Chagall’s Vitebsk reconstructed in Baroque style.
Every July, Vitebsk transforms. However, this year, the changes impressed even local residents. On entering the city, you can’t but notice the sparkling golden domes of Dormition Cathedral. They tower above ancient Vitebsk and symbolise the city’s revival. Now, those of Baroque-style Holy Resurrection Church — rebuilt in the former Market Square close to the Town Hall — echo those of the Cathedral. On July, 10th — when the 18th International Slavonic Bazaar in Vitebsk Festival of Arts opened, bells rang there for the first time. The church has been resurrected after many years of silence. Narrow Suvorov Street leads from Holy Resurrection Church; nearby, old-style lanterns, comfortable benches and flower pyramids add charm.
Meanwhile, a new public garden has appeared at the foot of the church, with a path leading along the right bank of the River Vitba (from which Vitebsk assumes its name). Even though the garden rests below Vitebsk’s hills, it offers a beautiful panorama of the city. It’s impossible not to look at majestic Dormition Cathedral — being the largest in Belarus (at 50m tall and just under 50m wide).
Italian architect Fontani spent almost fifty years constructing the Cathedral in the second half of the 18th century. During those long years, the popularity of Baroque was replaced by Classicism. The building was sadly destroyed during the revolutions and wars of the last century, but has since undergone restoration — with its walls re-built and its domes and crosses covered in gold ready for Slavonic Bazaar-2009. Vitebsk is already well recognised — resembling the city of old postcards. Dormition Cathedral was often depicted but few believed it would ever be restored to its former glory. In 1998, Patriarch Alexy II laid a capsule in its foundations, bearing a message for future generations. Now, the ‘future’ has arrived and only interior decorations still require work.
Vitebsk is advancing into the future, while keeping its wonderful past to mind. Visitors to the city always admire it and Russian writer Ivan Bunin considered it to be the most beautiful of settlements. He was greatly impressed by the Roman Catholic Church of St. Anthony of Padua. Now, a fountain with mermaids is placed on its site. No doubt, the church will also be restored one day, drawing on Bunin’s impressions: ‘yellow walls, with two large bell towers, turned the Roman Catholic church into a strong and broad-shouldered landlord. Mystique ruled inside — as is natural for any ancient building; this included twilight, arrays of benches, lights on the altar and a calm obtuse melody’. “I was greatly impressed by its organ on my first visit (in my youth) — believing it to be the best I had seen among cathedrals — and this was a mere church in Vitebsk!” said Bunin. “It seemed to me that no other as wonderful existed in the world; its severe, gnashing growls, rumbles and thunders stood against the exultations and cries of angels in the open heavens.”
An unknown early 19th century traveller also wrote of Vitebsk’s Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, saying, “Like giants, they stand between private buildings. Their facades echo Italian architecture with Greek and Gothic forms intermixed. I love such architecture so greatly that no time is sufficient in which to fully admire it.” Twenty eight early 19th century churches were situated along the River Dvina; now, these architectural masterpieces are returning to life, one after another.
A decade was needed to restore Holy Resurrection Church. According to architectural historian Tamara Gabrus, it is one of the most graceful in Vitebsk and, probably, in Belarus. Naturally for such a key site, a legend exists; people say that Napoleon wanted to move the building brick-by-brick from Vitebsk to Paris. In fact, Bonaparte opened a hospital in this holy place. Today, mass is being sung here once more, below golden crosses hanging 37 metres above.
Vladimir Polovtsev, the Director of Vitebsk’s Restoration Centre (involved in the reconstruction of historical sites), notes that his company has decorated the dome with lightened stained glass. To make the towers look golden, they are covered in nitrite-titanium brought from Russia’s Chelyabinsk region (where a military-industrial plant casts them under 500 degrees temperature).
Restoration is always a complicated and expensive process. Vitebsk is proud of all three of its unusual churches. The third is 12th century Annunciation Church, rebuilt in the late 20th century. It is located alongside the Town Hall (the only architectural monument to have survived the last century) and connects the modern city to the past, which only survives in old photos.
Interestingly, famous Vitebsk artist Marc Chagall drew inspiration from his native city. One can easily recognise its silhouettes; each of its churches was engraved on his heart and is reflected in his works. Vitebsk has changed greatly in the past few decades, with the sites loved by Chagall and Bunin now proving the most popular with tourists.
[i]By Viktar Korbut[/i]