William C. Brumfield


Photo 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 35, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34

      In the popular imagination, virtually all Russia is north, cold, and imponderable. Yet within this vast territory, there is a region north of Moscow that has a cultural coherence created by those who settled in its forests and moved along its rivers and lakes. Even this limited area, sometimes considered a stronghold of "pure" Russianness, contains a rich ethnic and cultural variety derived from a complex interaction of history and geography. Inhabited by Finnish tribes before the arrival of the first Slavic explorers and traders, it served as a retreat and place of spiritual solace for the avatars of Muscovite monasticism during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. At the same time the wealth of its forests and lakes, and its position astride trading routes north to the White Sea and west to the Baltic led to the creation of towns that themselves became repositories of traditional Russian values in the arts and crafts.

      The gateway to the north, and ultimately to the port of Arkhangelsk, is the city of Yaroslavl, whose seventeenth-century architecture was the subject of my article "Photographic Documentation of Seventeenth-Century Architectural Monuments in Yaroslavl," Visual Resources (Vol. 11, No. 2). At Yaroslavl the Volga River turns northwest and forms part of a major water-based shipping route. But the road to the White Sea and the port of Arkhangelsk proceeds due north from Yaroslavl to the city of Vologda, one of the historic and cultural centers of the Russian north. Vologda's dim origins go back at least to the twelfth century, when the area was explored and colonized by traders and settlers from Novgorod, located some 500 kilometers to the west of Vologda and one of the most important economic centers of medieval Russia.

      By the end of the fourteenth century, Moscow had its own representatives in the town; and a century later, after a prolonged, complicated struggle, Vologda and its surrounding territory were taken into the Moscow principality. By the middle of the sixteenth century, Vologda had become the major trading and administrative center in northern Russia. It served as the primary distribution point for rapidly increasing trade with England, and subsequently Holland, by way of Arkhangelsk and the Dvina River.

      Vologda was built entirely of wood until the reign of Ivan IV (the Terrible), who in 1565 included the town in his private domain (oprichnina) and initiated construction of a masonry fortress, or kremlin, apparently to serve as his northern residence (1). After 1571 this enterprise was abandoned and the walls were eventually dismantled; but one important monument remains: the Cathedral of Saint Sophia (Photo 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10).

Built in 1568-70, it is an excellent example of mid-sixteenth-century church architecture based on Aristotle Fioravanti's Dormition Cathedral (1475-79) in the Moscow Kremlin. After the Vologda eparchy expanded its territory in 1571, the Sophia Cathedral was intended to serve as the seat of this bishopric. However, for various political reasons the cathedral was not consecrated until 1588, after the death of Ivan the Terrible.
      Fortunately, the Vologda Cathedral of St. Sophia has been well preserved. Its whitewashed brick walls are outlined by pilaster strips leading to a horizontal row of semicircular gables, or zakomary, which were restored to their original configuration after the Second World War.

      The segmentation of the exterior corresponds to the interior bays and their vaulting, in the tradition of the inscribed-cross plan of Russo-Byzantine church architecture. The onion domes, which provide a striking visual culmination to the structure, evolved to their present form as the result of modifications to the building during the seventeenth century. (Their original form would presumably have been closer to the hemispherical shape still retained in the Dormition Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin.) The elaborate iron crosses above the cupolas were added in 1687.

      Yet despite recent concern with historic preservation, there have been dubious modifications to the area surrounding the cathedral.
      A well-intended but ill-advised decision led in 1987 to the placing of a large monument to the nineteenth-century poet Konstantin Batiushkov and his horse on a small plaza between the approaches to the cathedral and the banks of the Vologda River. As a result it is difficult to perceive or photograph the cathedral in its context without the interference of this oversized sculptural group.


The interior of the Sophia Cathedral contains some of the best surviving examples of late seventeenth-century Russian frescoes. In 1686 the archbishop of Vologda, Gavriil, hired a group of approximately thirty artists from Yaroslavl that included the most renowned fresco painters of the period, such as Dmitrii Grigorev Plekhanov who had supervised the painting of the Dormition Cathedral at

the Trinity-Sergius Monastery near Moscow in 1684. In an era when western views of art as a secular occupation were beginning to penetrate Russia, the artists painted on the walls a list of their names and a large, elaborate description proclaiming the beginning and end of their work, from July 1686 to the summer of 1688. (Such proclamations would rarely have appeared in church art before the seventeenth century.)

      The huge space of the cathedral interior was completely painted and included major scenes devoted to the life of Christ and Mary, the parables of Christ, and, on the west wall, a particularly vivid "Last Judgement," with elegantly dressed foreigners descending to hell. Although these frescoes are relatively well preserved, photographing them is subject to negotiation; and even then, only a brief time is allowed for that purpose. The museum entrusted with maintaining the interior needs additional revenue and is apparently concerned that such photographs not be used for commercial purposes. At the same time, there are no complete, or even adequate, published reproductions of the frescoes, which rank among the most significant examples of seventeenth-century Russian fresco art. Given the current economic situation in Russia, this dearth of photographic documentation seems likely to continue.

      With the exception of the Sophia Cathedral, Vologda throughout the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries remained a collection of log structures, more than once devastated by fires. In addition to these natural disasters, the city was sacked in 1612, during the Time of Troubles. Nonetheless, Vologda's strategically important position assured its continued existence on a scale that impressed foreign merchants and emissaries, some of whom left drawings of its large expanse, covered with church towers and log houses. With the recovery of the city in the 1620s and its increasing wealth, masonry construction appeared more frequently as a partial antidote to the ever present danger of fire.

      The largest of such projects was a brick wall resembling a fortress and built in 1671-75 to protect an ensemble of log buildings that comprised the archbishop's residence near the Sophia Cathedral. Within the ensemble itself, the first building to be rebuilt in brick (1659) served as an office and treasury. Its broad interior spaces now house the collection of the Vologda Regional Museum, which is distinguished by its collection of icons and folk art. Only a small part of this collection has been adequately documented in photographs, and a number of the best examples of Vologda icon painting have been transferred to major museums such as Moscow's Tretiakov Gallery and the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg (2).

      The following decade witnessed the rebuilding in brick of the Archbishop's Chambers (palaty) and, above them, the Church of the Nativity, begun in 1667 and completed in the 1670s (Photo 11).
      Subsequent additions and modifications have obscured the original form of the complex, whose ground floor contained the scullery and other service buildings for the archbishop's use. The archbishop's residence and reception rooms comprised the main floor, above which was a small third floor used as servants'quarters. The main interior of the archbishop's chambers was rebuilt in the mid-nineteenth century, when the two upper floors were opened into one large hall - now used for museum space.

      In a practice not untypical of large monasteries and eparchal residences, the east end of the structure contained a refectory and church - dedicated in this case to the Nativity of Christ. (Most Nativity churches in Russian Orthodoxy are dedicated to the Nativity of Mary.) Its elevated cuboid form is characteristic of seventeenth-century church architecture. Unfortunately, a rebuilding of the roof in the 1860s reduced the original five cupolas to one. As in all such cases, photographic documentation must be supplemented by historical data for a comprehensive representation of the original, ornamented form of seventeenth-century Russian churches. A recent, limited restoration has returned some of the ornamental window surrounds and portals of the church. From the end of the seventeenth century to the beginning of the nineteenth, the Archbishop's Chambers gained additional structures that ramified from the original, and provided space for a seminary, a consistory, and related purposes.

      Other masonry buildings completed in the archbishop's court by the end of the seventeenth century include the Holy Gates and, above them, the Church of the Elevation of the Cross (1687-1692). In comparison with Moscow church architecture of the same period, the design of the Elevation Church is austere, even awkward - an impression intensified by a modification of the roof line in the eighteenth century. Here, too, photographic documentation must be combined with historical data to reconstruct the intended form.

      The next major project within the eparchal compound was a new building for the Archbishop's Chambers, named after the archbishop that commissioned them: Joseph Zolotoi. This new residence, built in 1764-69, demonstrates the incursion of secular palace design into religious institutions during the eighteenth century - a development represented most notably in St. Petersburg's Smolny Convent and Alexander Nevskii Monastery. Furthermore, the decorative program of the residence - its exuberant use of painted trompe-l'oeil rustication and other elements on the main brick facade (itself painted red) - represents a provincial adaptation of an ornamental approach to architectural design prevalent in Muscovy at the end of the seventeenth century (3).

      Astonishingly, no documentary record of the architect's name has been found. Very little of the original interior work remains, apart from a few magnificent tile stoves characteristic of eighteenth-century Russian palace design.

      Joseph Zolotoi also commissioned the Cathedral of the Resurrection (1772-76), situated on the site of a razed fortress tower at the southeast corner of the archbishop's court. Although the original architect is unknown, the cathedral's construction was entrusted to a local master by the name of Zlatitskii, who freely interpreted a wooden design model in the baroque style. By the 1770s the baroque had yielded to neoclassicism as the preferred style in Russia's major cities during the reign of Catherine the Great. In the provinces, however, the baroque continued to flourish, albeit without the refinement of work by masters such as Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli. The Resurrection Cathedral is unusual by any Russian standard for its two-story oval shape, with semicircular towers attached at the four "corners. The main space is covered with a large dome that supports a lantern and cupola. The interior, remodeled in the nineteenth century, has been converted for use as the Vologda art gallery.

      The final, and dominant, element of the archbishop's court is the bell tower, situated just to the north of the Resurrection Cathedral (see Photo 2). The original brick tower, octagonal in form and culminating in a conical "tent" tower and cupola, was constructed in 1654-58. In 1869-70 this tower served as the core for a major expansion of the structure by the main provincial architect, V.N. Shildknekht, who buttressed the lower walls and replaced the original "tent" with two additional tiers and a cupola. In a confusion of medieval stylization frequent in nineteenth-century Russian architecture (4). Shildknekht gave the rebuilt tower the trappings of the western Gothic style; yet the general effect is harmonious, both in ornament and in structural proportions. The spacious interior contains the nineteenth-century wooden stairs that lead in vertiginous ascent to the tower's bells and to a narrow platform that encircles the base of the uppermost tier. For the photographer the considerable effort of climbing to the platform is rewarded with a panoramic view of the city, the Vologda River, and the surrounding countryside.
      Beyond the central ensemble of the Sophia Cathedral and the archbishop's court, Vologda expanded in all directions to accommodate its several precincts devoted to commerce, crafts, and administration. Of the several masonry buildings constructed by foreign merchants and by monasteries during the seventeenth century, most have disappeared; but a number of brick churches remain. Indeed, at the beginning of the twentieth century, Vologda had some fifty-five churches, of which at least fourteen were destroyed during the Soviet period (5). This sad, but by no means unique, record of destruction has deprived Vologda and those who study it of some of its most significant architectural monuments. As in most such cases, the only accurate visual records to have survived are those made by photographers (6).

      A survey of Vologda's church architecture reveals a considerable variety of forms, but it has been noted that unlike other major centers to the north and east of Moscow, such as Yaroslavl and Kostroma, Vologda produced no distinctive local style (7). For example the Church of St. Nicholas on the Limestone, located on the right bank of the Vologda River just to the southeast of the Sophia Cathedral, combines elements from several sources. Although the church has been tentatively dated to the late eighteenth century, the spire above the bell tower and the simple classicizing motifs of the window surrounds and pilasters suggest an earlier period. In 1869 the church was rededicated to Saint Alexander Nevskii, but there appear to have been no significant modifications to its symmetrical design.

      The area to the north of the archbishop's court, the so-called Upper Settlement/ once contained a rich concentration of historic monuments; but its current state shows the alterations of unregulated post-war construction. The oldest surviving monument is the Church of Saints Constantine and Helen, built in 1690. As is typically the case in Vologda, the church was founded much earlier - perhaps at the beginning of the sixteenth century - and existed as a log structure until its reconstruction in brick. On the exterior, it is one of the best surviving examples of late seventeenth-century architecture in the Vologda region, with two rows of decorative gables leading upward to an array of five cupolas. But during the Soviet period the interior of the church was defaced and gutted, and it now houses the lathes and other industrial machinery of a woodworking shop. The graceful bell tower, attached to the northwest corner, has long stood without bells.

      Among the few other churches still preserved in this district, the most elegant is Saint Varlaam Khutinskii (1780), built in a neoclassical style whose detailing and proportions are distinctly unprovincial (Photo 12, 13, 14, 15). Although the name of the architect is unknown, the merchant who commissioned it gained his wealth from trade in St. Petersburg, and perhaps commissioned an architectural office in that city to design the church. Indeed, in its basilical plan and its emphasis on the bell tower steeple, rather than on the relatively small, oval cupola over the sanctuary, the St. Varlaam church resembles the first major monument of St. Petersburg, the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul (1712-32, by Domenico Trezzini). the classicizing elements, however, are of a later period, and one critic has called this church the earliest example of the Louis Seize style outside of St. Petersburg (8). Situated in a small, overgrown park, the church is difficult to photograph in the summer because of the lush verdure that now surrounds it in this quaint provincial neighborhood. Fortunately, a concerted effort by local residents has saved and renovated in the area surrounding the church a number of the nearby nineteenth-century wooden houses, similar to those that have been leveled in other parts of the city.

      On the opposite, left bank of the Vologda River, most areas have been rebuilt; but along the embankment itself, a number of monuments predating the twentieth century still stand. The Church of the Transfiguration in Friazinovo, tentatively dated to 1670, is named after its location in a district settled by foreign merchants, who in medieval Russia were often given the generic designation of friaziny, or "Franks." This church (also known as the Church of the Apostle Andrew) has been much altered by the replacement, perhaps in the early nineteenth century, of its original five cupolas with one. No photographic documentation exists of the earlier form, but traces of arches that supported the four subsidiary drums and cupolas can still be seen on the interior. The structure is unusual in having only two large interior piers, rather than four.

      There were, however, at least two other church of similar design in Vologda, one of which was destroyed, while the other - the Church of Saint Nicholas in Vladichnaia Quarter - still stands, albeit obscured by scaffolding. When the renovation is completed. Saint Nicholas will be the largest active church in Vologda. Both the Transfiguration and St. Nicholas churches are surrounded by monotonous, standardized housing built in the post-Stalin era.

      Farther to the north along the embankment stands the Church of Saint Dmitrii Prilutskii, a revered local cleric who in 1371 founded a monastery to the north of the city. In fact this is a compound of two churches, one could be heated for winter use (the "warm" church) while the other - a larger, unheated building (the "cold" church) - was used in the summer. The pairing of churches, whether of logs or masonry, for seasonal use was a common practice in many parts of Russia/ with each church in the pair having its own dedication. In this case the larger of the two is the older, built around 1650 by two architects from Yaroslavl (9). In 1710-11 a smaller "warm" church was added to the north facade, and a large bell tower was constructed at its northwest corner. In the 1750s the small church, with an altar dedicated to the Dormition, was rebuilt as a separate structure, still attached to the bell tower, which remained unchanged. At present (1996) the larger church is under scaffolding for a renovation-part of an ongoing process of repairing and reclaiming churches in the post-Soviet era.

      The remaining churches on the embankment have not yet reached the stage of renovation, although they are among the best examples of Vologda architecture. The Church of Saint John Chrysostome (also referred to as the Church of Women Bearing Myrrh) was built in the late seventeenth century in a typical design consisting of an elevated cube and five cupolas. In size it matches the Church of Saints Constantine and Helen, although its decoration is less elaborate. The large, graceful bell tower, placed to the northwest of the main axis of the church, produces an especially picturesque effect on the banks of the Vologda River-although views of these and other buildings along the river's left bank are now being obscured by the profuse growth of trees at the river's edge. (These trees are of relatively recent origins; even post-war photographs of this area show almost no growth along the river.) As of this writing the Church of Saint John Chrysostome is still being used as a warehouse, and there are no immediate plans for its renovation.

      A similar situation confronts the Church of the Purification, the northernmost religious monument on this section of the embankment. Built in 1731-35, the church combines elements of traditional seventeenth-century design, but in a refined treatment that reflects the early baroque aesthetic in Russia. In particular the proportions of the elevated main structure are unusually slender, although the weighty, ornamented cornice, with double dentilation, provides an emphatic stop to the vertical ascent. Above the cornice the vertical emphasis continues with narrow drums and five cupolas, which culminate in the elaborate ironwork of the crosses. The white-washed brick walls contain decorative window surrounds that combine the seventeenth-century style with traces of the Petersburg baroque; but the most remarkable ornamental effect is the use of strips of polychrome ceramic tiles to outline the structure (including the cornice) and the window surrounds. Although this device was frequently applied in Yaroslavl churches of the late seventeenth century, its use here is unique among the monuments of Vologda.10 The bell tower, connected to the main sanctuary by a lower refectory, was rebuilt in the mid-1830s, when it gained its lancet arches in the upper tier (11). Despite this unlikely combination of early baroque and pseudo-Gothic, the bell tower, with its spire, was expertly designed and provides an evocative accent to the landscape.

      The embankment strip also contains the densest concentration of Vologda's historic masonry houses, from a modest structure with baroque window surrounds built for an unknown patron in 1777, to the fulsomely decorated facades of the house of admiral Ivan Barsh (1780s). The interior decoration of at least one major room in the Barsh house has been preserved, but most of the original interiors have long since faded. Proceeding along the embankment down river, one finds in the Maslennikov house also built in the 1780s, a more restrained manner derived from the early Petersburg neoclassicism of the reign of Catherine the Great.

      By far the largest of these residences is the Vitushechnikov house (1822-23), which belonged to a local industrialist. At the end of the nineteenth century the house was expanded on either side of its main facade, marked by eight corinthian pilasters. As a result the structure acquired more the appearance of a government building than a dwelling. Despite its size the front facade is difficult to photograph because of the row of trees that screens it from the river.
More intimate in scale is the early nineteenth-century Varakin house, located a short distance away on the embankment (Photo 35). Although provincial in its simple joining of bays divided by Corinthian pilasters along the main facade, the dimensions of the house are well suited to its location on a quiet river promenade. The center is marked by four pilasters and a balcony on the bel etage, with a simple pediment above. The exterior decoration includes intricate plaster panels as well as patterned metal drain spouts.

      For this type of domestic architecture, however, one can find better examples in other provincial cities such as Kaluga. The real distinction of Vologda is its wooden houses, many of which still survive, albeit under most interesting examples - in terms of decoration, if not structure - is the Vorobev house (1910), whose carved ornament reflects the influence of style moderne, the Russian equivalent of art nouveau (Photo 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34). Many other examples still remain, with distinctive features such as protected entrances and second-story loggias. Unfortunately, the advances of decay and neglect are often evident, and there are few resources for renovation. The dilapidated appearance of these solidly built and Grafted structures supports the arguments of those for whom such buildings are a useless encumbrance. Under these circumstances, photography is essential to record what remains of this architectural legacy in the Russian north.

      As for the more traditional northern vernacular architecture, an attempt has been made to establish an open-air museum near the village of Molochnoe, a few kilometers to the northeast of Vologda. There are numerous such parks devoted to the preservation and display of wooden architecture throughout European Russia. The design of the one near Vologda is unusual in its apparent fidelity to the plan of a typical northern village, rather than an artificially close arrangement of interesting buildings.

      However, this project is close to a standstill for lack of funding. The reassembled houses stand with temporary roofs, and work proceeds sporadically. In the meantime, at least one church intended for the park has collapsed before its transportation to the site could take place. Ironically, in its present state this project resembles some of the actual abandoned villages of the economically-depressed Russian north, even as the concept of wooden architecture parks is being questioned by some museum specialists for their artificiality. Despite its problems the Vologda site has gathered some remarkable examples of northern log dwellings, such as the late nineteenth-century Bolotova house from the village of Korolevskaya. In harmony with climatic conditions that required the bringing together of the farmstead into one protected unit during the long winter, this complex structure includes not only the main living space and a smaller dwelling attached to the side for a new branch of the family, but also a barn, attached to the back, for storage and livestock. Such houses need their own specialized study, but the immediate priority is their preservation.

      During the nineteenth century Vologda attained notoriety as a place of exile for political prisoners, but it also gained the attention of ethnographers and artists such as Vasily Kandinsky (13). With the coming of railroads to the north during the last three decades of the nineteenth century, Vologda became an important regional transportation center. With the concomitant growth of commerce, the city and its landmarks drew the attention of photographers and art critics such as Georgii Lukomskii, one of the leading proponents of the neoclassical revival in Russian archite ture at the beginning of the twentieth century. For aesthetes such as Lukomskii/ who in 1914 published a book on Vologda, such towns of the Russian provinces represented an ideal of architectural harmony (14). Whatever the validity of that ideal, it has been severely threatened in this century. Although Vologda escaped war damage, it has witnessed other forms of destruction. Increasing pressures on behalf of redevelopment, with a concomitant demand to demolish wood dwellings, are changing the face of the city. Although the protection of architectural monuments during the Soviet period was largely honored in the breach, with the present economic conditions there appears to be even less effective protection for historic districts, as old buildings are leveled or modified beyond recognition. At this point photographic documentation has never been more necessary for preserving a record of Vologsa's architectural heritage.


For assistance in preparing the photographs in this article for publication, I would like to thank the Samuel H. Kress Foundation. These photographs are a part of the William Brumfield collection at the Photographic Archives of the National Gallery of Art, Washington.


     1. An authoritative survey of the historic architecture of Vologda and other major sites in Vologda Province is Genrikh Bocharov and Vsevolod Vygolov, Vologda. Kirillov. Therapontovo. Belozersk (Moscow, 1979).

      2. For excellent reproductions of some of the most significant examples of Vologda's religious art (including examples held by museums in Moscow and St. Petersburg), see Gerold Vzdornov, Vologda (Leningrad, 1979).

      3. For a discussion of late seventeenth-century ornamentalism in Russian monastic architecture, and examples such as the Refectory Church of St. Sergius at the Trinity-St. Sergius Monastery, see William Craft Brumfield, A History of Russian Architecture (New York, 1993), pp. 170-183.

      4. The mixture of western and Russian medieval revival styles is discussed in William Craft Brumfield, "The French Connection : Victor Hugo, Nikolai Benois, and the Medieval Revival in Russian Architecture," The Ham-man Review 8 (December 1995) 4:1-13.

      5. A listing of Vologda's churches at the beginning of this century and the dates of their construction is contained in the encyclopedic volume by Fedor Konovalov, Leonid Panov, and Nikolai Uvarov, Vologda. XII-nachalo XX veka (Arkhangelsk, 1993), pp. 121-24.

      6. An informative selection of photographs of pre-revolutionary Vologda is contained in Georgii Lukomskii, Vologda v ee starine (St. Petersburg, 1914).

      7. Vzdomov, p. 28.

      8. Lukomskii, p. 200.

      9. Bocharov and Vygolov, p. 118.

      10. For examples of ceramic decoration on the facades of Yaroslavl churches, see Brumfield, "Photographic Documentation of Seventeenth-Century Architectural Monuments in Yaroslavl," Visual Resources, 11 (1995) 2:135-65.

      11. Bocharov and Vygolov, p. 111.

      12. A comprehensive and well-illustrated survey of Vologda's wooden houses is: Aleksandr Sazonov, Takoi gorod v Rossii odin (Vologda, 1993).

      13. On the importance of Kandinsky's journey through Vologda to the Russian north in 1889, see Peg Weiss, Kandinsky and Old Russia (New Haven, 1995), pp. 1-32.

      14. Lukomskii's book is cited in note 6. For reference to his views on the harmony of early nineteenth-century Russian provincial architecture, see William Craft Brumfield, The Origins of Modernism in Russian Architecture (Berkeley, 1991), chapter 6, with particular reference to pages 292-94.

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