Moscow Baroque

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Moscow Baroque was the fashionable architectural style of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, combining Muscovite (Russo-Byzantine) traditions with Western decorative details and proportions; the term also sometimes applied to new trends in late seventeenth-century Muscovite painting, engraving, and literature.

The term Moscow Baroque (moskovskoe barokko ) came into use among Russian art historians in the 1890s and 1900s as a way of categorizing the distinctive style of architecture which flourished in and around Moscow from the late 1670s, and in the provinces into the 1700s. In the 1690s, Peter I's maternal relatives the Naryshkins commissioned many sumptuous churches in the style; hence the supplementary art historical term "Naryshkin Baroque," which is sometimes erroneously applied as a general term for the style. Some of the early examples of Moscow Baroque are reminiscent of mid-seventeenth-century Muscovite churches in their general shape and colorationcubes constructed in red brick with white stone decorations and topped with one or five domesbut the builders had evidently assimilated a new sense of symmetry and regularity in their ordering of both structural and decorative elements. Old Russian ornamental details were replaced almost entirely by Western ones based on the Classical order system: half-columns with pediments and bases, window surrounds of broken pediments, volutes, carved columns, and shell gable motifs. One of the best concentrations of Moscow Baroque buildings was commissioned by the regent Sophia Alexeyevna in the 1680s in the sixteenth-century Novodevichy Convent in Moscow, which includes the churches of the Transfiguration, Dormition, and Assumption, with a refectory, belltower, nuns' cells, and crenelations on the convent walls in matching materials and style. Similar constructs can be found in the Monastery of St. Peter (Vysokopetrovsky) on Petrovka Street in Moscow. Civic buildings were constructed on the same principles: for example, Prince Vasily Golitsyn's Moscow mansion (1680s) and the Pharmacy on Red Square (1690s). A number of these projects were carried out by the architectural section of the Foreign Office.

In the 1690s builders regularly incorporated octagonal structures, producing the so-called octagon-on-cube church. One of the finest examples, the Intercession at Fili, built for Peter's uncle Lev Naryshkin in 16901693, with its soaring tower of receding octagons, gold cupolas, and intricately carved limestone decoration, bears witness to both the Naryshkins' wealth and their Westernized tastes. Inside, all the icons were painted in a matching "Italianate" style and set in an elaborately carved and gilded iconostasis. This and other churches such as the Trinity at Troitse-Lykovo, Boris and Gleb in Ziuzino, and Savior at Ubory, with their tiers of receding octagons, also owe something to distant prototypes in Russian and Ukrainian architecture (the wooden architecture of the former and the dome configuration of the latter), while the new sense of harmony in their design and planning evokes the Renaissance. The style spread beyond Moscow.

Analogous developments can be seen in allegorical prints of the period, embellished with a characteristic Baroque mix of Christian and Classical imagery, most of which originated in Ukraine. A characteristic example is Ivan Shchirsky's engraving (1683) of Tsars Ivan and Peter hovering above a canopy containing a double eagle, with Christ floating between them and, above Christ, a winged maiden, the Divine Wisdom (Sophia). In icons painted in the Moscow Armory and in workshops in Yaroslavl, Vologda, and other major commercial centers, influences from Western art can be seen in the use of light and shade and decorative details such as scrolls, putti-like angels, ornate swirling cloud and rock motifs, dramatic gestures, and even some borrowings from Catholic iconography: for instance, saints with emblems of their martyrdom; blood dripping from Christ's hands and side. In poetry, syllabic verse and Baroque motifs and devices were imported from Poland and practiced by such writers as Simeon Polotsky, court poet to Tsar Alexis, and Polotsky's pupil Silvester Medvedev.

Art historians have debated whether Moscow Baroque was a direct derivative of Western Baroque, represented a spontaneously generated and original form of baroque, or was the decadent, over-ornate last phase of the "classical" forms of Russo-Byzantine art. It may be best to view it as an example of the belated influence of the Renaissance upon traditional art and architecture, which picked up elements from both contemporary and slightly earlier Western art. No Russian architects are known to have visited the West during this period, and there is scant evidence of Western architects working in Russia. However, Russian craftsmen did have access to foreign books and prints in the Armory, Foreign Office workshops, and other libraries, while contacts with Polish culture, both direct and via Ukraine and Belarus, were influential, especially in literature.

The term Moscow Baroque is not generally applied to the architecture of early St. Petersburg, although many buildings constructed in the reigns of Peter I and his immediate successors had much in common with the preceding style: for instance, the use of octagonal structures and the white decorative details against a darker background. In Moscow and the provinces, Moscow Baroque remained popular well into the eighteenth century.

See also: architecture; golitsyn, vasily vasilievich; medvedev, sylvester agafonikovich; polotsky, simeon; sophia


Cracraft, James. (1990). The Petrine Revolution in Russian Architecture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Cracraft, James. (1997). The Petrine Revolution in Russian Imagery. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hughes, Lindsey. (1977). "Western European Graphic Material as a Source for Moscow Baroque Architecture." Slavonic and East European Review 55:433443.

Hughes, Lindsey. (1982). "Moscow Baroque: A Controversial Style." Transactions of the Association of Russian-American Scholars in USA 15:6993.

Lindsey Hughes