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Window on Europe

Author: Natalya Beskhlebnaya
Translation: Nora Seligman Favorov

May/June 2014
Page 33   ( 5 pages)

Summary: Unraveling the mysteries of an intricately baroque church just outside Moscow takes us back to the time of Peter the Great.


Every weekend, tourists stream toward the Church of the Sign of the Most Holy Mother of God* in Dubrovitsy, a village outside Moscow. Usually they are intercepted by a female acolyte, who takes them on a quick walk around the church's extraordinary gray tower, sharing intriguing facts from the history of the area's main attraction.

After pointing out the intricate spirals of stone molding that cover virtually the entire exterior of the structure, as well as the sculpted figures that adorn its exterior and interior surfaces (apostles, saints, and cherubim with the implements of Christ's passion), she announces that nowhere else on earth can such a miracle be found. Often, just when the tour guide's inspired narration is reaching its climax, a woman from the regional museum appears, an atheist and expert on local history, to the consternation of the Orthodox acolyte. Antonina Kolosova is a historian of the Soviet persuasion with no patience for talk of miracles. When she gives a tour, she takes pleasure in deconstructing popular myths.

Indeed, it was not miracles that fashioned the intricate molding or monumental sculptures of saints that seem so out of place among the region's other houses of worship, although to the European eye there is nothing terribly surprising about the church's design. But even Kolosova admits that the Dubrovitsy church is absolutely unique, both in terms of its architectural details and its history.

Peter the Great was present for the laying of the church's foundation. He was only 18 and had been sole ruler of Russia all of a year. Back then, there was no St. Petersburg, the famous window on Europe, but here, among Moscow's suburban forests, this little window had already appeared, one of the earliest examples of Naryshkin Baroque, a style that fused patriarchal traditions with the Westernized tastes of Peter's era. The church was completed in 1699.

One feature that sets the Church of the Sign apart from other Baroque masterpieces is that it is made entirely of local stone. In Petrine Russia, churches were usually built of brick, and “white stone” was used only for ornamentation – bountiful and whimsical spirals, scrolls, reliefs, ornate cornices and other flourishes. The Dubrovitsy church was built with limestone (what Russians fondly refer to as “white stone”), in this case excavated from the banks of the Pakhra and Desna Rivers, at the picturesque confluence of which the church stands.

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