History in stone. The Church of the Ascension at Kolomenskoye is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

This year, the Moscow State Integrated Art and Historical, Architectural, and Natural Landscape Museum-Reserve “Kolomenskoye” celebrates its 100th anniversary. Yet, its most significant building is much older. The white-stone Church of the Ascension has been admired by Moscow residents and visitors since the 16th century. In 1994, it was inscribed on the UNESCO
World Heritage List.

Kolomenskoye reserve

Kolomenskoye reserve is the oldest known human settlement in the territory of modern Moscow. In the 14th century, the village of Kolomenskoye became a summer residence of grand princes of Moscow, and the 16th century saw it turn into the seat of Russian tsars and emperors. It boasts architectural landmarks dating back to the 14th–16th century, archeological and natural sites, a unique landscape, and an old park. The Church of the Ascension built in 1532 is the centerpiece of the remarkable architectural ensemble of the famous estate of Russian rulers comprising a palace and outbuildings. In 1994, its artistic elegance and innovative design paved the way for its inscription on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List.

The church was commissioned by Vasili III, Grand Prince of Moscow, to celebrate the birth of the heir to the throne who was to become Tsar Ivan IV of Russia (Ivan the Terrible). The grand prince hired prominent Italian architect Pietro Annibale who was known as Petrok Maloy in Russia. The architect built the church on the steep bank of the Moscow River on a large underground man-made substructure with an area of 26 x 24 meters. The church is a pillar-shaped building surrounded by two tiers of galleries and crowned with a tented roof. The church is 62 meters tall, has an area of 8.5 x 8.5 meters and comprises an above-ground floor (basement). The green hill acts as a stylobate that visually lifts the towering church, making it hover over the steep river bank. The church’s architectural details are carved in white stone.

Experts agree that the Church of the Ascension is a remarkable meeting point of the Byzantine, medieval (Gothic) and ancient Russian cultural traditions. The church’s central element and major innovation is its dome: a multifaceted pyramid soaring into the sky. It is Russia’s first tent-roofed church built in stone. It incorporated all architectural trends of the Christian world and marked the beginning of Russian national architecture. The tented roof of the Church of the Ascension at Kolomenskoye gave rise to a distinctive trend in church architecture, remarkable examples of which range from St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square in Moscow to Russian 20th century belltowers and churches.

Preservation, investigation, and management

Since the early years of the state museum, its main responsibility has been to preserve, study and manage the remarkable site. The Church of the Ascension at Kolomenskoye was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List with the following rationale: “an imaginative and innovative advance in Russian Orthodox Church design”. The evaluation of the site nomination for the World Heritage List took into account the existence of a buffer zone, which allowed the site to qualify for nomination as a cultural landscape, extending its significance to the surrounding landscape and ensuring its conservation. The UNESCO designation certificate states: “The Church of the Ascension, Kolomenskoye (Moscow). Russia. No. 634. Year of inscription: 1994. Criterion (ii): reflects an impact of the transformation of universal human values on the development of architecture”.

In 2013, a retrospective Statement of Outstanding Universal Value for the World Heritage Site “The Church of the Ascension, Kolomenskoye (Russia)” was issued. The UNESCO records state that “the church is unsurpassed in its marvelous beauty and elegance of form. Its one-pillar construction differed from the usual five-domed structure on four pillars, making it more like a memorial sculpture with architectural features that incorporated the best of the Byzantine, Greek, Gothic and ancient Russian traditions. The tent-like style was important and decisive for Russian architecture, as it later became the embodiment of the Russian national architectural tradition”. The landmark evaluation criteria included integrity, authenticity, protection, and management.

Since its construction, the Church of the Ascension at Kolomenskoye was used as a summer family chapel by grand princes of Moscow and Russian tsars. Throughout the 19th century and until 1918, it acted as a parish church for residents of the village of Kolomenskoye. In 1918, the church was proclaimed state property. Around the same time, architect and restorer Pyotr Baranovsky (1892–1984), the founder of the museum, organized the first exhibition dedicated to the history of the site, which took place on the church’s galleries. The transformation of the Church of the Ascension into a patriarchal town residence in 1993 became an important milestone in its history. The Church of the Ascension holds services in summer.

The designation of the Church of the Ascension as a monument of global significance in 1994 called for comprehensive scientific restoration, which was completed in the early 2000s and involved the best professionals and cutting-edge technologies. The city of Moscow funded research and restoration efforts, which included topographical surveys and soil investigation, as well as the investigation of the base, foundation, and structures. The Center for Archeological Research of the Main Department for Protection of Moscow Monuments provided archeological support. In 2002, research findings were presented to UNESCO and received positive feedback.

Once the scientific restoration was completed, the museum was able to make full use of the site for educational activities, exhibitions and concerts, and to cooperate with the Russian Orthodox Church with respect to church services, which are held in full compliance with the standards aimed to preserve the church interior and restored iconostasis. Appropriate legal documents and guidelines on site protection, management and use ensure the preservation of the architectural masterpiece — the Church of the Ascension.

The Church of the Ascension is situated close to the center of Moscow, 10 kilometers away from the Kremlin, on the grounds of the cultural heritage site of federal significance “The Ensemble of the Kolomenskoye Estate, 16th–17th century — the Church of the Ascension” with an area of 57.2 hectares. It also has the regional status of a monument of landscape architecture. The site is protected by a buffer zone and development control zone.

In 2009, the exhibition “Russian Wonder” organized by Kolomenskoye staff took place at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. The exhibition aimed to introduce the museum-reserve to an international audience as a unique cultural institution engaged in the conservation and popularization of heritage, which includes not only the Church of the Ascension at Kolomenskoye but also other architectural, archeological and natural sites, museum collections and intangible spiritual heritage.

During the anniversary year, we commemorate the history of the site, its construction and preservation in an urban environment. The Church of the Ascension is the centerpiece of the museum experience. It serves as a starting point for all visitors of the museum-reserve Kolomenskoye (over six million per year).

Olga Polyakova,
Deputy Director of Museum
Collection Preservation, Moscow State Integrated Museum-Reserve,
Honored Cultural Worker of Russia