By Özlem Eren | University of Wisconsin-Madison
St. Demetrios Cathedral in Vladimir was built by Vsevolod III the “Big Nest” (Всеволод III Юрьевич «Большое Гнездо», r. 1177–1212) between 1193 and 1197. It is a massive cube-shaped building with a cupola on a long drum. The height of the church is approximately equal to its width and the length (approx. 15m) excluding the drum, but the decorative elements on the wall surfaces provide a visual elongation of the proportions. The walls are made of white limestone. It has a typical Middle Byzantine cross-in-square plan with a dome, but the thick, sturdy appearance of the building, the rounded portals, and the exterior decoration with stone reliefs, blind arcades, and corbels with figural sculptures give the impression of a Western Romanesque church. The most interesting feature of the exterior of St. Demetrios is the stone relief decoration displaying fantastic creatures and animals. Such a decorative scheme is uncommon in Eastern Orthodox churches.
The main entrance to the building is located on the west side, and the east side has three protruding cylindrical apses. The façades on the three sides of the building are divided into three horizontal tiers of decoration. The bottom tier is without any carved decorations; the middle tier has decorative blind arcades, and the top tier has three semi-circular bays with rounded tops (zakomara) covered with carved stone reliefs. Of the 566 carved reliefs on the three walls of the building, not including the carvings of the blind arcades, only 46 images are drawn from Christian subjects. The rest include floral patterns, birds, lions, leopards, fantastic hybrid creatures, and griffins.
The original appearance of the church was different. Externally it was surrounded on three sides by covered galleries; and additionally, towers on the west side provided access to the interior ‘princely’ galleries. St. Demetrios Cathedral was included on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1992.
Vladimir is an ancient town established in the 12th century on the zalessky kray (залесский край, “the land beyond the forest”) north-east of the state of Kyivan Rus, or today’s Golden Ring region, on the Kliazma River that linked it with the Volga River—the old trading route of Eastern Europe. Vladimir-Suzdal Principality reached its Golden Age under the Grand Prince Andrei Bogolyubsky (r. 1157–74). St. Demetrios Cathedral was built by Prince Andrei’s half-brother, Vsevolod III, beginning in 1193.
The monumental architecture of the principality of Vladimir-Suzdal has unique characteristics that distinguish it from Kyiv. First, the building material is predominantly white-stone, not brick or opus-mixtum. Between the reign of Yury Dolgoruky and the Mongol invasion by Batu Khan (1238), 22 white-stone buildings were erected. Second, the church façades display sculptural reliefs of animal and human figures, which is unusual in Eastern Orthodox church architecture.
The outside appearance of St. Demetrios Cathedral is in continuation with the earlier white stone churches of Vladimir built by Andrei Bogolyubsky ca.1158–1160. On all three façades, the central zakomara displays a figure of the Biblical hero, King David, who is a model of kingship. King David killed the giant, Goliath, and later established Jerusalem as the capital city, which resonates with the grand princes of the newly established Vladimir-Suzdal Principality. On the left bay of the north façade, the patron Vsevolod III is depicted enthroned with his five sons, one in his lap and four others arranged on the right and left. On the south façade, Alexander the Great is depicted with two griffins, one to either side. Thus, the visual language of power is apparent in the figural relief decorations on the exterior of the building.
In the interior, beneath the vaults of the west end “princely” gallery, fragments of the original 12th-century frescoes were discovered under the layers of paint in 1918. A common theme among these frescoes is the Last Judgment and the separation of the righteous from the damned. On the larger vault beneath the princely gallery, on both slopes, two scenes with rows of saints with open books and angels are depicted. On the smaller vault under the same gallery, a scene of St. Peter leading the righteous wives to heaven, two of whom in the attire of Byzantine princesses, is painted. Another noteworthy scene is where Abraham, holding a soul on his bosom, surrounded by Jacob and Isaac, is placed outside of an enclosed space on the left, where the Mother of God is depicted with angels. This suggests that the Bosom of Abraham is a distinct place from heaven in Eastern Orthodoxy. The fragments of frescoes reveal the adherence to typical Byzantine style and iconography of apostles and saints, with some reminiscence to the frescoes in St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv. This implies a continuity with the Middle Byzantine principles of church interior decoration since the foundation of St. Sophia of Kyiv (1037).
When the Rus princes came to zalessky kray, these territories were not unoccupied, as evident from the remainders of pagan names in the region, such as “Yarilo’s Valley.” There were settlements along the west bank of the Volga by Finno-Ugric and Slavonic tribes from the 9th–10th centuries. The presence of multi-ethnic populations and persistence of pagan along with Christian beliefs (двоеверие, “dual-faith”) among the Slavs, even after the conversion to Christianity (988), complicate the interpretation of the relief decorations of St. Demetrios. The Slavic pagan Zbruch idol (on display at the Krakow Archaeological Museum) in the context of a multi-ethnic environment can help shed light on the dual pagan and Christian symbolism.
The sculptural decoration with lions, griffins, eagles, and vegetal motifs in the architecture of the near-contemporary Serbian monasteries (e.g. Mother of God Church in the Studenica Monastery in Serbia, established by Stefan Nemanja in 1196) display similarities with this already rare decorative style in Medieval Rus. Studenica Monastery has a composite architectural style that brings together the Byzantine, Slavic, and Lombardian (Romanesque) church building and decorating traditions, known as the Raška School. Architectural similarities between Studenica and St. Demetrios suggest the operation of highly qualified and sophisticated workshops with connections from the Balkans to the regions of Rus. This is in agreement with the cultural unification of Slavs through the formation of a common Slavic language after the introduction of Cyrillic script. Bulgaria and Serbia emerged as the main routes of transmitting the Byzantine culture into Slavic lands in the Balkans and the Rus as the direct ties with the Byzantine Empire weakened over centuries. The artistic activities and the translation efforts of Byzantine texts into Slavonic in various workshops and cultural centers in the Balkans, mainly Preslav, Pliska, and Ohrid, contributed to the selective adoption of Byzantine culture, hence the formation of a unique Slavic Christian identity.
The most frequently noted aspect of the exteriors of the churches in the area of Vladimir-Suzdal and the Serbian monasteries is their similarities to the 11th-12th-century Romanesque architecture in Italy. However, the commonly featured figures such as lions and griffins are part of an Ancient Persian and Sassanian visual vocabulary – long before the connection with the Lombard architects was established. The decorative elements have long been transmitted across cultures through small objects traded along the routes connected by Volga. Moreover, Georgian and Armenian churches from the 10th century were predominantly made of stone and displayed similar sculptural relief decorations on their exterior walls (e.g. Church of Holy Cross in Akthamar in today’s Van in eastern Turkey.)
Therefore, the methodology of examining these buildings has to go beyond identifying the prototype of each distinct feature. The real question is “What did these images mean for the Rus?” The Vladimir-Suzdal princes appropriated Byzantine, Western Romanesque and Eastern iconography to develop a local, harmonious visual idiom with roots in distinct traditions of building and decorating churches.
Gippenreiter, Vadim, and Alexei I. Komech. Old Russian Cities. London: L. King, 1991.
In contrast to Voronin, this later study by Gippenreiter and Komech argues that the Vladimir-Suzdal area was rich in stone and that was the reason that they built their churches in stone, instead of wood or brick.
Rybakov, Boris A. Язычество Древних Славян [Paganism of the Ancient Slavs]. Moscow: Academic Project, 2015.
Rybakov argues that the pagan beliefs did not completely disappear among the Slavs after the conversion to Christianity and most had dual-religions. His study elaborates on the pagan deities, festivals, and motifs on the Slavic folk embroideries, which can help in the interpretation of the carvings on St. Demetrios façades.
Shvidkovsky, Dmitry. Russian Architecture and the West. Translated by Anthony Wood. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.
Shvidkovsky discusses the development of Russian architecture as part of the architectural history in the broader European context. Regarding the style and iconography of St. Demetrios Cathedral in Vladimir, he argues that there are parallels with Western Romanesque churches, especially in Lombardia.
Vagner, Georgii Karlovich. Скульптура Древней Руси: XII век: Владимир, Боголюбово. Памятники древнего искусства [Sculpture of Ancient Russia: XII century: Vladimir, Bogolyubovo. Monuments of Ancient Art]. Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1969.
This is a comprehensive study of the key monuments of the Vladimir-Suzdal principality in the 12th century, which also includes a discussion of the problem of the masters.
Voronin, Nikolai Nikolaevich. Зодчество северо-восточной Руси XII-XV веков [The architecture of north-eastern Russia XII-XV centuries]. Vol. 1-2. Moscow: USSR Academy of Sciences Publishing House, 1961–1962.
In-depth study of the architectural monuments of Vladimir-Suzdal principality. Regarding the white stone material, Voronin argues that it needed to be mined and transported from quarries at least 500 km away, which makes the cost of white-stone building ten times more expensive than a brick building of the same size.
Zagraevsky, Sergei V. Юрий Долгорукий и древнерусское белокаменное зодчество [Yury Dolgoruky and Ancient Russian White-stone. Architecture]. Moscow: Alev-V, 2002.
Zagraevsky examines the white-stone churches in Vladimir-Suzdal region and evaluates the term “Russian Romanesque.” He rejects the thesis that Galician churches “influenced” these churches and argues that churches of Yury Dolgoruky were built by local masons under the guidance of Russian masters, who might have been trained in Western Europe.