Дата публикации: 01 сентября 2021
Автор(ы): Leonid BELYAEV
Публикатор: Научная библиотека Порталус
Номер публикации: №1630491625

Leonid BELYAEV, (c)

by Leonid BELYAEV, Dr. Sc. (Hist.), Head of the Archeology Department of Moscow, RAS Institute of Archeology


In the center of Moscow, there stands a part of an ancient city constructed in the pre-Petrine period. It is a convent known from the late 16th century as the Conception Convent in Ostozhenka. According to local legend and the historico-religious tradition of the second half of the 19th century, its appearance is connected with activities of Metropolitan Alexei, an associate of Dmitry of the Don (1350-1389). Alexeyevsky Convent (14th-15th cent.), in the 16th-17th centuries located nearby, is also associated with his name. In 1993, I put forward an idea to check a generally accepted "hypothesis" (i.e. to find out whether the Conception Convent had ever been there) by way of excavations, as it is hardly possible to form an authentic picture of the events that took place 400-500 years ago only on the basis of scarce written sources. Ten years later, when it was decided to reconstruct the Conception Cathedral, demolished in the 1930s, we got a chance to do so.




The initiative came from Mother Superior Iulianiya, and the RAS Institute of Archeology started research works carried out at the Conception Convent in the period from 2003 to 2008, which enabled scientists to develop a toponymic chronology of the convent not based on the available written sources and settle a number of problems. At the same time, source critics began to search for new documentary records in the archives. This was a really unique decision, contradicting the generally recognized procedure: if we speak about "written" periods, a historian usually plays the role of an "investigator", and an archeologist–the role of an expert ("a person under investigation"), who has to search for credible documents.


The Conception Convent is located to the southwest of the Kremlin, in the upper stream of the Moskva River, in Ostozhye*. As a whole, this territory is a part of the riverine terrace where an ancient road from the west to the east went through (from Vladimir to Smolensk and Kiev). It was separated from the Kremlin by the estuary of the boggy river Neglinka and a gully with the Chertory stream. This area is poorly studied even though in the



* Ostozhye–an ancient Russian word denoting a land plot of a specific size; a fence in the form of paling; special facilities to store haystacks.–Ed.

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Part of the Moscow plan of 1768 with the Conception and Alexeyevsky Convents.


19th century there were found some silver Arabic coins–dirhems of the 8th-9th centuries. However, local toponyms indicate that this territory had already been explored in ancient times: there were found the Obyden-skoye stand (early Iron Age) and Mogiltsy-ancient Russian mounds (still not studied by archeologists).


According to some estimates, first houses were built between Neglinka and Chertory in the pre-Mongol period (before the 12th century), and Ostozhenka itself was gradually inhabited in the 13th-15th centuries. The names of settlements referred to early Moscow times were mentioned as early as in the acts of Prince Ivan Kalita, i.e. the first half of the 14th century. We are referring to a big settlement of Semchinskoye. By the way, all ancient monasteries of Moscow, except for those built within the town borders, were built near such settlements and indicated the limits of the municipal government power–usually they were constructed near roads to the town and river crossings. For example, Danilovsky Monastery is located near the settlement of the same name, Vysoko-Petrovsky Monastery–near Sushchevo settlement, St. Andronicus Monastery–near the Site of Ancient Settlement. Apparently, the Conception Convent is not an exception.


According to extracts from the Letters Patent issued by Tsar Mikhail Fyodorovich (1623), the said convent appeared during the reign of Fyodor Ioannovich, i.e. after May 1584. There is a direct reference to the year of consecration of the cathedral in the Russian State Register of Ancient Deeds, in expenses books of the Patriarch's office: on June 27, 7093/1585 there was issued incense "to consecrate the church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin beyond the Earthen Town" (at that time the latter had the same borderline as the White Town–a stone wall constructed in the late 1580s-early 1590s. (The wall does not longer exist; it encircled the Kremlin, Kitai-gorod and adjacent blocks). The next entry made in a month after the issue of incense (on July 27) specified that the convent had just been built.


In a word, the Conception Convent was established in the period from spring 1584 (to be more precise, not before the death of Ivan the Terrible) to summer 1585. The cathedral was dedicated to the feast of Conception, associated with the prayers of the tsar Fyodor and tsarina Irina to give them children.


However, historians of the convent were always skeptical about the date of foundation and the fact that it was established in the desolate area. And they were right. Our excavations have shown: this territory had been inhabited much before: from the second half of the 14th century there existed a prosperous convent, called Alexeyevsky (St. Alexei). How to prove the continuous development of the convent in the period from the second half of the 14th century to the 1580s?




Let us begin with burials. As you know, monasteries served as main cemeteries of Russian towns, and the Conception Convent is no exception. In the course of excavations in the central part of the convent, we found more than 800 graves that quite exactly indicate the period of existence of the necropolis and neighboring areas in different times. Among the findings there were special shape vessels for anointing oil, characteristic of Moscow

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Central part of the Conception Convent with main facilities and burials of the 14th-18th centuries.


and used in Russia only from the second half of the 14th century till the mid-16th century (the tradition to leave a vessel with the anointing oil of the last anointing in a grave is described in detail in ecclesiastical literature, in particular, in the response of Metropolitan Kyprian (1390-1405) to Father Superior Afanasy on burial rites). The most ancient graves are characterized by gravestones decorated with the ornament typical of late 14th century (such gravestones are very rare and are found only at three or four Moscow cemeteries). Artistically made encolpia of

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The 16th century epitaphs: a-gravestone of Mariya, Semyon's daughter, mho took vows of schema, 1568; b-gravestone of Ivan (monk Ignaty), priest of Alexeyevsky Convent, 1520s-1560s.


the 14th-15th centuries (breast amulets: a small copper icon; a double-wing cross–reliquary*; carved icon of St. Nikita on bone–a defender from the Evil Spirit) originate from the burials under consideration.


The early cemetery bears traces of the wooden church located in the southwestern part of the examined area, which probably disappeared before the first half of the 16th century (it was discovered thanks to square ceramic tiles embossed from the reverse side; they were widely used for floors in Moscow churches of the 14th-15th centuries).


The chronology of church antiquities is proved by archeological findings related to household items. For example, the oldest ceramic items belong to the second half of the 14th-15th centuries and a big numismatic collection (more than 100 coins) comprises Russian coins of the time of Dmitry of the Don and Vasily Dmitrievich as well as coins of appanage principalities of the 15th century and Moscow Principality of late 15th century–first half of the 16th century (there is a coin with the inscription "Ornistoteles"; according to scientists, such coins were minted by the famous Italian architect Aristoteles Fioravanti, who worked in the city at that time). In the course of excavations in the Conception Convent, arche-ologists found more coins than in the central residential blocks of Moscow, which clearly shows an exceptional economic development and prosperity of the convent.




An incredulous historian would ask: why are we talking about the convent? Probably scientists have discovered there a center of the settlement near Moscow or a boyar estate with a house church and a cemetery?


However, we have to point out that there were no other settlements in this region (in the 14th-15th cent.) besides the aforementioned Semchinskoye located up the river. Moreover, the number of graves (about 2-3 thousands) is too big for a settlement and an estate.


Another important argument in favor of the existence of the convent in this place is a ratio between sex and age of the buried. The anthropological analysis gave surprising results: there were found two thirds of buried women, one third of buried men and many buried children. These results are also proved by epitaphs (including children: 32 names of women and 9 of men). Such unequal proportions are characteristic of monastic cemeteries, where usually prevail remains of either men or women; remains of children are more usual for convents.


By the way, archeologists discovered many items, directly indicating their monastic origin, at the cemetery (5, 7, 10 and more beads, up to 110, made of bone, glass and wood, with a compulsory "bow" bead for the ease of counting; iron chains intersecting on the chest and on the back; bricks–head rests). Though they mostly belong to the period of the existence of the Conception Convent, some of them were made in the 16th century, when the convent did not even exist.


We should mention those who got used to work with texts, not with material objects: time attribution of the settlement under consideration based on epitaphs will be more exact and convincing. Unfortunately, they can tell nothing on the cemetery of the 14th century: first epitaphs appeared in the 1480s-1490s, and became widely



* Reliquaries–pectoral crosses with small parts of relics.–Ed.

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Plan of the central part of the Conception Convent: bases of stone and traces of wooden structures of the 14th-17th centuries.


used only in the 1510s- 1520s. What we have discovered is still very impressive. First of all, we have discovered a wide variety of gravestones: over 100 samples representing the whole evolution of monuments–from a flat tska* (plate) of the 14th century to magnificent "sarcophagi" and "tables" of the late 17th century. About one third of the gravestones are inscribed, most of them belong to the 16th century (around 25), gravestones of the 17th century are less common (as a rule, it is vice versa). The inscriptions contain an exact date of death and a name of a buried person.


The gravestones made before the foundation of the Conception Convent (before 1584) are of special interest for us. There have been preserved at least two gravestones belonging to the first half of the 16th century, indicating exact dates of death: gravestones of a baby inscribed– graphitto** (1524) and Mikhail Beklemishev (1538/37). Another two gravestones of the same period have no inscriptions but are decorated with an ornament of the late 15th-first half of the 16th century. Speaking about the reign of Ivan the Terrible, there have been preserved 6 gravestones with exact dates: 1550, 1551, 1560, 1567, 1568 (2 plates), respectively. These gravestones (and approximately the same number of gravestones without



* Tska (or dska, icon board)–a base for tempera painting traditionally used for icons. The most often used species of wood are linden, birch, spruce, cedar, larch, oak and maple. An imported cypress board was considered the best and most expensive. The boards were hewed from blocks and planed with an adze,–Ed.

** Graphitto–a technique for creation of mural images.–Ed.

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Basements with vessels of late 15th-16th centuries: a, b-axonometric perspective with elements of reconstruction.


inscriptions) represent a cemetery of the second half of the 14th-16th centuries and a necropolis of the Conception Convent established after 1584.


The inscriptions finally confirm the fact that the cemetery belonged to the convent: it was very important to indicate a monastic name in the ancient Moscow epitaph. That is why we can get information not only on the death of nameless babies, respected town dwellers (Vasily Danilovich Ushekov, 1551) and young women (Solo-monida Andreyevna Sobakina, 1567), but also nuns (nuns, who took vows of schema*, Liviya, 1560, Mariya Semenova and one more nameless nun–both died in 1568).


The next series of inscribed plates (13 inscriptions), including those informing us on the death of nuns who took vows of schema, belong to the period of the existence of the Conception Convent (1588/89-1600s). They have much in common with the gravestones of the earlier period and form a single cycle of evolution. In all, there are the names of 24 nuns (21 of them took vows of schema), inscribed on the gravestones belonging to late 17th century.


The plates of the Time of Troubles** and the period before the 17th century are scarce, the most common are gravestones of the 17th century. They contain information on the families that had contacts with the convent: among them were boyars and noblemen (Anisiya Timo-feeva, the nun who took vows of schema, Golovkin's wife, 20.12.1596; Feodosiya Vorontsova, etc.), civil servants (Feodosiya Grigoryevna, wife of the scribe Avraam Koshcheev), rich merchants or manufacturers (gunsmith Vasily Usoltsev's wife, a nun who took vows of schema, 1596).


Thus, we see how epitaphs decisively attribute the chronology of the cemetery to the 14th-16th centuries–it is a necropolis of the convent that existed in this place long before the Conception Convent.




Well, what about the convent? The ancient Moscow tradition to make inscriptions on gravestones will not help answer this question: the name of the convent was never included in epitaphs. Fortunately, sometimes priests used to write down names of churches they served while alive. And such an inscription was found at the Conception Convent! Unfortunately, the date is absent, but peculiarities of the ornament and lapidary epigraphy (a discipline studying inscriptions on stones.–Ed.) make it possible to refer it to the 1520s-1560s, i.e. the period before construction of the Conception Convent. Two lines of the preserved text are distinctly readable: "...died the priest Ivan Olexeevskoy, in monastic life Ignaty."


Apparently, this gravestone belongs to the senior priest of the church with the altar in honor of St. Alexei, who took a monastic vow. The man was buried at the convent, the fact which can probably be explained by his service at the local cathedral. This is a decisive argument in favor of the fact that the archeological complex under consideration is not simply an unknown convent of the 14th-16th centuries, but namely Alexeyevsky.


If so, we can get back to the written sources. What was known about Alexeyevsky Convent in the 16th century? First of all, would like to draw your attention to contradictions existing between two sources. According to the list of Moscow buildings (1514) by the famous architect Aleviz Novy, the cathedral of Alexeyevsky Convent was mentioned "outside Chertolye"; in the list of church wardens of Moscow for 1551 there is a reference to a certain "priest Drimtry from Chertolye, Olexeyev Convent, Altar of Transfiguration". That was the first time the Altar of



* Nun (monk) who took vows of schema–a monk or a nun consecrated in schema. Schema–a higher stage of monkhood prescribing isolation and strict rules.–Ed.

** See: Ya. Renkas, "The First Civil War in Russia", Science in Russia, No. 6, 2008.–Ed.

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Ceramic vessels from basements: a-jugs made of white clay; b-glazed jugs made of red clay; c-money-boxes made of light clay.


Transfiguration was mentioned; according to the available data the same altar was in Alexeyevsky Convent inside Chertolye. The 19th century historians and their colleagues living in the 17th century settled this contradiction on the basis of the aforesaid deed, issued in 1623 by tsar Mikhail Fyodorovich: according to it, the convent was first "outside Chertolye", i.e. at the place of the future Conception Convent. But after the fire it was transferred to the White Town: "in the reign of our grandfather the Tsar and the Grand Prince of all Russia Ivan Vasilyevich there was Olexeyev Convent at the place of the Conception Convent and on the basis of the letters patent it received lands, and after the fire in Moscow that Olexeyev Convent was transferred to the stone town in Chertolye".


According to this rather vague text, the convent could be presumably transferred in the reign of Ivan IV or even Vasily III, connecting this fact with the fire of May 22, 1508 (7016) (the early 19th century historian Alexei Malinovsky), when "St. Alexei" and adjacent quarters burnt out or with the fire of 1547 (prominent historian of Moscow of the 19th century, Honorary Member of the St. Petersburg AS from 1907 Ivan Zabelin). The most convincing version belongs to the famous regional ethnographer, historian and expert of Moscow Pyotr Sytin (1885-1968), who associated translocation of the convent with a

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The 15th century encolpia: a-a small icon with the image of St. Nikita killing the demon; carved bone, authentic metal frame (Moscow, 15th cent); b-folding cross (encolpion), a fold with the image of the crucifix; cast work, copper alloy (Moscow, 15th century); c-the second fold (with the image of St. Nikita killing the demon).


raid of the Crimean Khan Devlet Girei in 1571. The point is that the Letters Patent of 1623, when describing the translocation of the convent, depicts events of late 16th century, not earlier (the White Town was constructed in 1585-1591; the early date of its building is 1589). Besides, we did not find gravestone inscriptions belonging to the 1570s-early 1580s.


Moreover, we have learnt about two sisters of the Metropolitan Alexei, who were recognized and honored as founders of the ancient convent, which is an additional argument in favor of location of Alexeyevsky Convent in the zone of the existing Conception Convent. The southwestern corner of the cathedral square is considered their burial site from at least late 16th century. In the course of excavations, the scientists discovered that before the construction of the church (1766), there had been a graveside tent (regarded as a sacred place, it was an honor to be buried there). The early date of its construction is proved by the epitaph on a girl's grave nearby, but after completion of the construction (Antonida, Terentyev's daughter, May 21, 1592). Around the tent there had been discovered many closely spaced graves of nuns and parishioners, indicating their striving to be buried as close as possible to the sacred place (but it was located in a ditch of a big wooden structure filled up as early as in the mid-16th century, and such ancient graves could not simply be preserved there).


Thus, the archeological materials convincingly associate the prehistory of the Conception Convent with Alexeyevsky if not in legal sense, then in religious-topographical plane. This makes it possible to extrapolate the line of development to the 16th and 15th centuries, as far as reliable written sources are available. If after 1571, Alexeyevsky Convent was finally transferred to "Chertolye", its former place in Ostozhye was abandoned and in 1584 became a site for Conception Convent, then what happened there from 1551 to 1571? Let's try to clarify this problem.


As we know, the Alexeyevsky Convent in Ostozhenka already existed at that time: anyway, noble and prosperous nuns, who had taken vows of schema, were buried at its cemetery. But there should have been another Alexeyevsky "in Chertolye"! The archeologists carried out studies of its site only in the 19th century and also found gravestones of nuns (the ealiest ones in 1582), but there also exists the entry of 1551. Well, such "split" of the Alexeyevsky Convent could be explained by two estates owned by one cloister–it is known that their sites were five minutes' walk from each other, in some hundred meters. The site in Ostozhenka (probably, more ancient) regularly suffered from attacks and fires. The site in Chertolye was located closer to the town and was protected by a ditch filled with water. Later on, it was protected first by wooden and then by stone walls of the White Town and could be used as a town house, a kind of "siege courtyard", where finally concentrated the whole convent after the 1571 fire. But it is only a hypothesis.


The archeological material requires deep archive studies that will help to clarify the history of estates in possession of Alexeyevsky Convent of the 16th century and correlate Ostozhenka and Chertolye sites.

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Coins of the second half of the 15th-first half of the 16th cent.: a-pulo (copper coin) of the grand prince Ivan III Vasilyevich, obverse side; b-reverse side; pulo of Mozhaisk principality: c-obverse side; d-reverse side.


Let us get one step down by the time ladder. In the 16th century, Alexeyevsky Convent suffered from a number of fires. If we decide to rely on the above-mentioned list of buildings by the architect Aleviz Novy, after the fire of 1508 there was built a stone church outside Chertolye: "The Church of St. Alexei at the Convent out of Chertory" (the chronicles do not indicate the exact date of laying or consecration of the church, so the fact of its construction is rather doubtful). But reconstruction of the convent after the fire of 1508 is apparent: there was a reference to it and two other cloisters of Grand Princesses in 1521 in the testament of Dmirty Ivanovich Uglitsky (brother of the Grand Prince Vasily Ivanovich). The church referred to in 1514 could probably be the remains of a big building of the 1510s-1540s made of white stone and brick. It was constructed on a deep basement comprising a central hall, a chamber from the south, a ground annex from the east and a gallery on pillars from the west. Perhaps, the building was used as a refectory with the ground floor for household needs and the church on the second floor.


In the late 15th century, Alexeyevsky Convent still was one of the most important convents of Moscow. It was mentioned twice in testaments: in 1486 Mikhail Andreye-vich, Prince of Vereya and Belozerye granted a village of Nizhneye to the convent, in 1503 Prince Ivan Ruzsky made a money contribution to pray for him after his death. Finally, when in 1472, there were found remains of the nun Fetinya (in the world–Princess Mariya, wife of the Grand Prince Simeon Ivanovich Gordy), in the Kremlin Monastery of Savior in the Forest, the Grand Prince Ivan III Vasilyevich ordered "to send for the Mother Superior of the Olexeyev Convent to make new garments for her ". This was the last documentary reference to the convent before an almost one century of silence, which separates reliable texts from chronicles and hagiographical works (Lives of the Saints, etc.).

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The late (after the 1560s) Lvov chronicle asserts: the metropolitan Alexei (died in the spring of 1378) established a convent in Ostozhenka as a common dwelling and branch one in relation to his own Chudov Monastery in the Kremlin. Another date of the establishment of this cloister was determined by specialists on the basis of an extract from the text of the prominent Russian historian Nikolai Karamzin (Honorary Member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences from 1818), who included it in his famous History of the Russian State under 1393. In the preserved collections of the chronicles you will not find this text; it is believed to be a part of the parchment Trinity chronicle (lost in 1812).


Due to a vague character of available texts, scientists (for example, a contemporary researcher of medieval Russia Vladimir Kuchkin, Dr. Sc. (Hist.), from the RAS Institute of Russian History (Moscow) and his colleagues) are doubtful about the existence of the ancient Alexeyevsky Convent in the 16th century. If the answer is positive, was it somehow connected with the metropolitan Alexei? If so, was the convent for all, were its women-founders real figures, and were they related to the Metropolitan? Unfortunately, modern archeology cannot answer these questions, but can offer some good ideas. Although it is very difficult to find any difference between findings of early 1360s and late 1370s, we are absolutely sure: the convent in Ostozhenka was founded not later than late 14th century.


The information, we have mentioned above, clearly underlines a common dwelling character of the convent. Archeological data referring to the 15th-16th centuries also confirm this information.


Thus, the Conception Convent is still the only wooden complex of the 14th-first half of the 16th century systematically studied in Russia. In the southern and western parts of its cathedral square, there were discovered two parallel lines of wooden structures (cells) with deep basements. The cells are located from west to east along the axis of the cathedral. The cells existed for quite a long time: one line of cells remained intact and a new line was constructed, thus shifting the whole system of cells to the center of the square. Such change happened in the second half of the 15th century in a quiet atmosphere: empty cellars filled with pure sand can serve as silent witnesses.


But cells of a new line burnt down and were never reconstructed: even today we can see burnt ceilings and floors lying over cellars with empty vessels. In the course of archeological works, we collected tens of intact forms and noted a very interesting regularity: there were similar sets in each cell: 4-6 big jugs (up to 25 liters), 3-4 small jugs, 1 or 2 ceramic bottles, 1-2 pots and small jugs painted with white engobe (solution of clay). Such a high level of egalitarity (i.e., insignificant social and economic inequality.–Ed.) in consumption and a strict layout of cells can be interpreted as signs of a common dwelling system at the convent.


The aforementioned findings belong to the 15th-mid-16th century, and the coins found in the sand filling–to the first half of the 16th century. These facts make it possible to connect the time of destruction of the convent with Moscow fires of 1547 or 1571. But we know that the line of cells was reconstructed at least once, which means that the complex had been constructed much earlier–probably, in the 15th century.


It is very important to point out: in 1584 when the convent was opened for the second time, its internal topography changed-basements of burnt-down buildings were filled up and construction along the square was not renewed–later on there appeared a new part of the cemetery around the revered stone graveside tent.


Findings of the 14th-15th centuries cannot help in identifying names, but confirm high status of their owners. Exceptionally rare and expensive items brought from the East–a vessel made of Chinese porcelain–celadon*; semi-faience bowls of the times of the Golden Horde (13th-14th cent.); a "spherical cone" (a biconic vessel with thick walls and a small hole, used in the East to transport different medicines.–Auth.)–allow specialists to compare layers of the convent with the antiquities of the Moscow Kremlin and assume its close contacts with the higher clergy, including the Metropolitan Alexei, who had visited the Horde many times.


In conclusion I would like to thank the administration of the Conception Convent and the top clergy of the Orthodox Church, who took a sincere interest in restoration of the convent and assisted in our archeological surveys. For example, all archeological findings are today kept in a specially designed crypt** of a new cathedral, where the museum collection will soon be exhibited.


Meanwhile, we should emphasize: to find answers to the set questions is important not so much for this very convent, as for Moscow and monastic construction in general. It will help to promote mutual understanding between specialists of more or less related spheres of knowledge– archeologists, historians of the church and source critics– as well as to develop new all-embracing approaches to the history of Russian culture and its heritage.



* In ceramic industry celadon is a special type of glaze and a specific pale-gray-greenish shade of green color. This type of ceramic products was invented in ancient China.–Ed.

** Crypt-one or several underground vaulted premises, located under the altar and choral parts of the church and used to bury and expose relics of saints and martyrs. It has another name-"lower" church.–Ed.

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