St. George’s Cathedral of the Yuriev Monastery is one of the most spectacular landmarks of pre-Mongol architecture in Novgorod. The construction of the cathedral was commissioned by Prince Vsevolod (Gavriil) Mstislavovich of Novgorod in 1119. It is a large six-pillared cathedral with three domes; one dome crowns a stair tower, square in plan; its winding stair leads to a high choir loft. The church dominates above majestic flat landscape of the Novgorod southern suburbs where the Volkhov River flows out of Lake Ilmen.
St. George’s Cathedral has mostly preserved its form of the early 12th century. Its zakomar top (a rounded gable head) with ‘waves’ of semicircular aches replaced with a roof having four sloping surfaces early in the 19th century is the only major change to be seen, while the height of the cathedral is one meter less because of several fills for the floor. The western part of the cathedral was excavated in the 1930s by the expedition led by M.K. Karger, a famous Leningrad archaeologist. He removed the latest floor and its fill and discovered the ancient original floor of the cathedral as well as pre-Mongol graves of princes and posadniks (mayors of the cities who ruled on behalf of the prince) made in stone and plinth sarcophagi.
In 2013 the expedition of the Institute started excavations in St. George’s Cathedral. Upon agreement with Metropolitan Lev of Novgorod, two sections were selected for survey boreholes, i.e. one section in the middle apse and the other section in the north cross arm of the cathedral. The first section was selected to determine the stratigraphy of the fills for the floor and presence of ancient constructions while a grave of Theoctistus, Archbishop of Novgorod, whose remains were transferred to the cathedral from the suburban Annunciation Cathedral of Novgorod in 1786, was planned to be searched in the second section. The excavations revealed the original floor level and the base of the ancient altar preserved in the middle apse of the cathedral. A large number of fresco fragments were identified in the fill for the latest floor; ornamental fresco compositions were discovered on the cathedral wall beneath the latest floor level. A tombstone above the grave of holy Theoctistus that marks with confidence its burial place ‘lost’ in the course of alterations and refurbishing carried out in the 20th century was found in the north cross arm of the cathedral.
In 2014 the archaeologists conducted large-scale architectural and archaeological excavations, exposing the entire eastern half of the cathedral from the latest layers to the original floor level. During the removal of the fills for the latest floor made in the early 19th century in the course of the cathedral refurbishing commissioned by archimandrite Fotii in 1820s it became clear that 90% of the fills were fragments of cathedral original frescos dating to the 1120s, scraped from the walls to repaint the cathedral in the late Baroque style.
Several thousand boards with frescos including fragments with painted background and letters of inscriptions as well as ornamental compositions and rather numerous (several dozens) fragments with painted faces, hands and legs that are of particular value as a source for exploring the style of the lost paintings were collected during excavations. Two dozen faces of small size painted in a very fine and exquisite style as well as dozens of painted face fragments were found.
Besides faces and fragments of clothes, inscriptions were found, i.e. dipinti by paints made when frescos were painted and graffiti scratched on the frescos, notably, graffiti of the 12th and early 13th centuries. These graffiti are now included in the group of historical inscriptions; often they have a date and contain information about the death and burial of an individual. The most dramatic find of this type is the inscription of 1198 telling the story of the death and burial of Iziaslav and Rostislav, two young sons of Yaroslav Vladimirovich, Prince of Novgorod. It is one of the largest Rus graffiti.
Large sections of ancient fresco paintings were revealed on the cathedral walls, including ornamental compositions known as marbling or polilitia, which are plaster frescos on the walls painted to imitate polished marble slabs that embellished church walls in Constantinople. The marble patterns are made by straight, wavy or dotted lines separated by red bands.
Both ancient and latest constructions related to church services were discovered inside the cathedral. The latest constructions include the bricked middle altar and the raised part of the floor in front of the inner sanctuary called solea, constructed at the turn of the 18th century.
The earlier constructions dating to the time when the cathedral was built and decorated in the 1120s–1130s include the base of the original altar that rested on stone columns, a stone bench for the clergy in the middle apse, two side ‘box-shaped’ altars in the side apses as well as the original cathedral floor that consisted of the lime bedding and large and well treated limestone slabs placed on top of it. The excavations led to discovery of a new archaeological assemblage suggestive of exceptionally intricate ornamentation patterns of the monastery cathedral. It is planned to continue excavations in St. George’s Cathedral.