Every church is a God’s sermon. As a saint of our time, venerable Justin (Popovich), says, “Every consecrated church is a part of Heaven on earth. When you are inside the church, you are already in Heaven. Whenever you are tormented with Hell on earth, hasten to the church, come into it and then – you are already in Heaven. If you are vexed with people malice, take your refuge in the church, fall down before God, and He will take you under His good and omnificent shelter. And if you happen to be besieged by legions of demons, turn your steps to the church, stand among holy Angels, since churches are always full with Angels, and they will guard you from all demons of this world. Nothing could harm you. Do not forget: God makes us, Christians, strong. Who can be stronger than us then? Nobody, nobody!”
In the ecclesiastical art, icon-painting, and architecture everything aims to stir up the highest feelings in people – love to God, piety, and desire to pray. The main church of our convent named in honor of Alexander Nevsky has been renovated recently. On the 19th of May it was consecrated by His Holiness the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill. By virtue of architects and icon-painters who labored at renewal of the Alexander Nevsky church it has become a silent and majestic sermon which penetrates into the soul.
All wall paintings in the church are treated in canonical style (from the word “canon” - “rule”), meaning that they are painted according to the rules worked up in Church from the ancient times. Canonical painting is extremely symbolical. Thus, for example, bent figures mean humility to God’s will; hands thrown up symbolize a prayer to God, and golden background - divine goodness. It’s interesting that in icon-painting only certain colours are applied, and every colour has its specific meaning. Red is a colour of blood that Christ shed for the mankind, that’s why martyrs are depicted in red clothes like Christ warriors, who have shed blood for their faith. Blue is a colour of chastity, and white – of God. When we look at an icon of canonical style, we perceive that the depicted faces and events belong to some high, unseen world.
The church is named in honour of Saint Blessed Prince Alexander Nevsky and in the first room of church, antechurch, all the paintings are devoted to him. Above the entrance there is a very unusual composition: St. Prince Alexander Nevsky presents the church to Our Lord Jesus Christ. Such a composition was conventional in ancient churches. Unusualness of the painting is that St. Alexander Nevsky is depicted neither in armour nor in princely clothes, but in monastic robes. Here he appears as a prayer for everybody who enters his church, as well as for all people in general.
On the walls in the antechurch life of St. Alexander Nevsky is depicted. He is famous all over Russia for his great victories given by God for his faith and devotion. St. Alexander Nevsky has always been honored in particular for his ardent love to God and firm faith. There you can see some of parts of his life which reveal his faith.
On one of the pictures St. Alexander Nevsky is shown during reading the Holy Scriptures which he loved from his childhood. He didn’t only read holy books, but also tries to fulfill what is written in them. He was extremely kind to the poor, deeply honoured holy churches, and wisely commanded his people. Residents of Novgorod where he reigned from the age of 13 said that he was merciful beyond moderation and sinless.
In another painting St. Alexander Nevsky is praying before the famous Battle of the Neva. St. Alexander Nevsky was not even 20 years old when Swedes approached Novgorod. Help could come from God only. St. Alexander Nevsky prayed long and then encouraged his people with the words, “God is not in might but in right!”
To hearten the young prince God revealed a sign. During night watch one of the prince’s warriors saw a boat. Oarsmen were covered with darkness, and only two knights standing in the boat were seen. The older one said to the younger, “Brother Gleb, order to row faster, let us hasten to help our kinsman Alexander Yaroslavich”. They were Holy Martyrs Boris and Gleb whom Blessed Prince Alexander appealed to in his prayers. The warrior told Price Alexander about his vision and he, calmed and encouraged, came into the battle with Swedes.
Saint Blessed Prince Alexander Nevsky wisely ruled Russia during the Tartar Yoke and managed to retain orthodox faith in Russia. He passed away at the age of 43 taking the monastic vows with the name Alexis.
When Blessed Prince Alexander Nevsky died, his hallows brought a lot of healing. Today he, too, hears the prayers addressed to him and gives beneficial help to these who preys upon him.
In the church there are also depicted Alexander’s saint kinsmen, as well as other blessed princes and princesses. Devoutness of Ancient Russia is remarkable! You can count up to several dozens of saints in one family: Alexander Nevsky himself, his grandfather and mother, his son, uncle, grandchildren, and other kinsmen. Especially remarkable is that it was a family of great princes, they were people burdened with public duties, cares about their subjects, and safety of their towns and principalities. Nevertheless, they didn’t forget about God and tried to keep to His commandments, pray, do acts of mercy. That is why they became saint.
Images of blessed princes and princesses are located under the central dome on the so-called wall arches where very revered saints are usually painted. For example, there is an image of St. Alexander’s youngest son, Blessed Prince Daniel of Moscow who was notable for peacefulness which helped him to decide disputes with his brothers-princes without shedding blood. For his humbleness and love to the brothers God exalted his principality and transformed Moscow into the capital of all Russia out of a poor town.
On the wall arches there is also an image of a grandson of Blessed Prince Daniel and a great grandson of St. Alexander – Blessed Great Prince Dmitry Donskoy who is widely known for his famous victory on the Kulikovo Field. Though, he was concentrated a saint not for his military achievements but for his stunning love to God, benevolence, generosity, love to divine service, fasts, and prayers. His contemporaries said that he was like an angel in flesh and did everything as if God were in front of him.
Next to Saint Blessed Great Princess Olga there is mother of St. Alexander Nevsky – Blessed Princess Feodosia. She was called saint while alive. Though she was a wife of a great prince and the most wealthy and noble woman in Russia, she lived a strict life: she prayed a lot, kept fasts, often visited churches, and took care of the poor. She brought up her nine sons in the same devout manner. In the end of her life she took monastic vows.
Church paintings are connected with an idea. They give a story about God’s love to people. God loves everybody ineffably, wishes to give joy to everybody on earth and unending bliss in days to come. For His love to people God showed great, extraordinary things. What are they? These are the paintings that give the answer. Most of the church paintings depict the Passion of Christ (agonies that Jesus Christ suffered for the sake of all the people) and The Eucharist (the main Sacrament that was established by God Himself and that has been administered for almost two thousand years).
The painted story about the Passion of Christ is located on the vaults in all church aisles. The plots are arranged according to the way of burning incense, that is the direction where a priest or deacon moves with a censer during worship service. The first plot of this cycle is Lord’s Supper when God told the apostles that time for His agony and death had come. Thenonthevaultsthe whole story of the Passion of Christ unfolds: praying in thegarden of Gethsemane, betrayal of Judas, Peter’s denial, the judgment of Pontius Pilate, bearing the Cross to the Calvary, the Crucifixion, the Deposition from the Cross, and encoffinment. The painting cycle ends with a picture of Christ’s victory – His glorious Resurrection.
The altar and the dome are two main places in the church where the most important images are traditionally located. In the ancient times people painted Lord in the main dome and Mother of God in other domes if there were any in the church. Thus, in Alexander Nevsky church in the center of the main dome there is an image of Almighty God.
Then there is development of the Eucharist theme which is one of the main themes in church paintings. Sacrament of the Eucharist is always performed during liturgy. Around the image of Christ we can see the Heavenly Liturgy, a traditional plot for fresco painting. Christ and Angels perform the Great Entrance (one of the parts of the Liturgy). Here there is an illustration of what happens in the church unseen during every Liturgy: Angels serve together with priests and God Himself presents at the Sacrament. Christ is depicted as the Great Hierarch clothed in liturgical episcopal robe. Angels are painted as deacons and sub deacons. Frescos of ancient churches in Serbia, Macedonia, and Athos were taken as an example of these paintings.
According to the tradition under the dome in the central drum there are ancestors depicted, meaning the ancestors of Christ and prophets. These two rows of images are included in to the unified concept: they reveal two main themes of the paintings. The row of the ancestors depicts righteous men of the Old Testament, whose life was an antitype of Christ’s agony and Eucharist. It is notable that the height of every figure is seven meters. Below there are prophets who predicted Christ agonies and Eucharist. In their hands they hold phylacteries with their sayings.
The altar is the most important place in the church, this is the reason why the most essential images are painted there. In the conchae of the altar there is Mother of God on the throne with the Infant Christ on Her knees. It symbolizes the Mother of God assisted in God’s incarnation. One saint says that Jesus Christ couldn’t appear on earth without Her and, thus, the mankind couldn’t be saved. That’s why people should love and be grateful to Mother of God.
Those Who Saw the Resurrection of Christ
Church space is varied which provides for depicting different icon-painted plots. For example, in the south-wes dome of the church there is an Acheiropaeic image, as well as the Visitation to the apostles occurred after His Resurrection.
Thus, on one of the canvases there is the Visitation to myrrh-bearing women who according to the Judaic custom came to His coffin to pay respect to the dead - to anoint His dead body with myrrh. But there was no body in the coffin and soon God Himself and alive showed up to the women and told them, “Rejoice!” On other canvases the painting shows how women announce Resurrection of Christ to apostles and how Apostle Peter runs to the coffin to make sure that there is no Christ in the coffin. On the walls of the south-west tower there is also a picture where Christ shows up to Mary Magdalene in the coffin and to the apostles on the mountain in Galilee.
One more visit of the resurrected Christ to the Apostles was at the Sea of Tiberias. Description of this event is very touching in the New Testament. The Apostles were fishing all night long but couldn’t catch anything. In the morning they saw Christ who asked them with love, “Children! Do you have anything to eat?” They didn’t recognize Him and answered, “No”. Then He asked them to cast a net once again and when they did it the net became full with fish. On the Apostles said, “This is Lord!” When Apostle Peter heard this, he immediately dived into the sea and swam to God wishing to be near Him as fast as he could. Other Apostles started row fast towards the bank too. When all of them came ashore, they saw that the meal for them had been already prepared. Everything shows God’s love to the Apostles and their love to Him in return. He took care of their smallest needs, He wanted to feed them and they hastened towards Him neglecting the food. God takes care about everybody of us and when we pray to Him we can definitely feel His care.
All around the church there are medallions with the most honoured in the Orthodox Church saints. They are arranged in ranks: sanctifiers, apostles, martyrs, venerables, wives, and the blessed.
All around the central alter and from the both sides of the chancel screen there are sanctifiers in the medallions – those saints who served God as bishops, archbishops, metropolitans, and patriarchs. Out of the sanctifiers who are depicted there the most famous are St. Spyridon of Trimythous, St. Gregory the Theologian, St. Ambrose of Milan, and St. Gregory of Nyssa. Here is also depicted one of the Russian sanctifiers – St.Ignatius (Bryanchaninov) who lived not so long ago, in the 19th century. His life is remarkable. St. Ignatius (secular name Dmitry Alexandrovich Bryanchaninov) descended from a noble stem, was well educated, and was one of the best graduates from Main Military Engineering School in St. Petersburg. He was loved at court; the Emperor himself was benevolent to him. His literary talent was viewed with approval by contemporary writers, including Pushkin. Dmitry Bryanchaninov could have a promising career and a high social status. But his soul was searching for something else – he wished to spend his days in prayers and service to God. He insisted on his resignation from military service and entered a monastery. Leading monastic life he obtained wide spiritual experience and wisdom. Later on when he became a Reverend Father, and then a Bishop, he edified a lot of people, taught them to pray and follow Christ.
St. Ignatius’s works on spiritual life are known to all Christians and can be a good guide for every person, particularly for cloisterers. It is not by chance that he is called “father of contemporary monachism”. In his works St. Ignatius describes all stages of spiritual life, explains how to follow Christ nowadays, how to cure your soul from sinful passions, how to unite with God, and what the true vacation of people is. St.Ignatius’sliterarystyleis poetically beautiful and at the same time is simple and clear to a modern person.
There are images of the Apostles in the north and south parts of the church near the altar. They were the nearest disciples of God who set forth to evangelize after His Resurrection and Ascension. God’s power revealed itself magnificently: just 12 Apostles started to preach the World, they were simple, poor, and uneducated. And as a result Christianity spread all over the world and today millions of people acknowledge Christ.
Besides, in the northern part of the church martyrs are depicted. They were people who suffered agony for the sake of Christ and didn’t forsake Him even under penalty of death: for example, known all over the world the Great Martyrs George and Healer Pantaleon, whose prayers performed and are still performing great miracles. On another wall there are five Great Martyr Wives: Marina, Tatiana, Catherine, Anastasia, and Euphymia.
In the medallions in the southern part there are paintings of Holy Royal Passion Bearers: Tsar Nicholas, Tsarina Alexandra, Tsarevich Alexei, Grand Duchess Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, as well as Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna and Nun Varvara.
Here are also depicted the blessed: Andrew the Fool-for-Christ, Nicholas of Novgorod, Basil of Moscow, Cosmas of Verkhoturye, and Xenia of St. Petersburg.
In the medallions in the western part of the church you can see the venerables, those who pleased God as being a monk. St. Seraphim of Sarov, Zosima Verkhovsky, Vasilisk of Siberia, and Paisius Velichkovsky are among them. The feature of this line is that it contains the images of those saints who practiced in tacit prayers, i.e. profound Jesus Prayer.
The church shows immense spiritual world. When someone reaches this world they feel consolation, hope, joy, and faith…As Saint John of Kronstadt said, “Church is the source of any genuine joy, of any genuine eupathy and peace of conscience, spiritual and body healing, source of power and vivacity of soul. In the Churcheyes of Lord look at everybody of us, and His heart is turned to everybody of us! Sometimes you stay face to face with a person and talk to them and their heart is not turned to you but it is busy with something else; and here is the heart of God completely turned to you, He is ready to pour all His love, all His kindness and benevolence on you according to your faith”.