The New Jerusalem (Resurrection) Monastery on the Istra River

Archaeological exploration of the New Jerusalem (Resurrection) Monastery on the Istra River has been ongoing since 2010. It is a fundamental project aimed to research the culture of the Russian state in the period of Patriarch Nikon, Tzar Aleksey Mikhailovich and his successors, i.e. Feodor Alekseyevich and Peter I. Archaeological materials describe the Patriarch activity as an attempt to launch a unique ‘church-driven modernization’ of Russia using the model based on the trends of European rationalism and the Enlightenment, introduction of technologies along with adoption of Western iconography and familiarization with the visual culture code of Europe that was already taking place.

The traces of the ‘stylistical and technological explosion’ in the New Jerusalem Monastery on the Istra River that occurred in the middle of the 17th century are visible everywhere: the collection of museum-quality finds comprises almost 10,000 items; around 40 architectural and archaeological features, mostly, unknown before, were included in the Monastery architectural ensemble. Archaeological excavations revealed remains of a chapel built over an artesian spring well crowned in the past with the figure of an angel (the chapel was in operation for a short time), and a foundation pit of the ‘Chapel of the Franks’ meant to look like the 12th century chapel in Jerusalem (the foundation pit was made under Nikon, but the chapel was not constructed); sections of the earliest (the 1660s–1680s) cemeteries and thick square slab linings of the hill slopes along with earlier logged facing that rested on tarasy (logged structures filled with soil and pebbles used as outer fortification) leaned against the slopes.

The discovery of production areas dating to the middle of 1650s – early 1690s is of immense significance. The finds include a furnace for bellfounding (a bellfounding pit) and several kilns for making ceramics (one of the ceramic heating chambers contained rows of fired unglazed ceramic tiles placed on the edge or with the relief down, some tiles have the impressed date of 1690, which is the construction completion date). Furnace refractories and distributors, high-walled bowls without lids for preparing enamel (one bowl has preserved a graffiti made on the raw bowl saying ‘Made.. the bowl’) as well as stamps for various figurative elements of the tile; unclaimed semi-products and rejects were recovered from the grounds. No items of these types have been found in the Russian pottery industry before. The end products are also of great interest, including unique experimental artifacts such as ceramic icons of the Pantokrator and the Crucifixion (fragmented); a mock ceramic flask-shaped book (the initials may be deciphered as those of Patriarch Nikon); a fragment of flawed cast of the largest monastery bell (around 500 poods; one pood is approximately 16.38 kg; end of  the 1650s) known as the Resurrection bell and thought to have been lost. This fragment of the bell features a fragment of the composition ‘Descent of Christ into Hell’ (known in the orthodox version as the Resurrection) made in the baroque style.

The finds also include earlier works of church art such as fragments of a large steatite icon dating to the 12th–13th centuries and metal objects of art, apparently, from the Patriarch’s sacristy.

Over seven years of excavations the expedition rewrote the history of the monastery, whose role was crucial in Russian culture and which was the only monastery  where a full-size church identical to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem was built. The artifacts and buildings of the Monastery took on a new dimension and can be viewed as a reference historical and archaeological context of the early modern age that enables the researchers to explore early industry, people’s tastes and conveniences in their houses as well as changes in iconography. Laboratory research of this wealth of artifacts is just beginning, but archaeological science is now able to assess the Patriarch Nikon’s project as a decisive step towards the rapprochement of cultures, comparable with the reforms undertaken by Peter I,  which made Jerusalem a part of the spiritual atmosphere in Europe. Right in front of our eyes the Monastery has been turning into a landmark of not only Russian, but also of pan-European Christian culture that demonstrates a unique, Moscow-type version of the Russia’s cultural transformation mechanism in its mature form.

The expedition has become a platform for scientific and research-to-practice conferences which are included in the plan of the Russian Ministry of Culture and are aimed to establish cooperation between archaeological science and culture on one side and the church and practical activities on the other side. Results of research translated into practical restoration of cultural heritage is a distinctive feature of the studies. Materials of the expedition have been used to recreate furnaces of the 17th–18th centuries; traditional museum-based approach (museification) has been used to preserve kilns; museum expositions are being developed. The country leaders (Chairman of the Russian Government D.A. Medvedev and Patriarch Kirill visited the Monastery on November 7, 2014) have repeatedly visited temporary exhibitions where the finds are on display.

L.A. Belyaev

Digital Version of the Booklet