After the Image And Likeness

Is Nesvizh the true “New Jerusalem”?
Moscow may easily lose the title “Third Rome” to Belarus’ city of Polotsk.

The huge supercity with almost a thousand-year-old history may be left number four, immediately after the native city of St. Evfrosinia. According to Yury Chanturia, the doctor of architecture and professor of Belarusian National Technical University, Polotsk is a reduced copy of Constantinople, the city that was once called the second Rome. So if it was second, Polotsk must be the third, as it is older than Moscow. People normally don’t believe these inferences, but all of them would normally gasp “What a coincidence!” in sheer disbelief.

— Both the cities were built on seven hills and three corners. Three and seven are sacred numbers, and their coexistence is never fortuitous, Yury Chanturia shares his observations. The main hills of the two cities are crowned by St. Sophia Cathedrals, but in Constantinople the church overlooks the Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn Bay, whereas in the Belarusian city the church is placed almost symmetrically, the two water bodies being the rivers Dvina and Polota. The two banks of the Dvina form an arc that looks very much like the European and Asian shores of the Sea of Marmara, the spot where the former capital city of the Byzantine Empire was born.

According to professor Chanturia, the fact that both Constantinople and the Polotsk of the 10–13th centuries form a triangle also testifies to the original plan of the ancient architects to embody the Holy Trinity in their city.
After Constantinople had been invaded by Turks in late 15th century Polotsk was rebuilt following the image and plan of another ancient city.

— The chief architectural dominants of then Polotsk repeated the key constructions of Jerusalem, the professor tells me. These are the church of the 11–13th centuries, the Sophia Cathedral, the Red Tower, the Black Brook and the bridge, the Jesuit garden and the Catholic church. The hexagonal pattern follows the relevant points on the city map of Jerusalem: the Tomb of Lord, the Solomon Temple, the Golden Gate, the Kedron Stream and the bridge, the garden of Gethsemane and finally the Chapel of the Ascension.

But Belarusian architects must have believed there were very few “signs” of Jerusalem in Polotsk and decided to have a whole new city that would become New Jerusalem in Belarus.

St. John the Evangelist wrote in the Book of Revelation that the Holy Town that comes from heavens is square, with three towers and the altar of the Holy Trinity in the middle [and showed me the holy city, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God… the city lies foursquare, and its length is as great as its breadth].

The city of Nesvizh is also square, and its three cathedrals look exactly like three towers. The holy altar is the city hall that is famous all over the country.

Who was the first one to have this audacious idea to compare the Belarusian city with Jerusalem?

They say it was the Italian architect Giovanni Maria Bernardoni, invited in the 16th century to rebuild the capital of the Radivills, but it appeared later on that the Italian master simply executed someone else’s order.

— Bernardoni is just a craftsman, says Eugenio Riccomini, the professor of the University of Bologna, who came to Belarus to find out more about the masterpieces of the fellow countryman. He had a task to build a house, a castle, a church. Giovanni Maria is not an intellectual, he did not have to think, he was an ordinary stonemason, a builder. A great builder he was.
According to the architect and restorer, Vadim Glinnik, Bernardoni had enough time not only to work, but also to have fun. It often happened that he gave up his work. The real developer of the city, the patron architect of Nesvizh was Mikolai Khristofor Radivill Sirotka. After he got back from his journey around the Middle East (1583–1584) with such milestones as Crete, Cyprus, Syria, Palestine and Egypt, he started a large-scale construction in Nesvizh: a large stone castle replaced the wooden building, and Jesuit, Benedictine and Dominican monasteries were built.

To build the city anew Radivill decided to invite the famous architect Bernardoni.

It is clear now where Radivill got his idea to turn his town into a new Jerusalem; however, some researchers doubt that the streets of Nesvizh repeat the pattern of the holy city.

— There is no evidence, Vadim Glinnik says. The speculation of Yury Chanturia is quite interesting. However, Moscow was considered the third Rome for real, while direct comparisons between Belarusian towns and the capitals of the world are too bold.

If it really takes time and debate to attain the truth, this very truth needs many days and long trips along narrow lanes and winding streets. But the real meaning of the outline of our cities and towns may be worth it…
by Viktor Korbut
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