October 26, 2017
When the alarm erupted at 5:30 AM, I popped out of bed, but it didn’t feel good. I needed to catch a train to Novgorod at 7:25 AM! To where? You say? This post is for you!
After a hurried breakfast of tea and pretzels, I tossed my things into my bag (which seemed harder to close than before) and lugged the roller bag down two flights of stairs to ground level. I had planned it out in some detail with the hotel concierge; I would run next door to the Lady of Kazan, flag any bus or trolley other than Bus 22, then get off when I see the tall pole with the star. I popped on board the first bus, but my metro system card produced a red ‘X’ on the contact. I popped back off the bus at the next stop. I started jogging down the street toward the train station, but then another bus heaved into site. I popped on board the bus. The red ‘X’ sent me right back to the street. I then just jogged as fast as I could with the roller back until I reached Ploschad Vosstaniya, with its high star guarding the train station. I entered at the proper place for “suburban trains” and found the track with ease. The train let us on board with around ten minutes before departure, and I dozed off soon after we pulled away. The train was considerably more placid than the tiger that hauled me from Beijing to Shanghai; it tooled along at a leisurely 100 kph, at best. The temperature outside hovered near freezing, never getting above 3 degrees Celsius. In less than three hours, I was at Novgorod.
Why Novgorod matters
Where did Russia start? Some will mutter about Slavs or Scythians, and others will darkly mention the Vikings. Most will assume that Moscow was where this spark first ignited. Moscow, however, developed in prominence quite late in the game. (I will leave Kiev aside, since it is in the Ukraine.) Novgorod (specifically Velikiy Novgorod) was a town that developed on the Volkhov River just to the north of Lake Ilmen. Different groups in the area had sparred over time, but they decided to band together and call in a prince named Rurik from the Vikings (Varangians) to rule them. Rurik started a dynasty that ruled until the 17th century. The “Tale of Past Years” was compiled around 1113 to chronicle the history of the “Kievan Rus” from 850-1110, and it provides this telling. To see where much of the culture that dominated Russia for centuries began, one must come to Novgorod!
I spent my first day steeped in the religious culture of early Russia. The “Rus” were Christianized late in the tenth century when Vladimir the Great was baptized, and Novgorod became the seat of a bishop. The first (wooden) cathedral built in Novgorod lasted only about fifty years before burning down, but the current stone cathedral was completed in 1050. Let me repeat that: the Cathedral of Holy Wisdom in Novgorod was completed 967 years ago! It is the oldest Russian Orthodox cathedral still standing.
My first day
Happily, Novgorod lies near the route from St. Petersburg to Moscow. I decided to spend a night in the city; because of the train schedules, I arrived around 10:30 AM on a Thursday and left around 9:00 PM on a Friday, traveling overnight to Moscow. Walking from the train station to the Novgorodskaya Hotel was no problem, even with my roller bag towed behind me and a chill breeze blowing. From there, it was a quick hike to the historic center of town, which is enclosed in a kremlin (fortified walls, or detinets). Having passed through those gates, I soon saw the Cathedral of Holy Wisdom on my left.
When I say cathedral, many readers probably think of a Gothic construction like Notre Dame. Keep in mind, though, that the Cathedral of Holy Wisdom had been standing for about three hundred years when the last features were completed for Notre Dame. The concepts of Gothic architecture didn’t exist when Holy Wisdom was built. From the outside, you might think it’s a bit small to be such a significant church. It’s 38 meters high on its highest dome, while Notre Dame features towers that are 69 meters in height. Holy Wisdom was built with older engineering tools in hand, and that meant that its floor space is pocked with columns subdividing its space. The main nave is separated into three bands from the altar to the back, with each of two rows containing four columns. Since the light from side windows is blocked by columns, the church relies on dusky light filtering down from the domes, high above. It gives the interior an almost brooding feel.
Holy Wisdom does not allow photographs of its inside, so I will draw from those I can find online to describe it. The altar is a solid screen of icons, with Jesus painted in the middle with “clothes” of gold over him. Saints and angels to either side all face inward toward him. The principal icon I saw on display was Our Lady of the Sign, which dates from the first half of the 12th century.. The icon is a little disturbing to look at, for me, because it appears to have suffered an awful restoration attempt in the 17th century. The relic that most drew my attention, however, was the Novgorod Cross, a heavy stone artifact in an alcove of the church. The carving was divided into five zones, with a crucifixion scene in the middle. It seems like a massive object from another time. I hoped to find a replica at the gift shop, but they had only a small marble one that might be too big for my stuffed bags and a small silver one that was a bit expensive for a whim. I was a little surprised I could not find anything more than a silhouetted of that cross on the net!
I had high hopes for the Church of the Transfiguration of the Savior. The church, built in 1374, was frescoed by Theophanes the Greek in 1378. Theophanes was one of the greatest icon painters of Russia (though he was born in Byzantium). There are very few fragments of his work remaining in the world, though. I walked the kilometer or so over to Ilyina Street. The wind was really howling, and the temperature was still close to freezing. I was glad that I had tucked my scarf and hat into my backpack!
When I arrived at the church, however, I saw a sad sign on the door. When the humidity gets too high, the church closes its doors to protect the precious art inside. I walked around the church, noticing the crumbling walls. I am glad the World Heritage Site is assisting this city to protect its history. I kept hearing a rattle off to the side, so I looked in the direction of the neighboring church, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Sign (1686). The rattling came from the wind bouncing the metal sheets that had been bolted to its roof to protect the church.
I took a closer look, sure that the building was in ruins. No! Its doors were still open! I walked into its main entrance and saw that walls and roof had been covered liberally in frescoes. I paid the entrance fee and was stunned to see how the 17th century colors played throughout that nave.
Yaroslavl’s Courtyard: outside the kremlin walls
I trudged back toward the river, this time stopping at the area informally called “Yaroslavl‘s courtyard.” Back before Germany existed as a united country, several of its regions had banded together in a trade network called the “Hanseatic League.” Novgorod was the northeastern-most of the cities in the League, and that history has led to funding from the Hanse Organization to restore this area!
I visited a small museum in the St. Nicholas Cathedral (1113) that showed how much the area had changed over the last hundred years or so. I was glad that some of the original art and structure for this church could be brought back to the modern world.
The Archbishop’s showcase: The Faceted Chamber
I returned to the area around Holy Wisdom, and I decided to enjoy one last museum, the Archbishop’s “Faceted” Chamber. It turned out to be much more developed than the museum in St. Nicholas, with a wealth of religious treasures to showcase within a building created by the fifteenth century Archbishop Evfimii II as a visual illustration of the power of the church.
The architecture of the Faceted Hall was quite nice. I liked a ribbed brick ceiling that had been plastered and painted (each layer was visible). As I passed through the building, I think I snapped a photo of each original fresco I observed. It was in Novgorod that I learned of the Ostromir Gospels, the earliest dated book in the East Slavic language. They were created in 1056 or 1057, and they are apparently kept at the Imperial Public Library in St. Petersburg. This will not be the last item that makes me hope I can return to that city!
Some of the last treasures, in particular, really took my breath away. I have seen many icons that had “clothes” of gold or silver and jewels atop an otherwise indifferent painting. The final room of the museum, however, showcased a cover for a painting that was around eight feet in height. I checked the caption to learn that it was a silver sheet that had been gilded, but still, where did all this silver come from? The lovely processional crosses, Bible covers, priestly garments, etc. were quite an eye-opener.
My first day in Novgorod was quite the contrast with St. Petersburg. A town settled in the ninth century is going to show lots of differences from one created in the eighteenth, after all. I was really pleased to see that Novgorod’s historic and architectural treasures are being protected for the future. I was impressed by the effort that had been put into making the city accessible for tourists, with a well-equipped information booth, a sign-posted “museum city,” and some eye-popping items on display. During my visit, it seemed that most of the tourists spoke Russian. Over time, more foreign guests may come as more people become aware of the richness of this “first city” of Russia. For me, Novgorod seems key to understanding the origins of Russian culture.