1314 - 2014

Life and iconic sites of St. Sergius Radonezh

The Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra

Cloister of St. Sergius

The Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra is a unique architectural ensemble of more than 50 buildings and structures erected at various times throughout several centuries. The white-stone Trinity Cathedral (1422–1423) in the south-western part of the monastery was built on the site of the original wooden church of the 14th century. It is around that church that the ensemble of the monastery developed. Architects from Pskov built a brick church with a bell tower in honor of the Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles to the east of the cathedral in 1476.

The Cathedral of the Assumption was erected in 1559–1585 echoing the Kremlin Cathedral in Moscow of the same name. The frescoes of the Cathedral of the Assumption were created in 1684. A tent with a hip roof was built over the grave of Tsar Boris Godunov and his family in 1780 near the northwestern corner of the cathedral on the site of the western porch.

Opposite the Cathedral of the Assumption is the ensemble of the treasury and adjacent hospital wards with the tent-shaped Church of StS Zosima and Savvaty of Solovki (1635–1638). Behind them is the ensemble of Kelarsky Chambers (end of the 16th – beginning of the 17th centuries) and the curtain wall surrounding the bailey. On the site of the ancient gate church (1513) in honor of St. Sergius of Radonezh near the main entrance to the monastery, a five-domed gate cathedral in honor of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist (1692–1699) was built.

The Cathedral of St. Sergius of Radonezh decorated with white-stone carving with the Refectory Chamber (1686–1692) are both in ‘Naryshkin’ Baroque style — the Russian variant of one of the great European styles in architecture. The Tsar's Chambers, Chapel-over-the Well and the mentioned gate cathedral in honor of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist had been erected in the same style at the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Monastery by the end of the 17th century.

The 18th century monuments include the small church in honor of St. Mikhei of Radonezh, built over his grave in 1734. Opposite the hospital wards, the elegant Church of the Smolensk Icon of the Mother of God in Elizabethan Baroque style was built in 1746–1748. 

The building of the Metropolitan's Chambers stands in the southwestern portion of the monastery — it was erected in the 16th–17th centuries, and its façade was renovated in 1778.

View of the Cathedral Square from the bell tower

Welcome to the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra! You are looking at Cathedral Square, the place where St. Sergius’s monastic achievements began. 

Here is the Assumption Cathedral, the Palaces, the Church of SS. Zosima and Sabbatius, and the Church of the Holy Spirit. Here is Trinity Cathedral, whose construction marked the beginning of the monastery that we know today.

Trinity Cathedral

Trinity Cathedral is the principal and oldest church in the monastery. It was built in 1422 by Abbot Nikon in honor of St. Sergius, his teacher and spiritual father. It is the most important monument of early Moscow architecture—in Russia only four churches of this type have been preserved.

Although the height of the church to the top of the cross is 30 m, it appears even taller. The massive walls of white stone emphasize the deep portals and narrow windows. The cathedral’s only decorations are three rows of stone carvings along the façade, the apse, and the drum of the dome.

The Church of St. Micah and the original territory of the monastery

To understand the size of the original territory of the monastery, imagine that the Church of St. Micah would have already been outside of the walls. This church was built on the burial site of St. Micah, a student and lay brother of St. Sergius of Radonezh, and he was buried, according to legend, outside the territory of the existing church. The Church of St. Micah is a small building with an intricate “Dutch” roof and a miniature dome with a cross.

The elegance of its proportions helps is in contrast to the monumental Refectory Church situated next to it. The decorative paintings on the walls of the church date from the nineteenth century.

The Tsar Bell

As Lavra was considered one of the most important shrines in Russia, a huge bell was built there, called the Tsar Bell. Cast in 1748, the “Tsar Bell” weighed 64 metric tons, but it was destroyed in 1930. Ten years ago a new “Tsar Bell”, weighing 72 tons, was raised on the belfry of the monastery.

The Tsar Bell.

The Life of St. Sergius

The Saint’s Parents

St. Sergius’s parents, Cyril and Maria, were good and pious people. Despite their noble status, they preferred rural life to the vanity of the princely court. They already had one son, Stefan, when God gave them a second son, the future founder of the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Monastery. 

According to the legend, Maria knew about her son’s destiny, since at one point during her attendance at a church service the still unborn child cried out three times in the womb. The boy was born on 3 May 1314, and was subsequently christened Varfolomei.

St. Sergius’s parents, Cyril and Maria.

The miraculous admonition

When Varfolomei turned seven, his parents sent him to study along with his brothers Stefan and Pyotr, but he had difficulty learning to read. The boy spent the night with his book and prayed to God to enlighten him. Then he happened to meet an old monk, diligently praying in the field. When the prayer was finished, Varfolomei informed him of his desire to learn to read and his inability to do so, and he asked the monk to pray for him.

The elder complied with the boy’s request and gave him a piece of sacramental bread. Varfolomei “opened his mouth and ate what was given to him”, and from that day he was more literate than his brothers and peers. Since then, Sergius of Radonezh has been considered the patron saint of all students. This miraculous event and many others are described in the book The Life of St. Sergius of Radonezh by the hagiographer Epiphanius the Wise. He began to collect materials a year after the death of the saint, and finished the book around 1417 or 1418, after twenty-six years. Lithographic and printed editions of the book are preserved in the monastery.

The miraculous admonition.

Beginning of monastic life

Prayer for the Establishment of a Church, fresco in the patriarchal chambers of the Trinity- Sergius Lavra.

When Varfolomei turned twelve years old, he took up a strict fast and asked his parents for permission to become a monk. They were not opposed to it, but they asked him to wait until their death. After their death, the twenty-three-year-old Varfolomei went to the Pokrovsky Monastery in Khotkovo, where his widowed brother Stefan lived. 

He persuaded his brother not to remain in domestic life but to go with him to find a place of hermitage. They found such a place on the banks of the river Konchura, on Makovets hill in the middle of a dense forest. The hermits built themselves first a hut made from branches, then a humble cell, and finally they constructed a small church. Prayer for the Establishment of a Church, fresco in the patriarchal chambers of the Trinity- Sergius Lavra.

St. Sergius’s monastic feats.

Meeting with a bear

The small church in the wilderness was consecrated in the name of the Holy Trinity. Varfolomei took gladly to asceticism, while his brother Stefan had more difficulty. In the end, the elder brother decided to return to the monastery, and Varfolomei was left alone.

alone. Occasionally he was visited by the elder monk Mitrofan, who tonsured the young man and gave him the monastic name of Sergius. The life of the saint was full of miracles. One of them was when as a hermit, he came across a bear. The monk saw the hungry beast in front of the hut, and was not afraid, but fed him a piece of bread.

Vision with birds

The difficulty St. Sergius experienced in solitude was astonishing. He endured the cold, hunger, thirst, and grueling hard work with humility. 

Once when he was praying, he had a vision: the whole sky above the church was filled with doves, and a voice from heaven said, “As many as there are birds in the sky above the monastery, so many will be your disciples.”

After two or three years, people began to talk about the young hermit Sergius. One after another, residents of the area came to him for spiritual advice, and then they wished to share in his activity. 

Sergius at first did not agree to accept them, but, moved by their entreaties, he decided to give up his life of solitude. There thus formed a small community, which Sergius first limited to the “apostolic number” of twelve.

Miracles in the life 

of St. Sergius

The healing of a boy

Another miraculous story has been handed down, about Sergius’s healing of a young boy. A man’s son was very ill, and the father, taking the boy in his arms, went to the holy elder as his last hope. 

As he was coming close to the monastery, he discovered that his son had already stopped showing signs of life. In his terrible grief, the man went to prepare the coffin, leaving his dead son (as he thought) with the saint, but upon his return, he found his son healthy again.

The appearance of the Mother of God

Sergius was the first Russian saint to be honored with an appearance of the Mother of God and the apostles Peter and John.

Appearance of the Mother of God and the apostles Peter and John.

Personal belongings of the saint

Sandals and cloak - The saint was buried in these sandals. They are kept in the Church-Archaeological Museum of the Moscow Theological Academy and Seminary, and the cloak is kept in the monastery.

Reliquary cross - According to legend, this was given by the Patriarch of Constantinople Philotheus. It is stored in the booth of Serapion.

Paten and chalice - These are stored in the Church and Archaeology Museum of the Moscow Theological Academy and Seminary.

Nikon’s Chapel

Before his death, St. Sergius handed the abbacy over to his beloved disciple Nikon. St. Nikon was born in 1350 in Yuryevo-Polskoe. In his youth, hearing about the life of the Radonezh miracle worker, the boy came to the Trinity Monastery and requested to become a monk. He became a friend and colleague of St. Sergius, and after his death, he took control of the monastery.

It was him who created the Trinity Church the way we see it now (only the frescos on the walls have not been preserved). After his death he was buried next to St. Sergius. On his burial site a small domed church was built, where the relics of the elder remain.

Nikon's Chapel.

Over the tomb of Saint Nikon is the icon “Saint Nikon of Radonezh and His Life”—one of the best works of the famous icon painter and nun Juliana (Sokolova, 1899–1981).

The role of the Lavra in the state

Reconciliation of the princes - Since the time of St. Sergius of Radonezh, the Lavra has taken a leading role in the spiritual life of the country and, indeed, has become a pillar of the government and the people. According to one contemporary, Sergius with his “quiet and gentle words” could influence the fiercest and most hardened hearts. For example, he brought together the warring princes, persuading them to obey the Grand Prince of Moscow.

Battle of Kulikovo - Here, in 1380, St. Sergius blessed the army of Prince Dmitry Donskoy in his battle with Mamai, and the warrior monks from the Trinity Monastery, Peresvet and Oslyablya, fought in the Battle of Kulikovo.

Reconciliation of the princes
Battle of Kulikovo

Time of Troubles -  During the Time of Troubles, the monastery not only became a center for the consolidation of Russian society, but also contributed its own page in military history. For sixteen months—from October 1608 to January 1610—it withstood the siege of the Polish forces. In the side door of Trinity Church, close to the reliquary of St. Sergius, is a large hole, made by a cannonball that hit the church. It has been specially retained in the memory of those events.

Time of Troubles

Tomb of St. Sergius

Near the iconostasis, at the southern wall, are found the relics of the monastery’s founder, St. Sergius. Until the end of the sixteenth century they were in a wooden reliquary; then they were moved into a silver tomb, created by order of Ivan the Terrible. 

The reliquary is decorated with ornate embossed stamps with texts from the Life of St. Sergius. A silver canopy weighing twenty-five pounds was added by order of Empress Anna Ioannovna, and the engraved cover of the reliquary dates from the nineteenth century.

Tomb of St. Sergius.

Holy Trinity

The central image in the cathedral’s iconostasis—the Holy Trinity icon painted by Andrei Rublev. One of the most famous Russian icons, it was created “in praise of St. Sergius”. 

The original is carefully preserved in the hall of Old Russian painting of the Tretyakov Gallery, in a special glass case with controlled humidity and temperature. In Trinity Cathedral you can see a copy of the icon to the right of the royal doors in the first (lowest) tier of the iconostasis.

 icon by Andrei Rublev (1411 or 1425–27) (copy)
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Curator — The Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra

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