The Monasteries Near Moscow – Russian Travel

The great monastery of Simonof, about four miles distant, will probably be the first which travelers will visit from Moscow. The drive would be a pleasant one if the pavement were not so agonizing. We turn to the left by the bridge beneath the Kremlin, and skirt the river for some distance. There are many views worth painting, especially toward evening. On the river are barges of corn, which are said to be each accompanied by 50,000 of the privileged pigeons (emblems of the Holy Spirit), eating most voraciously. On the low hill which we cross is the huge Monastery of the New Redeemer (Novospaski Monastir), so called because it was built by Ivan III. in the place of the original Spassky monastery of his great-grandfather Kalita. It is surrounded by high walls, and approached by a gateway. Its immense quiet enclosure contains several churches. In the principal church, approached by a picturesquely frescoed corridor, are the graves of many of the Romanoff family, before any of its members were elected to the sovereignty. But the graves of the family include that of Martha, mother of the Czar Michael, who had become a nun when her husband, afterward the patriarch Philaret, became a monk. Her son Michael and her grandson Alexis are represented on the walls near the ikonastos. Alexis gave the monastery to the famous Nikon, who resided here till his accession to the patriarchate, and went hence every Friday to the Kremlin, to converse with the Czar after the church service. Almost more than the churches in the Kremlin does the church of Novospaski seem to be crowded with venerable icons.

Very beautiful and melodious, tho somewhat monotonous, is the singing in these great monastic churches, where we may constantly hear monks singing the “eternal memory” of a departed soul. Good bass voices are especially appreciated in the Ectinia, which answers to the Litany of the Latin Church. Extracts from the Old Testament and from the Epistles are read in the services, as collected in the books called Minacon and Octocchos. When the Gospel is going to be read the deacon arouses the attention of the congregation by the loud exclamation of “Wisdom, stand up, let us hear the Holy Gospel!” One of the most striking parts of the ordinary service is the hymn called Trisagion, or thrice-holy, a hymn so called from the word “holy” being thrice repeated. It is of high antiquity in the Church, and owes its origin, as is pretended, to a miracle in the time of Proclus, Bishop of Constantinople.

Between Novospaski and Simonof we pass a very picturesque ancient Russo-Saracenic gate-way. Then through a bit of wild open country we come to a grove of trees, beyond which, on the edge of a steep, rise the walls of the great monastery of Simonof, which was founded in 1370 by a nephew of St. Sergius, on a site chosen by the saint himself. The imposing circle of towers on the walls resisted many sieges, but in that of the Poles the place was taken and sacked. It once possest twelve thousand male serfs and many villages; now it has neither serf nor village. Its six churches, once too few, are now too many.

The central gate, under the great bell-tower, has long been closed, and we approach the monastery by a sandy lane between the walls and the cliff. Hence we enter the enclosure—a peaceful retreat—with an avenue, and, in the center, a tall church, with the five bulbous cupolas, said to represent Christ and the four Evangelists, in the same way that thirteen are said to represent Christ and the twelve Apostles. All around are little houses with gay gardens of marigolds and dahlias, and bees humming in hedges of spiraea. The famous metropolitan, St. Jonah, lived here as a monk. On the ikonastos of the church is the icon with which St. Sergius blest Dmitri of the Don, when he went forth against the Tartars, and beneath are buried his two warrior monks, who perished in the combat.

To reach the Novo Devichi (the Newly-saved) Monastery, we follow the road we took to the Sparrow Hills as far as the outskirts of Moscow. Thence a wide street, with shabby houses scattered along it, leads to a sandy dusty plain, whence rise, as from a desert, the battlemented walls and weird lofty gate of the monastery, which was founded in 1524 in commemoration of the capture of Smolensk. The exterior is perhaps the strangest, the interior the prettiest of all the monasteries. Masses of flowers, carefully tended by the multitude of nuns, cluster round the graves, which fill most of the space between the little houses and the church, with its many domes shrouded in a veil of chain work. Little raised paved pathways for winter lead in every direction. Silvery bells chime from the great tower. A myriad birds perch upon the aerial webs of metal work—the hated sparrows, as well as the honored swallows.

There are multitudes of small birds, but it is affirmed that there are no magpies within thirty miles of Moscow. The golden trowel of the metropolitan was once carried off when he was about to lay a foundation stone. The workmen were accused, knouted, and sent to Siberia, and then the bell-ringers discovered that magpies had carried it off to the top of the belfry, and the birds. were Burst accordingly.

The abbess of Novo Devichi came and talked to us while we drew among the flowers, gathered nosegays of zinnias, sweet-peas, and scabious for the ladies of our party, and lamented her sorrows in the perversion of a niece, who, after the privilege of being educated in a convent, had declared that she had a vocation for-matrimony! Catherine II. founded an institution here.