The City of “Thousands of Churches”

On July 7, 2019, the 43rd session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee was held in Baku, Azerbaijan. At the session, the Churches of the Pskov School of Architecture were officially added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.

The lovely ancient city of Pskov is one of the oldest in Russia. According to legend, it was founded by the Princess Olga. While traveling around her dominion, she made a stop on the banks of the Velikaya River and happened upon a wonderful scene: three heavenly beams of light converging on a rocky cape at the confluence of the rivers Pskov and Velikaya. The Princess decided that a church of the Holy Trinity would be erected on that very spot, as well as a great city, “glorious and ever abundant.”

The oldest written record of Pskov dates back to 903, but historians say that settlement of the area began much earlier. Archeologists believe that the true age of Pskov is about 1500–2000 years. 

The history of the city is truly exceptional. It is inextricably linked with the most significant events in the history of our state. Pskov is a fortress, an ancient outpost on the north-western border of Russia. It has repeatedly saved the country from enemy invasions and was also the site of many battles. The city was only taken once, during the World War II in the 20th century. 

Pskov was one of Ancient Russia’s most influential feudal republics and its capital city became one of the state’s intellectual and religious centers. In the Middle Ages, Pskov was called the city of “thousands of churches.” However, only forty churches have survived to this day. The oldest of these are located in the city’s historic center, along the banks of the Velikaya River. The unique features of these churches are emblematic of the “Pskov School of Archi­tecture” that emerged and evolved from Byzantine and Novgorod traditions, reaching its peak in the 15–16th centuries. 

Laconic and minimalistic, Pskov’s small squat churches were all built from local limestone quarried from the banks of the Velikaya River on the outskirts of Izborsk and Porkhov. The stone plates were shaped and joined together with lime mortar. Then they were bleached, thus removing any irregularities. The Pskov craftsmen used a rather simple set of decorative techniques and architectural details. As a result, Pskov churches are recognizable by several distinct characteristics: they are austere in appearance, with a cubic structure, an eightfold sloping roof, a distinctive bell tower, as well as traditionally decorated turrets. The simple structure of Pskov churches preserves the solemnity and austere stateliness of their overall archi­tectural design. 

The Pskov School of Architecture had a significant impact on construction throughout the vast territory of the Russian state. Its stylistic and decorative features were widely replicated during the 15–16th centuries. At that time, Pskov’s architects worked all over Russia, including in Moscow, Kazan, and Sviyazhsk. The Pskov tradition influenced the development of Russian architecture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Architects who worked in the “pseudo-Russian” style used the techniques of the Pskov masters as a basis for their own works. 

The ten churches included in the World Heritage List showcase all of the local archi­tectural techniques utilized throughout this ancient city. Further, they demonstrate the complete history of the development of the Pskov School of Architecture, from its birth in the 12th century, to its golden age in the 15–16th centuries.

Source: Institute of Cultural and Natural Heritage named after Dmitry Likhachev

The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in the Ivanovsky Nunnery. 13th century

The Cathedral is an embodiment of a special type of a prince’s patronal church, erected during the reign of Prince Vsevolod-Gabriel. Historically, the Cathedral of the nunnery is associated with the aristocratic dynasties of the Old Russian period (the tomb of St. Eupraxia, the wives of Pskov princes, of the 13th century.) and with the reigning house of Russia in the 17–19th centuries.

The overall composition of its interior is designed in a wide and free rhythm of the hall church style. In the western wall, at the level of the choir, there are three niches for praying; in the lower tier of the northern and southern walls, there are three arcosolia with the tombs of 13–14th century Pskov princess turned nuns and other eminent residents of the nunnery.

The architecture of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist differs from Novgorod prototypes by its reduced scale, modified proportions and irregularity of its plan. This freedom from direct repetition and in the perception of the diversity of forms laid the foundations of the Pskov school of architecture in the next centuries. However, typologically, the Cathedral was destined to remain unique, being the only cathedral among other Pskov prince’s cathedrals, which makes it an exceptional evidence of a vanished cultural tradition.

The Compound of the Spaso-Mirozhsky Monastery: the Transfiguration Cathedral. 12th century

Dates back to 1137–1142. 

The Cathedral’s interior was designed in a pronounced Byzantine type of a cross-domed church with a cruciform composition of its main space and reduced angular compartments. In the interior, wide vaulted ceilings with lowered arches on the imposts carry a large drum with narrow windows, completed with a dome. The centric hall space of the Cathedral is formed by a domed square. The openness of its interior is the Cathedral’s key feature. 

The Cathedral has preserved its authentic, original appearance and has not been subjected to serious alterations.

The Mirozhsky frescos in their entirety defined the development of ancient monumental painting in the pre-Mongol period. 

This Cathedral is characterized by its independent style, different from the Novgorod conventions and it “set the tone” of the Pskov architecture.  

The Compound of the Snetogorsky Monastery: the Cathedral of Nativity of Our Lady. 14th century

The Cathedral’s frescoes are considered the largest and most important monument of the Pskov painting of the 14th century. They were made in the era of the nascence of the identity of Pskov residents in the initial period of their republic. The iconographic program of the frescoes is a valuable historical document that reflects the lively spiritual life of the city and the prevailing political and theological concepts that justified the idea of Pskov’s independence.

The paintings reflect two cultural streams: traditional and new, characterized by stylistic independence and originality of the nascent artistic tradition in Pskov.

Overall, the Cathedral looks like a copy of the Transfiguration Cathedral in the Mirozhsky nunnery. However, this is an advantage, since this sample of direct copying was an innovative method in the Old Russian architecture. 

In this Cathedral, the Byzantine ideal of the church was most consistently embodied, which was the unique example in the Pskov and Novgorod architecture.

Church of Pokrova ot Proloma (Church of the Intercession at the Breach in the Wall). 15–16th century

The Church went down in the history of Old Russian literature in connection with the legends and chronicles of the Siege of Pskov in 1581. “The Tale of the Arrival of the Polish King Stefan Batory” mentions a wonderful vision of the Intercession Monastery’s elder Dorotheus about a visit to the Church of Our Lady with a host of saints, whoe protection helped save Pskov. In the Church’s synodics (memorial records) are mentioned the names of the monks-defenders of Pskov killed during the siege. 

This Church is unique not only for Pskov, but also for Novgorod, the city that was a rich source of borrowing for Pskov builders.

The Church of the Epiphany with a Belfry. 15th century

The chronicles date the foundation of the Church to 1496. For Pskov architecture, this is an exemplary domed tri-apsidal church with two symmetrical one-apsidal one-domed chapels with galleries, combined in the western side with a common vestibule, and with a five-span belfry adjacent from the northwestern corner and set on a massive chamber. 

The onion-shaped head and the facades of the side churches — the northern one built in the name of the Three Saints and the southern one built in the name of the Beheading of John the Baptist — were restored in 2008. The Church has preserved its authentic value.

For the first time in the Pskov architecture, the Church’s interior has a symmetrical composition in regard of its longitudinal axis. Various innovations were used in its facade compositions. The pillars of the Church do not oppose the body, but accentuate its efforts. Their round shapes make the pillars visually smaller — and this is an exceptional phenomenon for Pskov, because until then this effect could not have been achieved. Among other things, this is the first example in Pskov of the construction of the bell chamber’s pillars in a special building separated from the main body.

Church Vasiliiya na Gorke (The Church of St. Basil on the Hill). 15th century

Dates back to 1413. 

Parts of the Church were restored in 2005–2007 At the same time, the Church has preserved the authenticity and its unique features.

Its high ground floor that made it possible to raise the main body of the church standing on top of the hill, as well as the entrance on the canopied porch (not survived), its chancel with three rounded apses, the placement of the chapel, a bit extended to the east, the chapel-crypt, which is similar to the chapel of the Church of St. Nicholas so Usokhi (only its traces are left), finely elaborated technique of finishing the drum, apses and other parts of the church, mastered to classic perfection, — all these features are typical for the Pskov church architecture of the 16th century and are not found in the monuments that beyond doubt can be dated back to the 15th century (even to its second half).

So, the church is a whimsical mix of architectural traditions of Pskov that are related to different eras.

The Church of Mikhail Archangel with a Belfry. 14th century

It was founded in 1339. 

Despite the fact that the Church was damaged over many centuries and from external influences, and, whereas it has survived, it obtained a new look, many of its key elements, however, has retained their original and inimitable appearance.

In this church, the Pskov builders made stepped arches, an iconic element of the Pskov architectural style.

The arches of the southern chapel are interesting, too, as they are one of the earliest examples of independent technical creativity of Pskov’s masons.

The Church of Nikola na Usokhe (The Church of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker near the Dried Swamp), 16th century

Built in 1535, it replaced the earlier church of 1371. It was the second largest church in Pskov in the 14th century. After several fires, the church was destroyed and then rebuilt in the XVI century. Despite the fact that the site was repeatedly reconstructed over the ages, it managed to retain its authenticity. In 1780, a bell tower was erected next to it. The altar apsis is adjoined by the chapel “The Inextinguible Candle”, under which the burials are situated. This type of burial vault chapel is one of the two surviving examples of a cult building of its kind.

The Church of Kosma and Damian’s Primostya (The Church of St. Kosma and St. Damian in the Vicinity of the Bridge). 15–16th century

Dates back to the 15th century. 

It is known that in 1507, as a result of a fire and explosion of a powder stock, the Church was damaged, and subsequently restored. The chancel of the Church is best preserved. In the 1960s, the rooftop was restored, too.

The Church has unique features, for instance the five arches placed on the apse. This architectural method is quite uncommon for Pskov, as usually 3 or 4 arches were made. The mixture of architectural styles of different eras once again indicates that the Church was most likely renovated in the early 16th century.

The Church of Georgiya so Vzvoza (The Church of St. George on Ascension). 15th century

Dates back to 1494.

The Church maintains all classical proportions typical for the Pskov architecture and is an excellent example of the Pskov school of architecture. The vertical structure of the Church is clearly visible. Both the composition and the design of the Church of St. George are traditional, but its esthetic value is in the extraordinary purity and accuracy with which they are embodied.

It is possible to visually assess the perfect multiplicity and proportionality of spaces and rhythms. At the same time, from the outside this Church seems lighter and more elegant compared to other Pskov churches, and one can grasp true artistry in its architecture.