June 01, 1998

Ferapontov: Medieval Stronghold, Modern Treasure

Ferapontov Monastery, one of the most treasured sites of medieval Russian art, celebrates its 600th anniversary this summer. This small monastery contains some of the best surviving examples of painting by the great medieval Russian artist Dionisy; yet despite its historic and artistic significance, the monastery’s remote location makes it unlikely that many people – Russians or foreigners – will actually visit its churches. Although the village of Ferapontovo is located only a few kilometers from the massive St. Kirill Belozersk Monastery {see Russian Life, June 1997}, which is visited by hundreds of tourists every summer on river cruises between Moscow and St. Petersburg, Ferapontov Monastery is not included in the schedule of these cruises.

Perhaps this is just as well, for the small monastery founded by St. Ferapont and the gentle landscape that surrounds it could easily be overwhelmed by large groups. Perhaps its treasures should remain intact for a limited circle of visitors who understand the significance of its sublime frescoes. And yet their significance is open to all who would study these works of art.

One might wonder why monasteries like St. Kirill Belozersk and Ferapontov were founded in such a remote location of the Russian north? Obviously, there were reasons of religious devotion, which appealed to the ascetic impulse in Muscovy’s revival of monasticism during the late fourteenth century. But there was another, more practical reason as well. With the rise of the Muscovite principality throughout the fourteenth century and the transfer in 1328 of the metropolitanate (at that time the highest office of the Russian Orthodox Church) from Vladimir to Moscow, the church began to play an essential role in the advancement of Moscow’s interests throughout the vast area of the Russian north. Thus, the founding of monasteries by clerics who came from Moscow’s own religious centers provided not only places of spiritual refuge and retreat, but also strongholds of Muscovite influence in church and state.

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