The Kirill-Beloozero Monastery was founded in 1397 in the far Russian north as a hermitage dedicated to the Dormition of the Virgin. Its founder was Cyril of Belozersk, conversant of Sergius of Radonezh, hesychast (mystical hermit), and former abbot of Simonov Monastery. It rapidly gained brethren, land, and renown. At Cyril's death in 1427, its patron was the prince of Belozersk-Mozhaisk, and its titular head was the Archbishop of Rostov, to whom Kirillov was administratively subordinated by 1478.
Social and administrative reforms occurred under Abbot Trifon, who lived from about 1434 to about 1517. Trifon was a monk of the Athos-linked St. Savior Monastery on the Rock, and later became Archbishop of Rostov (1462–1467). At this point the monastery gained the name "Kirillov" and, probably, its strict cenobitic (communal-disciplinarian) rule. It entered a relationship with the Moscow authorities. During the civil wars, Trifon loosed Basil II from his cross oath to Dmitry Shemyaka (1446); Cyril was canonized in 1448 and his vita (life) was written by Pachomius the Logothete in 1462. Trifon's successor and fellow St. Savior monk, Abbot Cassian, who lived from about 1447 until about 1469, went on a Moscow embassy to the ecumenical patriarch in Constantinople.
During Trifon's abbacy, a Byzantine-influenced school flourished, where basic texts of grammar, logic, cosmology, and history circulated. Its legacy was a bibliographical trend whose representatives (such as Efrosin, fl. 1463–1491) compiled and catalogued much of the literary inheritance of Bulgaria, Kievan Rus, and Serbia, and edited important works of Muscovite literature (such as the epic Zadonshchina ) and chronography (the First Sophia Chronicle ). Kirillov's great library (1,304 books by 1621) has survived almost intact.
From 1484 to 1514, Kirillov was a focal point for the Non-Possessors, abbots and monks—including Gury Tushin, Nilus Sorsky, and Vassian Patrikeev—who rejected monastic estates and promoted hesychast ideals of mental prayer and hermitism. After 1515, Kirillov followed the Possessor trend, whose first leader, Joseph of Volok, had praised the cenobitic discipline of several of its early abbots. Kirillov's sixteenth-century abbots achieved high rank, such as Afanasy (1539–1551), later bishop of Suzdal, whom Andrew Kurbsky called "silver-loving," and from 1530 to 1570 their landholdings expanded terrifically (at mid-seventeenth century Kirillov was the fifth-largest landowner in Muscovy).
Attracting wealth, privileges, and pilgrims from the central government as well as the boyar aristocracy, Kirillov lost self-governance to Moscow. Ivan IV, whose birth was ascribed to St. Cyril's intervention and who expressed a wish to join Kirillov's brethren in 1567, took over its administration, lecturing its abbot and boyar monks (such as Ivan-Jonah Sheremetev) on piety in a letter of 1573. (Boris Godunov later selected Kirillov's abbot, and the False Dmitry chose its monks.) By the mid-sixteenth century, Kirillov had become fiscally subject to the bishop of Vologda, and by century's end to the patriarch.
In the 1590s Kirillov was transformed from a cultural center into a fortress, with stone towers and walls that withstood Polish-Lithuanian attacks during the Time of Troubles. Its infirmary treated monks and laymen, and its icon-painting and stonemasonry workshops sold their wares to Muscovites. Kirillov was also used as a prison. Its most illustrious detainee, Patriarch Nikon, was held in solitary confinement from 1676 to 1681 without access to his library, paper, or ink.
From the eighteenth century, Kirillov lost its military importance, and an economic and spiritual decline began. It was closed by Soviet authorities in 1924 and transformed into a museum. In 1998 monastic life at Kirillov was partly restored.
See also: caves monastery; simonov monastery; trinity st. sergius monastery