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Veliky Ustyug State Historical Art and Architecture Museum

Veliky Ustyug State Historical Art and Architecture Museum

The town of Veliky Ustyug is a sort of an open-air museum. The unique cathedrals, churches and monasteries of Veliky Ustyug attract ever-increasing number of tourists. Like most northern towns, Ustyug was built almost entirely of wood, and fire was a constant menace. As a result, there are no surviving churches from before the middle of the 17th century.

The town has always been the centre of applied art. The Veliky Ustyug State Historical Art and Architecture Museum established on November 8, 1918 stands out for its rich collections of niello, decorations, kitchen utensils, hand-made goods made of birch bark. The museum collections of works of art (over 100,000 items) present the development of the region culture and art from the Stone Age to the 21st century. The largest collections are those of icons, archaeology, wooden sculpture, decorative and applied art (Northern niello, coloured enamels with gold and silver veneer, carving on birch bark, the original technique of "tinplate frosting"), coins, rare books and documents.

Northern Niello-the town's specialities

The Veliky Ustyug State Historical Art and Architecture Museum comprises 26 magnificent buildings, the Dormition Cathedral (17-19th centuries), the church dedicated to Procopius of Ustyug (17th century), Church of the Ascension (17th century), the baroque Church of St. Simeon the Stylite (18th century), the Trinity Cathedral of the Trinity-Gleden Monastery (17th century), the Cathedral of Archangel Michael (17th century) among them.

The museum's most important mission is to preserve the precious legacy of its historic art and architecture - an ensemble that is irreplaceable.

The main collection of the Veliky Ustyug State Historical Art and Architecture Museum is housed in one of the city's best late 18th-century mansions. Recently repainted light pink with white trim, it originally belonged to the merchant Usov. Its collection presents paintings, drawings, decorative and applied art. Here one can observe an exposition of the town's specialities - Severnaya Chern, niello work on silver, enamel objects, carving on birch bark and others. It testifies to the fact that the town prospered as a mercantile center and became renowned as a center of crafts such as leather and metal working, as well as the making of fine enamel objects. Some of the finest items were purchased by the imperial court.

Church of St. Nicholas

The Church of St. Nicholas (late 17th and early 18th centuries), with its remarkable free-standing bell tower, is located on the bank of the Sukhona River. The St. Nicholas Church was beautifully restored on the exterior. It is now used to display the work of local weavers, embroiderers, carvers, of which there seems to be an unusually large number.

One of the most interesting specimens is interior of a peasant house. An authentic Russian stove, wooden benches, a cradle, chests, a spinning-wheel and household utensils reconstruct the life-style of a peasant family. One could judge a man's well-being by decoration of the house.

One of the most impressive churches in the Cathedral Court area of the town is dedicated to Procopius of Ustyug. Built in 1668, it has been modified over the centuries, but still retains its decorative cupolas with gilded crosses.

Church of Procopius of Ustyug

In 1990s the Church of Procopius of Ustyug was returned to active parish use, although it is a part of the city museum. The visitors to the church can admire its interior with iconostasis. The wall paintings and the icons were restored in 1980-1990s. The iconostasis depicts a long-suffering life and miracles of Procopius of Ustyug.

St. Procopius is the first reported fool-for-Christ in Russia. Pretending to be a fool, he led an ascetic way of life - slept naked on church-porches, prayed throughout the whole night, received food only from poor people. He was abused and beaten, but finally won respect and became venerated after his death.

For two hundred years the relics of Procopius, a source of numerous healings, remained in open view. In connection with an increase in the number of miraculous healings, the relics of St. Procopius were examined in the 17-18th centuries. After this a chapel in honor of the saint was consecrated in the church where his relics rest.

The monastery complex of the Archangel Mikhail is one of the oldest monastic seats in the North. The simple and laconic forms of its ensemble form a pleasing harmony with the subdued tones of the surrounding country.

Established in 1212, the monastery of the Archangel Mikhail was originally built of wood. The charming masonry temples were raised in the 17th century with funds provided by the merchant Nikifor Revyakin. The monastery is well-preserved and exceptionally beautiful - white, slender and stately.

Some of its five churches were restored, including the imposing Archangel Cathedral, built in the mid-17th century. Its exterior gallery leading to the refectory church contains a fascinating series of frescoes depicting the meaning of monastic life, and the cathedral interior contains a grand iconostasis in a mixture of baroque and neoclassical styles from the time of Catherine the Great.

The monastery is preserved as a monument of stone architecture of the 17th century.

The wealth of Veliky Ustyug's merchants in the 18th century supported many donations to monastery churches, some of which gained ever more elaborate iconostases that are fascinating as a northern interpretation of European baroque art.

Iconostasis of the Trinity-Gleden Monastery

The most remarkable example of the late Ustyug baroque is contained at the Trinity-Gleden Monastery, on the opposite side of the Sukhona River at Gleden, site of the earliest settlement of Ustyug.

The town of Gleden was founded at the end of the 12th century near the confluence of two great rivers - the Sukhona and Yug. The Trinity Monastery which is considered to be the oldest in Russia's North was erected at the same time. No account of the town was preserved. As history annals say, Gleden developed as a thriving town but was destroyed in the 15th century as a result of intestine wars.

The Trinity Monastery was shut down for good in 1925. The building was turned into a settlement for homeless children. Later, it accommodated a holding centre for those who were dispossessed of all the lands and houses, an old people's home and children's isolator. Since 1980s the ensemble of the Trinity Monastery has been an affiliate with the Veliky Ustyug State Historical Art and Architecture Museum.

The main church, dedicated to the Trinity, was begun in 1659 but completed only in 1690 due to financial difficulties.

It is a splendid gilded iconostasis that plays an important role in the interior decoration. Its construction and painting lasted for eight years (1776-1784) thanks to donations of the residents. Its exuberant carved figures in the baroque style reflect the town's close ties with St. Petersburg.

Dormition Cathedral

Both the form of the iconostasis and its state of preservation are extraordinary, with a full complement of icons painted in a highly-trained, Western academic style.

In the panorama of its historical centre the dominant feature is presented by the Dormition Cathedral. Surrounded by other churches, it forms an ensemble known as Cathedral Court and the adjacent Archbishop's Court. Cathedral Court is the appropriate place to begin a walking tour of Ustyug and its delightful riverfront, which offers some of the most picturesque views.

The tsars liked the cathedral very much and often sent gifts and money for its construction and renovation. It won great renown owing to an artistic work of exceptional value - the icon of Virgin of Odigitria which is considered to be wonder-working.

Like most Russian churches and temples, the Dormition Cathedral was built of wood. But it was damaged by fire and the main cathedral, dedicated to the Dormition of Mary, was built in brick during the 1550s.

Church of the Ascension

A wealthy local merchant family, together with Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich, provided the money for the rebuilding. The cathedral is an exact copy of the main Russian temple - the Dormition Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin. In the eighteenth century, the Dormition Cathedral was modified still further and acquired an elaborate icon screen. The interior of the cathedral is embellished with intricate decorative patterns - angels, sculptures and wreaths. The temple and iconostasis are now nearing the end of a successful restoration.

Farther down the river is another grouping of historic monuments, including the highly decorated Church of the Ascension. Built in 1648, it is the oldest structure in the town to survive in its original form, and is now part of the local museum. The interior of the church's main space has an icon screen, beautifully preserved with all of its provincial baroque ornament.

Church of St. Simeon the Stylite

The Ascension Church, like many Russian Orthodox churches, has additional chapels attached to the main structure. In this case the Resurrection Chapel, which can be reached by ascending the beautiful exterior stairway, rivals the main part of the church, with frescoes and its own, smaller iconostasis.

The baroque Church of St. Simeon the Stylite (1760s), with a highly-ornamented, detached bell tower is a stately monument of the city's architecture of the 18th century. This church can be approached through lanes that wander between small wooden houses and gardens. In such areas one gets a sense of what the town might have looked like in the 18th century.

The St. Simeon Church resembles central or southern European baroque churches. Now the church is open for divine services and it is part of a city museum.

Unlike so many other provincial towns, Ustyug still has a sense of historic setting. The town's most important mission is to preserve the precious legacy of its historic art and architecture.