The Holy Trinity Church in Cuhurestii*

Sergei Koluzakov

Magazine issue: 
#1 2014 (42)

* The Holy Trinity Church in Cuhurestii designed by Alexei Shchusev, and Natalia Goncharova's sketches for the church's murals


However, documents and sketches of compositions discovered by researchers during preparations for the exhibition "Natalia Goncharova. East and West" at the Tretyakov Gallery give a clearer picture of the development and scope of this commission. The plans for the church's interior design throw interesting light on the artistic explorations of Shchusev himself, and his decision to employ one of the pioneering figures of the Russian avant-garde, Goncharova.

Another important subject for researchers concerns the family of the project's patrons - the Bogdans, Bessarabian nobles whose family tree was literally woven into the specifications for the murals which Goncharova was asked to create. loan C. Bogdan (1816-1900) and Ecaterina C. Strajescu (...-1892) had three children: Eugenia (1857-1915), Vasile (1859-1912) and Alexandra (1861...). Eugenia Bogdan married Nicolae C. Apostolopulo (1845-1901), and Alexandra married Andrei Pommer (1851-1912). Thus, in 1912 the Bogdan sisters suffered the tragic deaths of both their brother Vasile and Alexandra's husband, Andrei. The sisters decided to donate a substantial sum of money for the construction of a sepulchre church on their family estate, Cuhurestii,1 and to bury the two men there.

Eugenia (Yevgenia Ivanovna) Bogdan, Apostolopulo by marriage, was one of the most educated women of her time: she collected objects of Moldavian applied art, set up a wine-making school under the auspices of the Bessarabian regional council (zemstvo), and kept an apartment with a studio in St. Petersburg where emerging artists could live for free; she was also a member of the St. Petersburg Women's Philanthropic Society, took part in religious-philosophical meetings, and was close to Vasily Rozanov2. For the construction project she employed the architect Alexei Shchusev, who had known her well since his youth, and would later often visit her during his travels to his native Chisinau. Looking for models to emulate, Shchusev, by then a renowned church architect, an academician, and a dedicated adherent of the neo-Russian style, turned his eye to old Moldavian and Romanian places of worship, principally the trefoil churches built in the 14th-16th centuries. Such an architectural choice could have been underpinned both by the wishes of his clients, and by Shchusev's desire to convey through the building Eugenia's fascination with the ancient Moldavian style.

In an early design created in the first half of 1913 the Holy Trinity Church had four pillars and was relatively small, accommodating 550 people (by contrast, Shchusev's Pokrovsky (Divine Protection) Cathed ral at the Marfo-Mariinsky Convent in Moscow had a capacity of 1,000 people, standing). The church was envisioned as a part of a single ensemble, its holy gate topped with a bell tower; this ensemble was later complemented with a monumental-looking well. Situated in the open countryside, not far from the estate mansion and a local industrial school, the church was to become a vertical centrepiece of the estate.

The artistic features and general composition of the edifice were already outlined in that rough version, its only dome to be topped with a cupola shaped as a"little bell turned upside down". It was planned that the painterly texture of the walls would feature contrasts between small and large blocks of stone, smooth and "ragged" surfaces. The tombstones would be located inside the church, one opposite the other, in semi-circular exedras along the transverse axis of the space under the dome. Importantly, this draft also featured waist-length images of saints against a golden background in arched niches along the exterior walls of the church and the belfry. Hints of gilt on the technical drawing suggest that initially Shchusev might have intended to use mosaic on the exterior walls, a feature typical of his church designs. However, in deciding later in favour of frescoes, he took another step in the direction of traditional Moldavian religious art.

It was these murals on the exterior walls that Shchusev wanted to commission from Goncharova, although it remains unclear at which stage of the project the architect contacted her regarding the assignment. The initial commission, for 24 images, leads us to believe that this could have happened after the rough draft was created in 1913, but before the 1914 version was ready. It has been established that Goncharova met Shchusev several times to discuss the project and she very probably viewed his images and technical drawings. She planned to spend three months sketching and five months painting the murals, and requested 4,500 rubles for her work3.

It soon became known that Eugenia Bogdan herself was terminally ill, and Shchusev was asked to design a much bigger family vault in the church's basement; this new design featured on the set of technical drawings created in 1914 and sent, in May of that year, for approval to the eparchial administration and the construction department of the Bessarabian regional government4. In addition, the architect reduced the church's capacity to 375, and, quite logically, the plan with four pillars was rejected. The number of exterior murals, meanwhile, increased to 38, their exact layout decided, with the background for the images of the saints now bright blue. The overall new effect was that of a smart-looking blue ribbon girding the church and the belfry. The plan for the interior was to preserve the natural texture of the walls, using it as the background for several bright spots - narrative frescoes and the iconostasis.

In the same year the advance stages of construction were begun while, concurrently, a working design for the Trinity Church was developed. To accomplish the detailed design and to manufacture moulds for certain elements, Shchusev enlisted the services of Andrei Snigarev5, one of his assistants on the Kazan railway station project in Moscow, while Shchusev's archive reveals details of his other collaborators: "In the construction [of the Trinity Church] he was helped by a marvellous Russian engineering technician Dmitrachenkov, who became a first-rate executive assistant to him."6 Vasily Dmitrachenkov directed the construction work on the site and provided Shchusev with detailed reports about its progress, which was very quick, halted only for six weeks in July-August 1914, when Russia entered World War I. In particular, he wrote on November 16 1915: "[Eugenia] was buried in the new church, in the burial vault. The vault is ready, its walls plastered. Now we're doing an oak flooring in the church, grilles for the choir place, and woodwork. The heating is ready, it's warm to work inside. In January I'll be in Moscow and will visit you to talk about commissioning some of the holy vessels, vestments, etc."7

The war, as well as Goncharova's involvement in Sergei Diaghilev's productions8, which required her to be abroad frequently, delayed the execution of the murals for the church. Nevertheless, she met with the clients, who told her that there would be more paintings than originally planned. On September 24 1915, Goncharova wrote optimistically to Shchusev from Switzerland:

"Dear Alexei Viktorovich,

After my employment here I'll return to Moscow at the end of November, because when I joined Diaghilev, he added another ballet to the one for which I was initially contracted, so I have two productions to handle. If by that time it turns out that both the northern and southern return routes are blocked, I'll make sketches for your church here and, as we've agreed, embark on the painting part early in spring. If I have to stay here after November, it would be desirable, if it wouldn't inconvenience you unduly, to get a full listing of the saints because when I met with the clients in a hotel, new images were added [to the assignment], but I was not told the names of the saints.

Please, provide the saints' familiar names as well, and for saints without one, their feast days, because one name can refer to different saints.

If I do not return in November, I'll send you a cable.

I'll have to spend the next winter ф]91б) abroad, in Italy, because by that time Diaghilev and his ballet will be returning from their American tour and we'll have to produce together the ballets on which I'm working now.

Here I learned from Diaghilev and via the Russian embassy that a church dedicated to Nicholas the Miracle-worker is being built in Bari. This church, I've heard, is being built to your design. The Ferapontov Monastery is mentioned when the planned murals are discussed. They still don't have an artist for this project. If you haven't yet set your eyes on somebody, I'm very interested in this assignment and I would gladly take the decoration work should you decide to contract me. The church isn't finished yet, the dome isn't yet ready. When I'm in Russia, I could show you my sketches and set about the painting work immediately after finishing the Diaghilev project, which will happen approximately at the time when the construction of the church is over. I wish you all the best. N. Goncharova."9

Goncharova did not know that Shchusev at that time was already considering other artists for the church in Bari10 - Vasily Shukhaev and Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, who later travelled, on his request, to study and copy the famous frescoes of Dionysius. Nor did she know that she would never again return to Russia.

The Odessa Art Museum holds two of her sketches for the Bessarabian church - "St. Boris" and "St. Fyodor". As in Shchusev's design, the saints' images are waist-length, featured against a bright blue background the contours of which match the niches in the walls of the church. They are dated "prior to November 6 1915 - collection of E[ugenia] l[oanovna] Bogdan-Apostolopulo". In addition, pencil drawings made in preparation for the sketches were found at the Serpukhov Museum of History and Fine Arts11. One of the drawings is related to the above-mentioned image of"St. Boris", and another, perhaps, to the image of "St. Gleb". What is noteworthy is that the initial drawings were accomplished in a composed and traditional manner whereas the coloured sketches were made in the style of Goncharova's primitivist religious images of the early 1910s, especially her folk pictures. It seems reasonable to suppose that the stylistic concept changed somewhat while the artist was working on the assignment.

Documents from the Tretyakov Gallery's Department of Manuscripts help to fill some gaps in our knowledge of how Goncharova worked on this assignment, and what came of it. In a letter to Nicholas Roerich of July 12 1916, Shchusev wrote: "By the way, Goncharova made very nice sketches for my Bessarabian church."12 In a second, later letter from the archive, Dmitrachenkov laid out specifications for the painting work:

October3,1916 - Cuhurestii estate.

My gracious lady Natalia Sergeevna!

In response to your letter from Paris I wish to inform you that the construction of the church in Bessarabia is largely completed, there is still the painting part to be done, so we ask you to prepare sketches for images of the saints listed in the appendix, which will be featured on the church's exterior walls. If you prepare the sketches during the winter, then it will be possible to start the painting part on the site in the spring of 1917. Overall, we have 38 places for the Saints' images on the exterior walls; the enclosed list has now only 23 names, the other 15 will be supplied by the architect Alexei Viktorovich Shchusev; before Christmas I'll visit him in Moscow and, when the additional list is ready, I'll send it to you, and you meanwhile can prepare sketches for the 23.

When you receive this letter, please tell me whether you can start off with the painting work in our church in spring 1917?

Please accept my most sincere regards and greetings, V. Dmitrachenkov.

My address is the same as before: Post House Cotiujenii Mari, Bessarabian Governorate [gubernia], Cuhurestii estate, c/o administrator Nikolai Yegorovich Stammo for Vasily Yakovlevich Dmitrachenkov.

Names of saints whose images must be featured on the exterior walls of the church at Cuhurestii estate, Bessarabian Governorate

1. The Holy Trinity - dedication day
2. St. John - January 7
3. - Catherine - November 24
4. - Vasily - January 1
5. - Yevgenia - December 24
6. - Alexandra - April 23
7. - Andrei - November 30
8. - Nikolai - May 9
9. - Vladimir - July 15
10. - Nika - March 14
11. - Tatiana - January 12
12. - Nikolai - December 6
13. St. Konstantin - May 21
14. - Yelena - May 21
15. - Mary Magdalene - July 22
16. - Nadezhda - September 17
17. - Alexei - March 17
18. - Paul - June 29
19. - George - April 23
20. - Elijah the Prophet - July 20
21. - St. Eudokia - March 1
22. - St. Hippolytus - August 13
23. - St. Panteleimon - July 27" 13

As comparison of these dates shows, Goncharova received this list after Shchusev had approved her unspecified sketches for the same church. This leads us to assume that she had first made a draft version, which probably included, among other works, the two pieces from Odessa Art Museum, and only then was she awarded the commission for the entire church. This is confirmed by the museum's provenance record and, partly, by the absence of St. Boris and St. Fyodor in the published list.

The list contains the specifications for the murals. There is no doubt that the 23 names on the list include the Bogdan family's patron saints and the saints the family revered the most. At the top of the list (in second and third place) there are the patron saints of the parents of the family, with references to their saints' days, followed by the patron saints of their brother, themselves, their husbands, and others. Perhaps the intention was that the requisite clear hierarchy, implying a family tree of sorts, should also be reflected in the arrangement of the images on the exterior walls.

It is not known whether Shchusev planned to commission the monumental compositions inside the church and the images of the iconostasis from Goncharova14. Their rediscovered correspondence does not give any hint about this matter, but nor does it contain any references to other candidates for the work. However, the church in Cuhurestii was fairly small to accommodate several artists painting concurrently, and it is also difficult to imagine Goncharova working alongside any of her artist contemporaries. Inviting V. Shcherbakov to decorate the church in Pochaev and Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin to work on the Church of St. Nicholas in Bari, Shchusev first asked them to paint the antechamber, with a view of contracting them for the entire church if he approved their antechamber designs. This was a precaution of sorts, a "trial", and perhaps the situation with Goncharova was no different.

Neither is it known whether Goncharova, busy as she was with the Diaghilev productions, started sketching images from the list she had received. The catastrophic events of the 1917 revolution unfolding in Tsarist Russia interrupted Shchusev's and Goncharova's work on the church, which was now officially situated in another country, Romania. Nevertheless, the construction of the church was finished, although without any exterior frescoes, and its completion is reflected in the inscription on the memorial plaque inside the building: "The construction of this holy church dedicated to the Holy Trinity, in the village of Cuhurestii, in Sorokinsky Province [uezd], and the belfry began in 1913, was financed by the pious Christians Eugenia Bogdan and Alexandra Pommer, nee Bogdan, and was completed in 1930, during the reign of Carol II of Romania, by architect A. Shchusev, engineer V. Dmitrachenkov, and painter and sculptor A. Znamensky."15

Another important question remains why Shchusev commissioned Goncharova, an artist of the radical "left", for the task of decorating the church. He might have noticed her religious works at her large solo shows in 1913 and 1914 in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The 1913 exhibition in Moscow was enthusiastically praised by Alexandre Benois in the newspaper "Rech"16, but at the show in St. Petersburg these pieces caused a scandal and were labelled as blasphemous. Following that, on the orders of the Ober-Procurator of the Holy Synod Vladimir Sabler, the police confiscated 22 pictures, returning them to the exhibition only after heated discussion in the press. Considering that Shchusev had worked as an consulting architect for the Office of the Ober-Procurator of the Holy Synod since 1901, his offering the commission to Goncharova could have been a reaction to those events - he was very likely one of the group of artists and public figures who supported her. The primitivism of her "Prophets" and "Mothers of God", and the colourful, stylized folk pictures, fitted very well with Shchusev's views on the study and adaptation of the national art heritage. Drawing his inspiration, as a church architect, from old Russian, and in the case of the Cuhurestii church, from old Moldavian and Romanian church architecture, Shchusev consistently required from the artists he employed to stay within the chosen stylistic framework, although of course he did not try to neutralise their distinctive qualities. His understanding of the principles of stylisation was aptly realised in his artistic partnerships with Nicholas Roerich, Dmitry Stelletsky, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, Alexander Savinov, Eugene Lanceray and, of course, Goncharova herself. The wishes of his clients were also no minor consideration in the choice of artist for this church. Although the church was situated in a rural area, on the far fringes of the Russian Empire, it was intended to be, primarily, an estate sepulchral church for Bessarabia's major noble family. There is no doubt that the character of the church bears the mark of the personality of one of his clients, Eugenia Bogdan-Apostolopulo, who was a passionate collector of hand-made applied art. This, and not only Shchusev's personal preferences, explains the church's emphatically ethnic features, as well as the themes, and the choice of primitivist style for the murals and, accordingly, of Goncharova, as the most outstanding exponent of this trend.

Although Goncharova never painted the walls of the Cuhurestii church, her sketches are very important as the conclusion of her religious series from her Russian period, and a rare example of her explorations in the field of monumental art. From the dates of her work on the Bogdan family commission, which have now been established more precisely, it is clear that this work preceded and then went forward in parallel with her work on sketches for the ballet "Liturgy", in which Goncharova reflected many of the techniques and stylistic discoveries of her religious paintings. In particular, the early sketches of costumes for that production, and especially the 1915 outline of the set, now at New York's Metropolitan Museum, have an extraordinary stylistic resemblance with her work on the church. As for Shchusev's art, the sketches for the murals reviewed here shed an entirely different light on the artistic aspects of one of the surviving church buildings designed by this master, modifying our understanding of his views and attitudes to contemporary artistic trends.

This writer expresses his deep gratitude for assistance with this research to I.G. Shchusev and A.M. Shchusev, M.V. Yevstratova, Yevgenia Ilukhina (from the Tretyakov Gallery), Ye.V. Basner and T.M. Bykova (Serpukhov Museum of History and Fine Arts; Odessa Art Museum).

  1. Cuhurestii in Bessarabian Governorate (guberniya) of Soroksky Province (uezd) was the Bogdan family's estate inherited, after the parents' death, by son Vasile. When his sister Eugenia got married, she moved to Nicolae Apostolopulo's Saharna estate, and sister Alexandra settled at her husband's estate Taul. After Vasile's death his sisters took their native Cuhurestii under their wing.
  2. In spring 1913 Rozanov vacationed with his family at Eugenia Bogdan's Saharna estate and left very vividly written and most interesting reminiscences about the colourful personality of the mistress of the house. See: Rozanov, Vasily.'Saharna'. In: Collected Works. Edited by Alexander Nikolukin. Vol. 9. Moscow: 1998.
  3. The information from a draft of Natalia Goncharova's (undated) letter to Alexey Shchusev, reproduced in Elena.Basner's manuscript. A private collection.
  4. Four technical drawings from this set, as well as the 1915 perspective drawing, were published by Shchusev in the Yearbook of the Imperial Society of Architect-Artists. Issue 10. St.Petersburg: 1915. Pp. 165-167.
  5. Andrei Vasilievich Snigarev (1890-1955) was an architect and Shchusev's assistant. In addition to numerous projects related to Moscow-Kazan Railroad, he assisted Shchusev in such projects as the New Moscow master plan (1918-1923), Crafts Pavilion at the 1st Exhibition of Agricultural Achievements (1923), for which he accomplished several projects independently as well, in the renovations of the Tretyakov Gallery's building (1930, 1944), in the design of an opera and ballet theatre in Tashkent (1933-1947), the main building of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR in Moscow (1935-1949), the renovation of the Town of Istra (1941-1943), and in many other construction projects.
  6. Quoted from: Shchusev, Pavel. Chapters in the Life of Academician Alexey Shchusev. Moscow: 2011. P. 86.
  7. Vasily Dmitrachenkov's letter to Alexei Shchusev of November 16, 1915. A private collection. First publication.
  8. When the operatic ballet"Golden Cockerel" (1914) designed by Goncharova enjoyed a great success in Paris, Diaghilev offered her a contract for the production of the ballets "Liturgy" (1915) and "The Wedding" (1915-1923).
  9. Natalia Goncharova's letter to Alexei Shchusev, September 24, 1915. A private collection. First publication.
  10. Shchusev worked on the design of the Church of St.Nicholas the Miracle Worker and an inn in Bare in 1911-1916. The construction of the church was completed, but it was not sanctified and its walls were not painted before the revolution. Petrov-Vodkin visited the Ferapontov Monastery in May, and Vasily Shukhaev with Alexander Yakovlev - in July-August 1916.
  11. An assumption that these sketches can be related to the paintings in the Cuhurestii church was made in the article by A.Pilipenko"Russian Art of the 19th - early 20th century in the Serpukhov Museum of History and Fine Arts" Tretyakov Gallery No. 1(18), Moscow, 2008. P. 21.
  12. Alexei Shchusev's letter to Nicholas Roerich, July 12, 1916. Department of Manuscripts at the Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 44. Item 1535. First publication.
  13. Vasily Dmitrachenkov's letter to Natalia Goncharova, October 3, 1916. Department of Manuscripts at the Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 180. Item . First publication.
  14. A Moscow icon painter Ivan Dikarev in March 1914 was commissioned to manufacture the iconostasis of carved wood, painted and patinised, using Shchusev's technical drawings and moulds. Dikarev finished the piece in 1915 and sent to Cuhurestii in 1916.
  15. Translation from the Romanian by S. Koluzakov. The present-day murals inside the church, styled "a la Vasnetsov", are absolutely out of tune with the original concept.
  16. Benois, Alexandre.'Natalia Goncharova Exhibition'. Rech. October 21, 1913.





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