velikaya river. There is no exact date of the founding of the monastery, but it is considered that it was founded in the middle of the 12 century by Nyfont, Bishop of Novgorod. 

The Christ`s Transfiguration Cathedral is in the center of the monastery. The cathedral built in 1156 is one of the most significant examples of the pre-Mongol Russian architecture. It has the shape of the Greek (byzantine) cross. The main historical value of the church is its wall paintings or frescoes dating back to the 12 century. 

Church of the Intercession on the Nerl, Vladimir – 1158

According to one of the well-known Russian art historians, the Church of Intercession on the Nerl, near Vladimir, is not only the most perfect temple ever built in the ancient Rus, but also one of the monuments of the world art.

Probably, the view of the church is known by everyone who studied in a Russian school, as its pictures are in all history textbooks. The one-dome Church of Intercession on the Nerl has a small size. It was built in 1158 by Andrei the God-Loving, in the memory of his killed son Iziaslav. On the walls of the Church of Intercession on the Nerl, as at Dmitrievsky Cathedral, there are bas reliefs of mythical animals and plants. 

Assumption Cathedral, Vladimir – 1186

Russian State was formed in IX century in Velikiy Novgorod, and then the capital was moved to Kiev. However, in the period of feudal disunity, in XII century, Vladimir-Suzdal Princedom, with the center in Vladimir, became the strongest one. Prince Andrei of Vladimir, also known as Andrei Bogolyubsky decided to build the temple, which would stress the status of Vladimir as the political center of Russia.

Assumption Cathedral was built in Vladimir in 1158-1160 годах, and 30 years later, after a fire, the cathedral was significantly extended in 1186-1189. Since that time it remained unchanged until nowadays. In XV century many icons and frescoes of Assumption Cathedral were painted by the great Russian icon-painter Andrei Rublev.

Dmitrievsky Cathedral, Vladimir – 1194

Dmitrievsky Cathedral (Demetrius Cathedral) was built in 1194, 5 years after the complete reconstruction and expansion of the Assumption Cathedral - the main temple of Vladimir. In the 12th century, "a hundred meters" from the Assumption Cathedral, the palace complex of Prince Vsevolod the Big Nest was located, which has not survived to this day. He decided to build the Dmitrievsky Cathedral as a court temple of his residence.

The single-domed temple was built in the traditions of the Vladimir-Suzdal architectural school (closely related to the Byzantine one). Previously, he had several galleries that connected him with the princely palace. During the restoration in 1837, all these galleries were dismantled, since other buildings of the palace have not been preserved to this day.

Church of the Savior on Nereditsa, Novgorod - 1198

The Church of Our Savior on Nereditsa was built in 1198 by the prince Yaroslav the Wise. It supposed that the name «Nereditsa» comes from the words «out of line», «out of town». The Church of Our Savior on Nereditsa is often compared with the Church of Intercession on the Nerl in Bogolyubovo. Indeed both churches are far beyond the town on water meadows, and both of them are single-domed. Their outlines are so compact and simple, but this simplicity induces the feeling of absolute beauty.

In 1199 the Church of Our Savior on Nereditsa was painted with frescoes, which survived un-til the 20th century in perfect condition. Unfortunately, during World War II the church was al-most completely destroyed. It was reconstructed in the 50th of the past century, but the ancient frescoes were almost completely lost.