Church on the Pyatnitsky Stream in Smolensk

In the autumn of 2012 a concentration of flat, almost square shaped blocks of the Byzantine type known as plinth bricks was found right in the center of Smolensk. During the cleanup it became clear that these were remains of a church, including fragments of the base of the walls and pillars. In the summer of 2013 systemic excavations in a large area helped unearth the entire architectural and archaeological site.

The church has been preserved almost completely, with the exception of the altar part, which is gone, because at the end of the 16th century architect Fedor Kon built the Smolensk city wall running from the east across the hill ledge. When the foundation pit of this impressive city wall was built one quarter part of the church, namely, its eastern part with three semicircular apses, was pulled down to give way to the foundation ditch; huge boulders from the church foundation stacked in several rows are still visible near the eastern part of the ancient building. A dry ditch or an escarpment in some places, which destroyed the western part of the church gallery, was made some 15–20 m from the wall.

When the wall and the ditch were constructed the ancient church was already in ruins and was basically a turfed hill covered with rubble; therefore, some of its sections could be demolished. It should be noted, though, that the ancient church was left to decay or was demolished as early as the 14th or the 15th centuries, and a cemetery, in operation until the 16th century, appeared on its ruins. The name of the saint to whom the church was dedicated fell into oblivion; the built stone wall ran across the church site, while the names of nearby buildings and areas, such as the Pyatnitsky End, the Pyatnitskaya Tower and the Pyatnitsky Stream may refer to both this church and to another church located on the opposite bank of the Pyatnitsky Stream, to which the archaeologists gave the name of the Pyatnitskaya Church (Pyatnitskaya Church is dedicated to St. Paraskevi of Iconium, known in Russia as Paraskeva Pyatnitsa); for this reason, the newly excavated site received the name of the Church on the Pyatnitsky Stream.

The excavations revealed that in the middle of the 12th century a small four-pillared church typical for Smolensk and for the entire Dnieper Basin had been built on a hill ledge. It was constructed entirely of plinths using regular-coursed stonework and cream-colored mortar mixed with plinth rubber. Apparently, it was a one-domed church, with the dome drum supported by four pillars cross-like in plan. The interior church walls did not have pilaster strips (lesenes) corresponding to the pillars, which is typical for the second half of the 12th century (in the middle of the century each pilaster strip of the pillar had a corresponding pilaster strip on the interior walls, dividing the wall surface optically; subsequently, the pilaster strips on the interior walls were taken away).

The outer façade of the church was divided into parts by pilaster strips, while semi-columns, typical for the Dnieper Basin architecture of the middle–second half of the 12th century, leaned against the two central pilaster strips of the west and side façades. The floor was covered with plinth bricks; maybe, some of its sections were decorated with ornaments made of glazed floor tiles (several tiles were found in debris heaps).

The interior of the church was painted, numerous fragments of pre-Mongol fresco painting were discovered during excavations; fragments with painted faces, hands and legs and ornaments are of special interest.

The church has several burials; a crumbled recessed wall tomb in the south wall known as arcosolium contained remains of a middle-aged man, while the second burial made on the exterior side of the west wall in a special plinth sarcophagus yielded skeletons of a middle-aged woman and a child. These burials suggest that the church was monastic and was linked to a prince or, with less likelihood, a boyar family of Smolensk, which used to bury their family members in the stone church they had built.

Subsequently, burials were made in the cathedral ruins, as has been noted earlier; most graves are not of any particular interest. The only exception is a white tombstone of a grave found in the place of the south gallery; the tombstone is cracked; however, wolf tooth ornament along the edge and a peculiar ‘knot’ in the middle of the tombstone are still visible. This tombstone apparently dates to the 15th or the 16th centuries.

In the early 13th century the original church was surrounded by a stone gallery also constructed of plinth bricks but of a different form, though with the use of the same regular-coursed stonework. At that time such galleries were constructed in many other Smolensk churches; they were intended for burials of the church and gallery wardens’ family members. Sections of the galleries were traced from the north and the south of the main body of the church; no doubt the gallery ran from the west as well, but as has been noted earlier, it was destroyed by the ditch built in front of the wall by Fedor Kon.

A collapsed fragment of its north wall featuring an arched window has survived north of the main body of the church and can be used to reconstruct church apertures. A large fragment of a bronze bell, whose shape shares similarities with known pre-Mongol bells was found among the church ruins; apparently, this bell hung on the west wall of the church and fell down when the church collapsed.

The previously unknown stone church dating to the middle of the 12th – early 13th centuries found in Smolensk is a fascinating example of Rus architecture in the Dnieper Basin and yet further evidence of rich and sophisticated culture of medieval Smolensk.

Vl.V. Sedov

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