Have you ever visited the Dormition Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin? And what about meeting its keeper behind the scenes, in the areas, not accessible to the general public? Please, read our exclusive interview about the ongoing restoration works and recent landmark discovery of rare 15th century frescoes, hidden in the side chapel of the cathedral.

The Cathedral of the Dormition: Introduction to an architectural wonder

Perhaps, for those of you who toured the Moscow Kremlin, the visit to the Dormition Cathedral was one of the major highlights. Founded by St. Peter of Moscow, the Dormition Cathedral was the ancient seat of Moscow Metropolitans and Patriarchs. Grand Princes of Muscovy were crowned there and Ivan the Terrible was proclaimed Tsar (thus, effectively, paving the way to his autocratic rule). Subsequently, all Tsars and Emperors from the Romanov dynasty were crowned there, including the last Tzar Nicholas II.

However, quite surprisingly, the symbol of the Russian Orthodox spirituality and statehood, former home to the icon of the Vladimir Mother of God and precious relics from Jerusalem, was built by an Italian architect. Yes, the Roman Catholic! As witnessed by the chronicles, Grand Prince Ivan III invited the group of skilled Italians following the advice of his second wife, Zoe Palaeologa, the niece of the last Byzantine Emperor (and grandmother of Ivan the Terrible).

She was still a young girl when on May 29, 1453 Constantinople was captured by the Ottoman Turks and the Byzantine Empire ceased to exist. Luckily, Zoe’s father was the Despot of Morea, and it took another seven years for the Turkish army to capture his domain. He fled with his family to Corfu and later to Rome where he was recognized as the legitimate heir to the Byzantine Empire by the Pope. So, Zoe, although she was born Byzantine Orthodox, grew up at the papal court and being a ward of Pope Paul II, knew all exceptional Italian artists, architects, scholars, and engineers. It is, probably, enough to say that her tutor was Cardinal Bessarion (appointed first titular Latin Patriarch of Constantinople by the Pope), a famous scholar and Litterarum patronus, who presented to Venice a precious reliquary and, most importantly, his extensive collection of Greek manuscripts, which became the core of Biblioteca Marciana. His portrait painted by Gentile Bellini can be seen at the National Gallery in London (check out Cardinal Bessarion with the Bessarion Reliquary). A Platonist, he was among the scholars who ushered in the arrival of the Renaissance in Italy. Zoe, with her love of books, whose education was entrusted to the cardinal, must have been an extremely intelligent young lady. As Pope Paul II still cherished the hopes of bringing the Prince of Muscovy into the fold of the Catholic Church and persuading him to fight the Ottoman Turks, Zoe was offered as a prospective bride to Ivan III after the death of his first spouse, Maria of Tver. On her way to Muscovy, Zoe had an extensive tour of Europe: she travelled via Siena, Florence, Bologna, Vicenza, Innsbruck and Nuremberg, then to Lübeck, spent 11 stormy days crossing the Baltic to Kolyvan (present Tallinn) and from there headed to Moscow through Pskov. The plans of the Pope did not work out, as Zoe baptized into the Russian Orthodox faith upon her arrival and took the name of Sophia. She did not forget her Italian life, though: after the Cathedral of the Dormition built by stonemasons Krivtsov and Myshkin collapsed overnight in an earthquake, Sophia encouraged her husband to invite the famous engineer and architect Ridolfo Fioravanti, dubbed “Aristotele” for his knowledge and ability.

Fioravanti was an extremely gifted engineer and architect (some even say, a precursor to Leonardo), who worked on the façade of the Palazzo del Podestà in his native Bologna. He was also known to have been a court engineer for Francesco Sforza in Milan between 1458 and 1464. There survives his letter addressed to Galeazzo Maria Sforza, where he quotes Dante while describing white nights in the north of Russia – the architect travelled there to acquire the gyrfalcons for Galeazzo. Apparently, the gyrfalcons accompanied Fioravanti’s letter from Russia to the son of his Italian master in Milan.

A 60-year old Fioravanti had to master the task of building the Orthodox Cathedral, where all important royal ceremonies and state events took place, and which embodied the unity of Russian lands. He also had to model it on the Cathedral of the Dormition in Vladimir. Fioravanti’s work was a spectacular coup, an amalgam of the most advanced Renaissance technology and Russian tradition of the Pre-Mongolian architecture. Interestingly, he did not build a typical Russian cross-domed church: the interior of the Dormition Cathedral resembles Gothic hall churches. This was the reason why the cathedral boasted such a light and airy interior. However, Fioravanti began by strengthening the foundations of the new cathedral: he applied all earthquake-resistance methods known in Renaissance Italy. Being an Orthodox church designed and built by the Catholic Italian Renaissance architect and supported by a Byzantine princess, the cathedral appears truly ecumenical in spirit. Its construction was completed within just four years – between 1475 and 1479. The resulting architectural wonder was much praised by the Russian chronicles for its “splendour, loftiness, airiness, resonance and spaciousness, for no such church had ever existed in Rus, except for the church in Vladimir lands”.

However, even such ingenious masterpieces need restoration from time to time. Currently, the Moscow Kremlin Museums launched an extensive restoration programme of the Dormition Cathedral, generously supported by the JSC Transneft. Having cleaned up the facades of the cathedral, the restorers repaired its domed roof and began cleaning up the interior frescoes that date back to the 1642 – 1643. Although, as confirmed by the Museum Director Elena Gagarina, the restoration works will continue well into 2023, this should not thwart your travelling plans, as the cathedral will re-open for visitors, once the COVID-19 threat is over. Perhaps, you might still be able to check out on the progress of the restoration works. We were lucky and privileged enough to have the opportunity to meet with Alexey Barkov, the keeper of the Dormition Cathedral. What sparked our interest, was the fact that under his leadership the restoration team recently discovered the whole complex of early 15th century frescoes – the original murals of the Dormition Cathedral. They were commissioned to the team of the famous icon painter Dionisius at around 1481, but very few of them survived: most of them were overpainted in the 1640s during the first extensive restoration campaign. As very few 15th century works survived in Russia and even less of them are by Dionysius, (the best known are his murals in the Church of the Nativity of the Virgin in the Ferapontov Monastery in Vologda), the importance of this recent discovery cannot be overestimated.

What is so special about the architecture of the Dormition Cathedral?

First, the very construction of the cathedral was unusual for traditional Russian architecture, which required thick walls and supports in the upper section. Normally, the walls were strengthened with oak beams to prevent any gaps appearing between the walls. Aristotele Fioravanti’s church is not cross-domed, it does not have any customary hierarchy of internal spaces. That is, an ordinary cathedral is a tightly regulated space, where, as a rule, the central nave takes up the most space. Logically, the spaces around the nave are smaller and lower. Fioravanti introduced a different type of interior spatial arrangement: he divided the interior into 12 equal parts, they are absolutely identical. The central nave beneath the dome was traditionally more spacious, as the central dome was usually built wider and larger, which allowed for some extra space in the centre. In Fioravanti’s plan, the central dome is the same as the rest. He also introduced almost flat groined vaults, which resulted in the impression of the open interior space.

Fioravanti also decided to forego the oak beams altogether, replacing them with narrow wrought iron rods. This was very innovative for Europe and even more so for medieval Russia. Such methods of construction had never been used in Rus before. As Fioravanti was the top engineer of his time (he moved belfries and whole buildings from one place to another, constructed water canals etc.), he aimed at creating an airy, light and almost weightless interior. Apparently, the iron supports and their transportation from Europe made up 70% of the cathedral construction costs. It is also possible that during the restoration and building works of the 17th century extra iron was added for strength. That time it was the iron from Sweden – until the late 17th century all iron was imported to Russia. Things began to change only when the ore deposits were discovered near Tula followed by the founding of the famous factory. Interestingly, the wrought iron under the dome had an anti-corrosive coating (red iron ochre), so the iron lacings were very sturdy. The restoration works became necessary in the 17th century, as the frame of the building kept moving (the ground below the foundations was marshy and therefore not very stable). Being thinner than other areas of the cathedral, the domed vaults needed some repairing. So, they were strengthened by the English engineer John Taller and Russian stonemason Bazhen Ogurtsov.

As the vaults were slightly higher in the central nave, the team of the 17th century restorers added the strengthened arcs which were later painted with 70 figures of the apostles. If we imagine the interior of the cathedral without these arches, we might get an idea of how weightless and airy the interior looked first after the completion. In 1481, famous Russian icon-painter Dionysius and his team were invited to paint the iconostasis and possibly the altar. By 1515 the whole cathedral was covered in frescoes.

So, how did the restoration works begin?

In 2018 the vaults of the cathedral sorely needed repairing and we launched the works. As we kept working on the vaults, we thought, why don’t we carry out some works on the frescoes, as well? The whole space was sectioned into 6 separate zones, so the restoration works also proceed in 6 stages, zone by zone. So far, we are in stage 2, working on the north wall of the cathedral. Over 40 restoration specialists are involved in this project.

What exactly happened to the dome of the cathedral that prompted you to launch a new series of restoration works in 2018?

As you know, in the 1960s the new State Kremlin Palace was constructed, its foundations almost as deep as the height of the building. Regrettably, this seriously damaged the hydrosystem of the Borovitsky Hill and affected the water circulation system underneath the cathedral’s foundations. The formerly muddy soil dried out, causing the decay of the oak piles beneath the foundations, and the voids began to form instead. The cathedral began to tilt towards the new Palace. In the 1970s its foundations were strengthened with concrete and its upper walls were bound together. As the cathedral was built from porous stone, permeable to water, this caused new problems. While the water circulation system was functioning properly, the water did not condense inside the building. However, once it was damaged and the foundations and dome had to be strengthened with concrete, all moisture that could not evaporate or sink into the soil started condensing in the upper roof, with torrents of water streaming down the walls and damaging the frescoes. This posited a great threat to the cathedral from above and from below. We removed this dangerous Soviet insulation, let the building breathe again and added new insulating materials. Ever since we have not had any leaks for over a year.

And what happened to the frescoes?

Apart from the damage caused by moisture accumulating in the upper registers, the frescoes also grew very dusty and sooty over the last 40 years. As you may see, the stone wall is uneven, and as the frescoes age, cracks form in the plaster. In addition to removing dust and soot, we conserved the frescoes by strengthening the plaster and pigment layers.

You mentioned earlier that rare 15th century frescoes were removed and overpainted in the 17th century. So, what prompted you to hope against hope and look for earlier surviving fragments?

Initially, there was no plan to look for some old surviving fragments: the cathedral went through several waves of restorations from 1624 - 1642 onwards. As the extensive restoration works took place in the 1970s, no one thought that something might have survived from the 17th century. This idea just occurred by chance: what if there was something there? And this is how this all began. As we were cleaning the walls of the Praise of the Virgin side chapel (Pokhvalsky pridel), a figure of the maid in white cap was partly uncovered. We also carried out some works throughout 2017 and 2018. Gradually, it became clear that paved floors and overpainted north and south walls concealed much earlier frescoes by Dionisius and his team. The chapel itself was rebuilt during the reign of Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich (father of Peter the Great) and converted into a vestry 100 years after the first frescoes were painted.

So, how did they survive?

This is exactly what remains to be discovered. In 1642 the whole team of icon painters was invited, in order to make trace drawings from the frescoes, document each fresco, strengthen the old plaster, prepare the new layer of plaster and then overpaint the walls and reproduce the copied old frescoes compositions. Why icon painters failed to follow this brief in this side chapel and in its altar is still a mystery. Perhaps, they were in a hurry, as the painters were given only a few weeks to make copies of the frescoes all over the cathedral. In any case, the complex of frescoes in the Praise of the Virgin side chapel was slightly refurbished and then overpainted. From the 1670s onwards, the frescoes remained concealed and undisturbed beneath the paved floors. Parts of the composition that still remained visible above the tiled floors, continued to be regularly refurbished.

So, this was what prompted you to take a risk?

Yes, there were some fragments of painting visible in the altar area of the Praise of the Virgin side chapel. We could also see some fragments of the inscription (only the tips of the letters were visible). We kept wondering what sort of a composition that might be, an Adoration of the Magi or Synaxis of the Virgin? Once we removed the tiles and later overpaint, it proved to be the latter. It is quite surprising that the composition survived at all because in the 17th century the arch nearby was broken during the restoration and frescoes were destined to be destroyed in the process, but they were conserved instead, and only slightly overpainted. The pigments are still vivid and mostly intact. Gradually, we uncovered the scene with the Adoration of the Shepherds – part of the Synaxis of the Virgin cycle. It illustrates the Nativity stichera (a festive hymn), poetically celebrating the gifts that the whole universe brought to the new-born Christ: heavens presented the Bethlehem star; the angels – their singing; the shepherds – amazement; the desert – the manger; while we (i.e. the humankind) – the Virgin Mother of God”. And one can perfectly see the allegorical figures (like the Desert) in the fresco. So, I am extremely happy that I decided to take a risk and uncover the lower part of the composition with all these figures!

Opposite the Synaxis of the Virgin we see another fresco of the Nativity of John the Forerunner (the Baptist) featuring St. Elizabeth, his mother, and the maid with the newborn John. Part of the fresco is still concealed beneath the paved floor. So, we are planning to remove the masonry that obscures the fresco brick by brick. In the ceiling you can see the composition Praise of the Virgin where the Mother of God takes the centre stage. It looks like there were three hands, three masters working on these frescoes (after all, the documents mentioned that priest Timofey, Yarets and Konya were other icon painters working together with Dionysius). These compositions first came to our attention in the 2010s. All these frescoes date between 1481 and 1513 – 1515.

Are you going to conserve these frescoes and if yes, how?

So far, we are working on this. In Soviet times this used to be our storage area (all objects related to the history of the cathedral were stored there). Initially, we thought of shielding the frescoes with protective glass, but the glass will be too heavy. It is very likely, that this will remain an open but protected area: the frescoes will be accessible to visitors but roped off. Perhaps, the number of visitors will be restricted, as it is a small place, but the frescoes will still be open to the public.

Obviously, this will be an important step. When did a similar major discovery take place in Russia in recent years? How do you see your own role and your personal contribution to this research?

My personal contribution was my recklessness. Well, jokes apart, a major recent discovery took place just a few years ago in Zvenigorod in the Dormition Cathedral, where the frescoes by Andrey Rublyov were uncovered. Unfortunately, their condition was far from excellent and they were quite faded, yet, this was a significant find, as there very few frescoes of the 15th century remain in Russia. The best-preserved ones can be found in the Ferapontov Monastery in Vologda. The 15th century artworks in the Dormition Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin come as second in significance. The rest are just fragmentary pieces that miraculously survived until today.

Will you continue looking for more?

Yes, absolutely. We are planning to carry out some archaeological research in the altar area. Perhaps, there will be more to find.