The Ascension of Alexander the Great, or A Few Words on the Carvings of the St. Demetrius Cathedral in Vladimir

The St. Demetrius Cathedral in Vladimir was built in the late 12th century, during the heyday of the Vladimir Suzdal Principality, which by that time had acquired the dominant status in Russia. Built by Prince Vsevolod the Big Nest (he got such a nickname because of his big family – he had twelve sons), it was supposed to represent the growing significance of the Vladimir land. The chronicle especially emphasizes that only Russian craftsmen built the cathedral, and they “did not look for German craftsmen” to build the St. Demetrius Cathedral.

The cathedral was looted and damaged during the Mongol invasion in 1237 and later was on fire more than once. Some self-called experts of Russian style conducted a “restoration” of this cathedral in 1837-1839 to give it a “primordial look”. As a result, the cathedral was so deformed that it lost any semblance of its original appearance and began to fall apart. Only subsequent restoration work partially brought back the original appearance of the cathedral.

The St. Demetrius Cathedral before restoration. The West façade (drawing, 1836).

The white-stone carving that adorns the cathedral became the object of admiration and study: 566 carved stones on the façades represent a quaint picture of the world, in which Christian images peacefully coexist with images of Slavic mythology and characters of medieval literature.

The main figure is King David: his image is central on each of the three façades of the church. The image of the Psalmist King is the key to understanding the symbolism of white-stone carving: “Let all who breathe praise the Lord”. All characters including figures of saints, animals, plants, birds, centaurs, Prince Vsevolod and his sons, and even Alexander the Great serve as illustrations to these lines of the Psalm of David.

The composition Ascension of Alexander the Great is located on the south façade of the cathedral. This scene may seem rather unusual for a Christian church, but it was very popular in Russia in the Middle Ages, first of all thanks to the Byzantine novel Alexandria translated into many languages. Two griffins carry on their wings a king who is sitting in a plaited basket. Alexander holds small lions in his hands as a “bait” for griffins. The beasts try to reach for the bait and thus carry the king into the sky. This story symbolized in the eyes of medieval Christians the acquisition by the righteous ruler of the Kingdom of God prepared for him and glorified royal power. It is not clear why the role of the representative of righteous kings is assigned to Alexander. Most likely it is a composite image.

Ascension of Alexander the Great

The middle tier of the church is decorated with a belt of columns, and there is a whole gallery of saints in its carvings, among them Russian princes Boris and Gleb. Most of these figures date to later times, with the earliest surviving only in the northern part of the façade. There is an image of an animal or a plant below each figure. The sculptures are separated by carved columns reminiscent of thick woven cords, each ending with a figure of a fantastic animal or bird – a lion with a “flourishing” tail or geese with intertwined necks.

Other motifs include smiling lions, St. Nicetas beating up the devil, King David playing the Slavic gusli, a griffin tearing a hare, a hunter (according to some researchers, the hunter is Hercules) killing a lion, a galloping rider, Sirin the Bird fighting a leopard, and a whole lot more.

There are also scattered images of all twelve apostles in the decoration of the church; in particular, Apostles Peter and Paul stand out in the middle line of the northern façade. Their “portraits” are signed. The image of Peter is decorated with an arch that indicates the church, and Paul is placed between palm trees that symbolize the victory of the Risen Christ.

A rider’s image on the southern and western façades represents St. Demetrius of Thessalonica, the patron saint of the cathedral. He is portrayed as the protector of the Vladimir land.

The lower tier of the cathedral was left without special decorations, because it was initially surrounded by galleries on three sides. There were allegedly two carved staircase towers on the corners of the galleries along the main western façade, also decorated with carvings. It is assumed that the St. Demetrius Cathedral was the central building of the ensemble of Prince Vsevolod’s palace, which has not survived to this day.

So far, scientists have not found a generally accepted explanation for some of the carvings that adorn the cathedral. The world of humans, the earthly world, is represented on the walls of the cathedral in all its contradictions. Just as all these images are united in one cathedral, so the world made up of contradictions is embraced by God together with all the contradictions that exist in this world, including psalmists and “warlike horsemen”.

Daria Chechko

About the author

A philologist; an author and designer of St. Elisabeth Convent's website; a sister of mercy and a member of the Catalog of Good Deeds team.

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