Bell ringing over the Dvina
[b]One of the most beautiful and largest Orthodox churches in Belarus — Holy Assumption Cathedral — to open during Vitebsk’s Slavonic Bazaar Festival [/b]Bell ringing is part of the priceless legacy of our ancient culture — an integral part of Orthodox services. The pure, sonorous chime clears our souls, while the stentorian basso of a giant 5 tonne bell cannot but charm us. Not long ago, a similar bell — the heaviest in Belarus — was erected at the top of the 40m belfry of Vitebsk’s Orthodox Holy Assumption Cathedral, joining two dozen smaller and lighter bells
Bell ringing is part of the priceless legacy of our ancient culture — an integral part of Orthodox services. The pure, sonorous chime clears our souls, while the stentorian basso of a giant 5 tonne bell cannot but charm us. Not long ago, a similar bell — the heaviest in Belarus — was erected at the top of the 40m belfry of Vitebsk’s Orthodox Holy Assumption Cathedral, joining two dozen smaller and lighter bells. Sadly, in the 1930s, the cathedral — standing on a hill where the Vitba and Zapadnaya Dvina rivers merge — was blown up. Its restoration began in summer 2000, using archive materials. This summer, the cathedral is expected to welcome believers again, opening its doors to residents of Vitebsk and its guests during the International Slavonic Bazaar Festival of Arts.
Holy Assumption Cathedral is one of the oldest in Vitebsk. Archaeologists believe a sacred pagan site existed there until the 12th century, having found artefacts beneath Uspenskaya Hill: a ritual bone axe engraved with magical symbols and an astragal. It’s thought that the site was dedicated to the Slavonic Goddess Makosha, who protected the feminine and inspired fertility. From the 15th century, the church honouring the assumption of the Mother of God was among the largest in the city, called ‘soborny’ (cathedral). It kept the most important documents and was initially made from wood. In 1708, Vitebsk was burnt down at the order of Peter I, by a troop of Cossacks. Along with other buildings, the church and the Basilian Monastery were razed.
The construction of a stone cathedral began in 1745, under the guidance of Iosif Fontani — an architect of Italian origin from Grodno. Some documents state that the cathedral was a small copy of a Roman church, built by famous Onorio Longhi from Lombardy. Great Michelangelo Caravaggio depicted him in his Vocazione di san Matteo (the painting is now kept by Sancti Ludovici Francorum de Urbe in the Italian capital). In fact, other legends relating to the church exist. There was a rumour in the 19th century that a subterranean tunnel existed below the Zapadnaya River, starting at the cathedral. However, it is most likely that this was a drainage system con-structed from brick and wood to take away ground waters from the cellars to the river. The domes of the drain were of a height to allow a man to easily pass through.
Vitebsk’s joining of the Russian Empire after the Rzech Pospolita’s division facilitated the cathedral’s building. In 1799, Paul I handed it to the Orthodox Church and, later, St. Petersburg’s Alexander Nevsky Lavra gave it a vestry and other facilities. The cathedral was viewed as Vitebsk’s calling card and was among the most magnificent churches of the Russian Empire. It was so beautiful that, in 1911, an Imperial photographer took a colour photo of its interior. “We kept feasting our eyes on its spiked towers, grand portal and strictly shaped dome — either visiting it to pray, walking nearby or looking at it from the windows of our apartment,” wrote local researcher Alexander Sementovsky-Kurilo in 1865. “Having inspected the most impressive churches from the Black Sea to the Baltic Sea, and having visited numerous monasteries, we were seldom as amazed by external or internal architecture.”
The cathedral has witnessed many historic events. In 1812, it housed a hospital for Napoleonic soldiers, who destroyed all its best decorations. After their expulsion, the building was restored but, in the 21st century, it required restoration again. The Soviet authorities had closed the cathedral and the seminary there, demolishing the building in the mid-1930s (by a team organised by sapper Piotr Grigorenko, who later became a dissident and human rights activist). “It took us a month and a half to prepare for the planned explosion,” recollected Mr. Grigorenko. Afterwards, he regretted having been involved in demolishing three Vitebsk churches. “There was no explosion in the usual sense. We heard only the boom and crackle of bricks as they fell from the top. The cathedral subsided, producing a deep groan and… became a pile of bricks. People came running up, expressing their surprise and admiration at the ‘clean’ work we’d achieved. Nobody, least of all me, had any idea that a true architectural masterpiece, a place for people’s spiritual talk with God, had been destroyed.” In 1949, a factory producing grinding machines was built but was deserted by the 1980s and fully demolished in 1998.
The rebuilt Holy Assumption Cathedral is an exact copy of that which was destroyed. Its first stone — laid in the foundations over 12 years ago — was consecrated by His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and All Russia. Construction works began in 2000 and, in 2008, the domes were erected, alongside crosses and ten bells. Two years ago, the cathedral was visited by His Holiness, the Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia. Not long ago, patrons donated another 10 bells, including the largest in Belarus (weighing over 5 tonnes).
“The bells were cast at Moscow’s ZIL Plant, paid for by a large Russian company,” says the prior of Vitebsk Holy Assumption Cathedral, Father Mikhail (Martynovich). “We hope they’ll please city residents with their chimes this Easter.” Igor Konovalov, the senior bell ringer of Moscow’s Kremlin Cathedral and the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, is to hang and tune the bells. On the eve of Lent, Metropolitan of Minsk and Slutsk Filaret, Patriarchal Exarch of All Belarus consecrated the lower church of the Holy Assumption Cathedral: Saviour Transfiguration Church. With the Chairman of Vitebsk Regional Executive Committee, Alexander Kosinets, he toured the interior, admiring the decorations and inspecting the frescos of traditional Biblical plots and Belarusian saints. All work is to be complete by early July. The monastery will also be ready, in addition to the long and beautiful steps leading to the river banks. The cathedral is to open for the Slavonic Bazaar Festival, which gathers around 150,000-200,000 guests over a single week. Among them are singers, artists, actors, tourists, ambassadors and officials from over 30 countries.
By Sergey Golesnik