Monday, December 9, 2013
Claiming to be the oldest monastery in Moscow the NovospasskyMonastery, or New Savior, dates back to the early 14th century. Of course none of the original buildings remain and it is actually in a different location, which is slightly disappointing when you read "oldest" in a book, but the buildings there today date back to 1645 so in my mind it still carries a place of distinction in history. Ivan the Great had the monastery moved to its current location. The Sheremetev and Romanov boyars took over patronage, then when Mikhail Romanov became Tsar in 1612 the buildings went through a complete overhaul. Many early Romanovs are buried in a building here. Today the monastery appears as it did in that period.
Thick stone walls fortify the monastery containing an array of buildings. A massive yellow neoclassical bell tower (1750-1785) is easy to spot from across the Moskva River. There are several buildings on the property including the Pokrovsky (Intercession) church and the House Of Loaf-Fiving hospital and monks' living quarters. During the Soviet years it was used as a prison camp then as a police drunk tank with cells to hold arrested intoxicated citizens.
I wandered around the compound with the snow gently falling, dotting my hair with a soft, downy layer. I gazed up at the pale blue onion domes with brilliant gold stars shimmering in the grey sky. The central gold dome stood out on this bleak day. I stopped to take a picture of some red berries hanging from a tree, then quietly watched a monk walk by. This is a working monastery/convent. I'm actually a bit confused as to which it is because I found it called both in my books and online. An aura of stillness hung in the air created by more than the weather. This is a place of quiet meditation, worship and respect.
Feeling the coldness of the air begin to permeate my body I wandered into the main cathedral. As I stepped through the door I pulled my scarf over my head as the Russian women do. My breath caught as I gazed at the frescoed walls of the long hallway. With soft footsteps I slowly followed the women, bent over with age and laden with heavy coats as they traveled down the hallway, pausing to stop at golden icons and kiss them. I followed up some steps and around a corner until we ended in the main room.
I had to pause and collect myself. I did not expect the brilliant blue walls and frescos to be in such good condition. These walls were created in the mid 1600's. Thousands of fingers have traced a profile and lips have kissed a saint. I stood unable to move, there was so much to take in. The room was lit by a few windows and stands of thin beeswax candles where visitors were quietly igniting the wicks in symbolism of forgiveness of sins and to glorify God. I found a seat by a window and sat down. A row of monks sat opposite me defined by their long black robes and beards. Nuns huddled together as a gypsy woman entered with her baby tightly bound in a pile of blankets. She approached the monks, begging for a blessing.
My attention was pulled to the center of the room where a monk, surrounded by a group, stood chanting. I could smell the incense coming from the gold ball he was swinging. I heard a tinkling sound like money dropping in a bowl. I never figured out what it was, but the metallic sound reverberated throughout the room creating an eerie song with the priest's monotone voice. A woman stood alone in the corner weeping. A feeling of aloneness swept over me. The people in the center crowded in to look at something. They bent and kissed and cried. A woman passed me kissing the wall as I rose to understand what attracted the group of people. I could see a body covered in lace laying on a short table. I would not have known it was a body except for the two hands outside the lace, crossed on the woman's chest.
I've asked around trying to figure out what was going on. Did I stumble upon an Orthodox funeral or did I witness the worship of a dead person? I was ready to leave the atmosphere of complete desperation behind.
Heading out of the compound I noticed a cute looking restaurant located in the courtyard that looked like a cozy place to stop in for lunch. I will return when the sun is warm and life springs from the ground to this quiet Orthodox church.