Photographs by William Brumfield

The members of the Stroganov family are widely known for their role in the imperial court milieu of St. Petersburg. But well before Bartolomeo Rastrelli designed their magnificent palace on Nevsky Prospekt, the Stroganov dynasty served as patrons of church art and architecture throughout the Russian heartland, from Nizhny Novgorod on the Volga to Solvychegodsk in the north.

Perhaps the most curious example of their lavish patronage occurred in Ustiuzhna, a small town located on the Mologa River (a tributary of the Volga) in the southwest corner of the Vologda Region.

Ustiuzhna is not particularly remote by Russian standards, yet it has no rail link and is several kilometers from the main road between St. Petersburg and Cherepovets.


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Ustiuzhna’s wealth in the medieval period was based on nearby deposits of bog iron suited to primitive smelting methods. Between the 13th and16th centuries the town was one of the earliest Russian centers of metalworking.

With the 18th-century development of the Urals as Russia's primary metal producer, Ustiuzhna settled into the status of a modest regional town that benefited from its proximity to important trading routes.

A major change in its appearance occurred during the reign of Catherine the Great, who in the 1770s brought order into the planning of Russia’s towns. The Ustiuzhna plan, approved in 1778, skillfully connected on a single axis the town's two main churches: the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin and the Church of the Kazan Icon of the Virgin.

How to get there

To get to Ustiuzhna take the local bus from St. Petersburg to Ustiuzhna or Vesiengonsk (departure from St. Peterburg bus station: 8:00 a.m., 8:20 a.m, travel time 9:15 and 8:00) or take the local bus from Vologda (departure from Vologda bus station: 9:00 a.m, 4:15 p.m., travel time 5:20 and 4:25).

The Nativity Cathedral (1685-1690) is an important cultural monument with a grand icon screen, but it suffered damage during the Soviet period. The most severe loss was the razing of its bell tower in the 1930s. The cathedral's conversion to use by the local history museum no doubt saved it from a worse fate.

The most remarkable work of religious art in Ustiuzhna, however, is the festively decorated Church of the Kazan Icon of the Virgin, located at the town's main cemetery. It was begun in 1694 by Grigorii Stroganov, who had commercial dealings in Ustiuzhna.

The exterior of the Kazan Icon Church bears a resemblance to other Stroganov churches of the late 17th century. Their red brick facades are decorated with the white detailing of structural and decorative elements. These churches typically culminate in ornamental cupolas crowned with tall, elaborate crosses.

Unlike other Stroganov churches, however, the Kazan Icon Church is all on one level, without a lower chapel under the main sanctuary. The original entrance to the church was a covered porch projecting from the west facade and leading to a small vestibule, or narthex (papert’). A one-story chapel with an altar to St. Catherine was attached to the north facade. This compact space was heated for worship in the winter.

In the mid-19th century a similar one-story chapel, dedicated to St. Afanasii, was added to the south facade, thus creating a balance on either side of the main two-story structure. At the same time, the entrance porch was widened to match the width of the north and south chapels.

However appealing the decorative architecture, the glory of the Kazan Icon Church is its array of mid-18th century frescoes painted in a robust style by masters from the city of Yaroslavl, one of the most important centers of Russian religious painting in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The style was influenced by Western religious art and by illustrated Bibles of Western origin, which were familiar to Yaroslavl artists.

There is precise information on when and by whom the frescoes were painted. The arch framing the entrance from the vestibule to the north chapel displays an inscription with the dates (July 1, 1756 to Aug. 26, 1757) and the names of a group of artists from Yaroslavl.

The frescoes begin in the small vestibule. On entering this space one is plunged into the vibrant world of 18th-century provincial Russian art, drawn from western sources yet wonderfully naive in its expressiveness.

The subjects of the vestibule frescoes are taken primarily from the Book of Genesis. On the left walls are scenes of the Garden of Eden and the Expulsion from Paradise, with unusual nude forms of Adam and Eve. On the ceiling vaults and the southeast (right) side are depictions of the Seven Days of Creation.

Other subjects include the Last Judgment – to the right of the main portal – and the Intercession of the Virgin. The left wall also contains full-length portraits of Orthodox saints as well as a depiction of Cain slaying Abel.

Two figures of angels grace either side of the colorful perspective arch framing the entrance to the main part of the church. One angel records the names of the faithful entering the temple, while the other is an Avenging Angel holding a sword.

The portal leads to a soaring space covered in one of the most colorful displays in Russian religious art. The impact is heightened by the design of an unobstructed interior, which rises to a high-pitched vault with a single opening for the main cupola. The thick exterior walls carry the entire weight of the structure, yet the two levels of windows admit ample light to illuminate the frescoes.

The four sides of the high vault display eight solemn holy days of the Russian Orthodox calendar: the Annunciation, the Nativity of Christ, the Purification, the Epiphany (Baptism of Christ), the Transfiguration, the Pentecost, the Nativity of the Mother of God, and the Presentation of the Mother of God. They are encompassed by narrative band of frescoes depicting scenes from the Passion of Christ.

The walls themselves are divided into four horizontal rows. The upper two are connected with the life and teachings of Christ, including parables such as The Laborer in the Vineyard and The Prodigal Son. The third row from the top is devoted largely to “Acts of the Apostles,” including episodes from the lives of Saints Peter and John.

The bottom row is devoted to scenes from the Life of St. Catherine. The St. Catherine frescoes, ranging from her conversion to her martyrdom, are the church’s most graphic in their articulation of the human form.

The middle row of frescoes is interrupted with large images such as the Miraculous Icon of the Savior and a representation of Mary and the Christ Child in the manner of Raphael.

In addition to the wall frescoes, there are images on the upper level of the thick window emplacements. The window arches are clearly visible and include images such as the Savior Emmanuel, as well as several variants of the Virgin, especially appropriate in view of the church's dedication to the Kazan Icon of the Virgin.

The east wall supports a high icon screen that plays a major role in defining the interior, but it was made considerably later in the 19th century and lacks the unique vibrancy of the frescoes. The Ustiuzhna frescoes project a vigorous, emphatic handling of color and form that suffuses the entire space with a sense of the miraculous.