The city's most iconic landmark


Up to the 18th century, the present day Ryazan had been known under the name of Pereyaslavl-Ryazansky. Located some 50 km down the Oka River, the town of Ryazan used to be the capital of Ryazan Principality from the 11th to the 13th century. In 1237, it was destroyed by the Mongols and the capital moved to Pereyaslavl. It was not until 1778 that Pereyaslavl was renamed into Ryazan. All that had been left of the old Ryazan were its earthen ramparts, whereas Pereyaslavl-Ryazansky evolved and saw the number of its stone temples and palaces rise in the 15–17th centuries. Those monuments are still there inspiring a sense of awe in the beholder to this day.
Pereyaslavl-Ryazansky in the early 13th century (as reconstructed by Ekaterina Sheko).
Pereyaslavl-Ryazansky was founded in 1095. Little more than just another Ryazan fortress back in the 12–13th centuries, Pereyaslavl-Ryazansky became the Principality's new capital in the 14th century and, as such, needed to be made impregnable. No sooner said than done: new wooden walls sprung up all around the town. Glebovskaya Tower, Ryazan's first stone tower, was added later in the 16th century. There is currently a bell tower standing in its place.
The defensive earth banks were planted back in the 13th century and had wooden walls on top of them up to the 17th century. The stone bridge across the moat served as the main entrance to Ryazan Kremlin. It was built in the 18th century to replace the older wooden bridge.
Ryazan Kremlin in the 17th century (as reconstructed by Vladimir Kuzmin).
The picture on the right shows Ryazan Kremlin in 1696. It was surrounded by water on three sides (Trubezh River and its tributary Lybed) and a moat on the fourth side. During the spring high water season, the Kremlin would turn into an impregnable island surrounded by water. One can see that inside the Kremlin there used to be several monasteries, a lot more churches and a maze of crooked streets with wooden houses of the nobility. All those streets were torn up in the 18th century as part of the urban reconstruction project. The only monastery that survived to our days is the Transfiguration Monastery.

Let's take a walk around the present day Ryazan Kremlin paying close attention to every little detail of its architectural heritage.
In the 16th century, the place where now stands the bell tower was occupied by Glebovskaya Tower, Ryazan Kremlin's only stone tower. In the 18th century, it lost its defensive significance and was dismantled. Back then, people did not see any value in items of historical heritage, so they demolished the tower without any second thoughts. The decision to build a bell tower was taken in 1783. It took three years to collect the required donations from local residents, but the construction was not started until 1789. Stepan Vorotilov, an architect hailing from Kostroma, was invited to lead the project. His revised plan was used in 1797 to erect the first level of the tower. A long break followed, and the construction did not resume until after the French invasion of Russia was over. The second level was built in 1816 using the project developed by architect Franz Russko. The financing was provided by Nikolay Ryumin, a rich merchant from Ryazan.
The bell tower became Ryazan's longest construction project, as it took half a century to complete the building. The four levels of the tower were designed by different architects and built in different historic periods.
The completion of the second level was followed by yet another break. It was not until 1832 that the municipal authorities allocated the required funds and initiated the bidding process, which was won by Konstantin Thon, the renowned architect who designed the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow. The third level was embellished with sculptures of angels blowing brass horns. Thon intended it to be the tower's last level, but his plans never materialised.

The third level surpasses the others in richness of its exterior decoration.
Nikolay Voronikhin, the Chief Architect of Ryazan Region, convinced the church authorities to approve construction of the fourth level. Perhaps they were looking to erect a tower the height of Ivan the Great Bell Tower. The catch was that the load calculated by Konstantin Thon was meant for a three-level building. The challenge required a fair degree of ingenuity, and the architect found a way out by using metal (a much lighter material as compared to brick) to construct the fourth level. The fourth level and the 25 m high spire were completed in 1840 and heralded the end of classicism in Ryazan.

The walls of the fourth level are so thin because they are made of metal.
The differences are hardly discernible from afar, though.
A bell tower the height of a 30-storey high rise remains the city's second tallest building after Ryazan's TV tower.
Up to the 17th century, the present day Nativity Cathedral had been the Assumption Cathedral. But, at a certain point in time, it became too small to serve as the city's main temple. So, in 1677, Archbishop Joseph of Ryazan petitioned to tsar Feodor III of Russia to grant approval for the construction of a new cathedral. The tsar gave his consent. As there was not enough space for the construction site, the builders had no other choice but to demolish the powder storage facility. However, the construction did not start until 1684. The mandate was given to architect Feodor Sharitin and his apprentices Kalinin and Susanin. The construction dragged on for three years well into 1686 when the ground floor was finally finished. The feckless headmen were fired and the municipal authorities decided to waste no time and bring an architect over from Moscow. According to a legend, the architect who came to Ryazan to complete the cathedral was the famed innovator Osip Startsev. There is no certainty as to who was put in charge of the project, but the construction gained momentum and was nearing completion in 1692. The building was completed all the way up to the dome and the drums were halfway finished when all of a sudden...
On 18 April 1692, the structure under construction collapsed and destroyed the nearby St Varlaam Church of the Saviour Monastery.
The cause of the collapse remains a mystery up to this day. One of the versions puts the blame on the erroneous choice of the construction technology and calculation mistakes, while the other suggests that the collapse was caused by the moving soil as, up to the 17th century, the construction site had been occupied by the Bystroye Lake. After the debris was cleared, the authorities had to start it all over again and announce a new bidding to find the builders. The tender was won by Yakov Bukhvostov, a prominent Russian architect of the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
The construction lasted for seven years: by the end of 1699, the building was ready for topping off, but it took another two years to complete the iconostasis and façade. The church was consecrated on 15 August 1702. Yakov Bukhvostov took Moscow Kremlin's Assumption Cathedral as a model for the new church in Ryazan. Back then, all Russian cities were eager to emulate religious buildings from the capital. Much later, in the 19th century, the same thing happened with Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. But let's go back to Ryazan's cathedral.
The Assumption Cathedral in Ryazan became Russia's largest religious building of that time. It was 10 m higher than the Church of the Ascension in Kolomenskoye and almost twice the height of Moscow's Assumption Cathedral. To keep this huge building in the upright position, the walls needed to be as thick as 2.4 m.
From the ground to the top of the cross, the cathedral is 71 m high. The largest part of the building is represented by a 28 m high, 31 m wide and 45 m long parallelepiped, which is placed on top of the ground floor. It would be little more than a simple cube, if it was not for the splendid white stone ornamentation.
The design of the Assumption Cathedral is related to the so-called "Naryshkin architectural style", which emerged at the time of Peter the Great's youth. Back then, the tsar's passion for the West prompted the traditional Russian architecture to embrace new European styles. Previously, this style was known as Naryshkin Baroque (many researchers still use that term). But Baroque architects were primarily concerned with plasticity and forms rather than the building's decorative elements. A cubic cathedral can therefore not be classified as Baroque. St Petersburg's Smolny Cathedral and Moscow's St Clement Church would be more suitable examples of Baroque architecture. The Naryshkin style got its name from the Naryshkins, Peter the Great's maternal relatives who commissioned most of Moscow's churches built in that style. In Europe, this type of architecture is classified as mannerist, but there is no such term in the Russian architectural tradition. So the best thing to do would be to agree with the contemporary researchers and refer to it as the Naryshkin style (rather than Baroque).

The constructors did a great job applying masterful carving techniques, with ornamental plants chosen as the key exterior design theme. One can find here grapes, leaves, flowers and fruits, some of them fairly realistic, while others produced in an entirely abstract manner. One thing is for sure, though: none of the decor elements is quite the same as the others.
Ornamentation gets scarcer towards the upper floors of the building, as it is primarily intended to capture the attention of the beholder. On top of that, some of the lines are not even parallel: curves give the cathedral a peculiar charm making it look like a work of antiquity.
The cathedral stood there unaffected for some one hundred years. But the forces of nature were implacable, as the temple is located at a place open to all winds. Storms would often blow away the domes and the roof, while the wind would nibble away at mica elements and force the snow inside the building during winters. Summers brought troubles, too: birds chose the cathedral's iconostasis as the suitable place for nesting and hatching, and would outchirp the priest during church services. The soil was no good either, and the first cracks started to show in the walls by the beginning of the 19th century, when all of a sudden...
In 1800, the religious authorities decided to bring down the cathedral and build a new one. But the local community opposed that idea, with merchants Ryumin and Malshin making a donation to restore the building and invite yet another architect from Moscow for that purpose. As a result, the renovated cathedral was consecrated once again in four years.
The Assumption Cathedral boasts many superlatives: it is both the biggest and most impressive one in terms of ornamentation. But there is one thing that makes it inferior to the other churches – its age. The Nativity Cathedral holds the leadership in that respect, as it is Ryazan's oldest building. It was built in the late 14th century by Oleg, the Grand Prince of Ryazan. Back then, it was Ryazan's main church known as the Assumption Cathedral. It was not until the completion of the new Assumption temple that the church was renamed into the Nativity Cathedral. Rebuilt several times in line with the prevailing architectural styles, it got its final look in the 19th century with nothing to remind of its ancient history. It ended up being an example of provincial classicism influenced by the naive attempts to make the building look "old" – a sign of the emerging Russian Revival style.
The Cathedral of the Archangel looks tiny in comparison to the Assumption Cathedral. Hidden behind its larger neighbour, it remains in the shadow most of the day. But once you see it, you will notice straight away that this is an old temple. Built in the late 15th century as a family chapel of Ryazan's princes, it did not undergo major refurbishments later on and managed to retain its original architectural look. By 1756, though, it fell into disrepair and was not safe enough to hold church services. The cathedral stood abandoned for half a century until it was finally restored in 1819. It stands to note that, similarly to Moscow's Kremlin, Ryazan's Assumption and Archangel Cathedrals are not far apart from each other. The difference is that Moscow's Cathedral of the Archangel was used as a burial site for the great princes, while Ryazan's Archangel temple served as the final resting place for bishops.
It is commonly known as Oleg's Palace, but this name belongs to the realm of fantasies. The cornerstone of this building was laid in the mid-17th century, while Prince Oleg had died in 1402. This oblong three-storey structure was actually built for Ryazan's bishopry, but many historians believe this site to have been occupied by the princely court in the 13–15th centuries. Another interesting fact about the palace's name: there is some evidence that, back in the 17–18th centuries, an oval frame with an image of Prince Oleg was located right under the palace's roof.
This building gives a rundown on architecture and residential construction techniques in the 17–18th centuries. The first two floors on the left-hand side date back to the mid-17th century. In accordance with the architectural tradition predating Peter the Great, the first floor of the building is rather unassuming, while the second one is more ornate. There is hardly any logic behind the window placement. Nor is there any sign of symmetry. The third floor on the right-hand side dates back to the 1690s, the time of Peter the Great's youth. With its exquisite ornamentation and finely cut capitals, it looks more European. The left-hand side of the building, though, is a fine example of early Classicism dating back to the epoch of Catherine the Great. Hence, the general orderliness and use of geometry.
Colour photograph by Prokudin-Gorsky, early 20th century.
View from the same perspective today .
: Few Russian cities offer postcard perfect views that take you back to the 17th century.
Apart from the bishops' residence, the Bishop Court features several other buildings dating back to the 17th century. The biggest ones are the choir building and the consistory. Both of them were built in the mid-17th century, presumably by the same architect – Yuri Yershov. The latter is also believed to have constructed the first level of the bishop house.
Little has changed here since the times of tsar Alexey Mikhailovich. Red porches and high tented roofs looked outdated even in the age of Peter the Great, so they were frequently remodelled in line with the latest trends. The Soviet restorers, however, went to great lengths to return the ancient buildings to their original state and appearance.

At the farther end of the Bishop Court and the Kremlin lies another noteworthy building of the 17th century, a veritable town house predating the epoch of Peter the Great. The building consists of seven isolated two-storey sections with no stairs inside. The premises can only be accessed from the outside, with dedicated wooden stairs leading to the second floor of each section. The restorers reconstructed just one of those stairs for illustrative purposes. The rear wall of the building has neither doors nor windows. In the 17th century, it overlooked one of the Kremlin's streets and served as the Bishop Court's defensive enclosure. The structure was originally used as a storage facility for grain and other foods, but in the 19th century it was refurbished as an inn... An inn for common people.
It looks like Mr Prokudin-Gorsky, the photographer, approached the Kremlin from the bell tower and took a picture of the Saviour Monastery standing in its archway.
We took a similar picture in more than 100 years since then.
The Saviour Transfiguration Monastery is believed to have been founded in the late 13th or early 14th century. It was not until the 17th century that the Monastery saw its first stone building – the Epiphany Church, which was built in the 1640s and can be seen in the photo above. From afar, it seems to be attached to the Assumption Cathedral. As a matter of fact, the bells of this church are the first ones to start tolling in the morning. This tradition goes back to the 1520s, when both the church and the bell tower were made of wood. The Epiphany Church stands by the Monastery's enclosure, while the Saviour Transfiguration Cathedral rises smack in the middle of the precinct. The Cathedral's decor deserves a scrupulous look.
Now we are heading to the farthest reaches of Ryazan's Kremlin to find yet another temple – the Holy Spirit Church. In the 15–18th centuries, there used to be an entire Holy Spirit Monastery, but today's temple is all that has been left of it. Yet, best things always come in small packages. This is the only tent-roofed church in Ryazan and one of Russia's few temples with two tented roofs dating back to the 17th century.
Tent-roofed churches
Tent-roofed churches were built in Russia since times immemorial. But, up to the 16th century, all such temples had been made of wood, a material that was more suitable for making tented roofs than erecting drums and domes. Hence, the stone tent-roofed churches that appeared in the early 16th century were rather unique, as they could be found in no other country. The new architectural fashion only lasted for some 150 years, as, in 1652, Patriarch Nikon prohibited their construction ordering "to build single-, three- and five-domed churches and to cease building the tent-roofed churches". Apparently, this move was fuelled by Nikon's desire to repudiate the old traditions predating the ecclesiastical reforms. On the other hand, his eagerness to conform with the canon laws of the Byzantine Church could also trigger this decision. The restrictions did not apply to the tent-roofed bell towers, though. Today, even Moscow with its numerous churches has only a handful of tent-roofed temples.
Ancient tombstone
There used to be a cemetery in the Monastery's precinct. The white stone tombstone of the 17th century is all that has been left of it, as the cemetery was destroyed in the Soviet times. The tombstones were used for a variety of purposes. For example, they could be crushed to bury the puddles or carved to produce curbstones.
To be continued. Stay tuned!
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