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Divine Wisdom in Novgorod the Great

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This article is from a series by the invaluable William Brumfield, (Wikipedia), Professor of Slavic Studies at Tulane University, New Orleans, USA.

Brumfield is the world’s leading historian of Russian architecture.  He makes frequent trips to Russia, often to her remote regions, and records the most unusual examples of surviving architecture with detailed, professional photography.  

His most recent book is a real treasure, Architecture At The End Of The Earth, Photographing The Russian North (2015). (Amazon).  This truly beautiful book was made possible by the support of a US philanthropist, and its true cost is 3 times its retail price, and we can’t recommend it highly enough.  Here is our 2015 review of it.

Bravo to RBTH for making Brumfield’s work possible, and providing such a great platform for his beautiful photography.  We recommend visiting the RBTH page, which has a slide show for each article with many more pictures than we can fit in here.

Don’t believe in miracles?  Well, we can assure you, Brumfield’s work is undoubtedly just that.  You can find a complete list of his articles on RI here.

The original title of this article was: Divine Wisdom in Novgorod the Great


The city of Novgorod, officially referred to since 1999 as “Novgorod the Great” (Veliky Novgorod), is a magnificent repository of medieval Russian art, with more than 50 churches and monasteries extending from the 11th through the 17th centuries. In 1992, this wealth of historic monuments — centered on the Novgorod kremlin — was honored with inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage list.

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Medieval chronicles first mention Novgorod between 860 and 862, when the eastern Slavs summoned the Varangian leader Rurik to assume control of their affairs. Although the Rurikovich rulers transferred power to Kiev at the end of the 9th century, Novgorod continued to exercise control over a vast area of northern Rus.

In 989, following the official acceptance of Christianity in the domains of Grand Prince Vladimir of Kiev, Novgorod was visited by Vladimir’s ecclesiastical emissary, Bishop Joachim of Kherson.  The bishop overturned pagan idols into the Volkhov River and commissioned the first stone church, dedicated to Sts. Joachim and Anna, as well as a wooden Church of St. Sophia, with 13 “tops,” or domes.

The political history of Novgorod was far from calm. The city not only frequently challenged its leaders, including Rurik, but also participated in the princely feuds that wracked the Kievan state. Nevertheless, Novgorod prospered during the 11th and 12th centuries as part of the Dnieper trade route from the Baltic to the Black Sea. With its mercantile wealth, the city had the means to create a citadel and an imposing architectural ensemble of churches.Image iconsnimok_ekrana_2016-08-24_v_18.18.27.png

The Volkhov River, which separated the city into the Trading Side and the Sophia Side (after the Cathedral of St. Sophia), provided an essential link for trade and exploration within a network of waterways that led in every direction. The extent of this commercial activity produced literate citizens independent of Kiev and its representative in Novgorod, who was usually the brother or son of the Kievan grand prince.          

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The oldest surviving and most imposing monument in the city is the Cathedral of St. Sophia (Divine Wisdom), built between 1045 and 1050 and located in the kremlin, on the west bank of the Volkhov River. The cathedral was commissioned by the prince of Novgorod, Vladimir Yaroslavich, as well as by his father, Grand Prince Yaroslav the Wise, and by Archbishop Luke of Novgorod.          

It is fitting that Yaroslav, whose own Sophia Cathedral in Kiev was entering its final construction phase at this time, should have played a role in the creation of the Novgorod St. Sophia.  Novgorod that had been the base of his power during the reign of his father, Grand Prince Vladimir of Kiev.        

With the building of large masonry cathedrals dedicated to the Divine Wisdom in both Kiev and Novgorod, Yaroslav rendered homage to one of the most sacred mysteries of the Orthodox Church, and established a symbolic link between the two major cities of his realm and Constantinople.    

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In addition Yaroslav’s participation would have been essential from a practical point of view. Masonry construction was rare in Novgorod before the middle of the 11th century, and a cathedral of such size and complexity could only have been constructed under the supervision of experienced builders.           

The builders applied a method of placing blocks of local rough gray limestone within a mortar of crushed brick and lime that imparted a pink hue to the coarsely textured façades. Narrow plinthos brick was used for the interior arches and vaulting, as well as for other segments that required structural precision. Stucco was first applied only in the interior, which was then covered with frescoes painted by local and foreign masters from Greece and the Balkans.          

On the exterior the cathedral walls presented a highly textured appearance, even after cladding with mortar to reduce the unevenness of the surface. The earliest reference to the application of whitewash to the walls appears in the Novgorod chronicle under the year 1151.   

The Novgorod cathedral included enclosed galleries attached to the north, west, and south facades. Originally intended to be only one story, the galleries evolved during the building of the cathedral into an integral part of the structure on both levels. The north and south galleries contain chapels on the ground level, and the west gallery includes a round stair tower that leads to the upper gallery levels, including the choir gallery in the main structure.   

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The facade above the west portal displays fragments of a medieval fresco depicting the Old Testament Trinity. The portal itself contains the bronze Magdeburg Doors, produced in Magdeburg in the 1050s and taken as loot from the Varangian fortress of Sigtuna by Novgorod raiders in 1117.           

The culminating point of the Novgorod St. Sophia Cathedral is its ensemble of cupolas, whose original form would have had a lower pitch than the helmet-shaped domes now in place. The design is one of the most impressive moments in medieval Russian architecture. The dome over the central crossing predominates in height and diameter, yet the four subsidiary domes are so closely placed as to appear part of one perfectly devised whole. The structure itself provides an admirable base for the domes, with its lack of surface decoration and only the simplest of architectural details.          

The emphasis on height is maintained in the interior, where the piers of the main aisles soar directly to the barrel ceiling vaults. Novgorod chronicles indicate that the interior was painted with frescoes over a period of several decades. According to the Third Novgorod chronicle, soon after the completion of construction, “icon painters from Tsargrad (Constantinople)” painted Christ with his hand raised in blessing (probably an image of the Pantocrator in the central dome) and other representations of the Savior. Fragments of the 11th-century work, including full-length paintings of Emperor Constantine and Elena, have been uncovered, as well as early 12th-century frescoes.          

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Most of the original painting of the interior has vanished under centuries of renovations. (The current frescoes date primarily from the 19th century.) The Novgorod cathedral lacked the elaborate mosaics characteristic of major churches in Kiev before the mid-12th century, yet there was decorative mosaic work on the floor and in the altar space. 

The St. Sophia Cathedral is surrounded by an array of historic monuments that include the massive Cathedral Bell Gable (15th-18th centuries), the Clock Tower (now dated to the 1670s) and the Archbishop’s Chambers — also known as the Faceted Chambers, originally built in the 1430s and substantially rebuilt in the 19th century. The fortress walls and towers have been maintained and restored to a 15th-century appearance, although some of the towers date to the late 13th century.     

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Facing the St. Sophia Cathedral to the south is the gargantuan bell monument known as the “Millennium of Russia.” Designed by the sculptor Mikhail Mikeshin and others, the monument was unveiled in 1862 to honor the millennium of the founding of dynastic authority among the ancient Rus.          

At the top of the monument is a massive bronze globe surmounted by an angel holding a cross. Around the sphere are six statuary groups signifying defining moments in the history of Russian statehood, from Riurik, founder of the first dynasty, to Peter the Great, founder of the Russian Empire. At the bottom of the bell are scenes with exemplary figures from spiritual, cultural, state and military service. A notable omission is Tsar Ivan the Terrible, who sacked Novgorod and killed many of its inhabitants in 1570.

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‘No country for working parents’

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Even before the pandemic, childcare was one of the biggest challenges facing young families. “It cripples families financially,” says Lucia Ryan, a school principal and parent of three-year-old twins.

Covid-19 has intensified the pressure on parents and providers, launching them into a new world of regulations, “play pods” and resulting staffing pressures.

“Our creche couldn’t find staff. So they reduced their hours to finish at 4pm,” Ryan, the principal of Hartstown Community School in Dublin, tells The Irish Times.

She was left trying to “run a school from home in the afternoons” and look after two-year-old twins, Matilda and John, though they are now enrolled in the State’s Early Childhood and Childcare Scheme, along with an afternoon childminder.

But she worries about the pressure facing parents and the “absolute heroes” who are the country’s childcare workers. Her third child is due in three weeks. She’s trying not to think about what happens when her maternity leave ends. “I don’t know what I’ll do.”

For many, the complications of the post-pandemic world of work and childcare are only beginning. A new era of flexibility is supposed to free people but, in practice, things could get worse, not better.

Up to 200,000 children are in early years services, with parents paying €800 per month for a creche place, and up to €1,200 a month in some areas. Now, some are discovering that their needs do not always align with either a childcare provider or their employer.

Michelle Walsh, who works with the Health Service Executive, recently returned to work after maternity leave with her second child, and considered herself lucky to get a place for the baby in the only creche in her rural town, where her three year old already attends. “On my first day back at work, the creche called to say they had to cut hours for my one year old and could only provide childcare until 1pm.”

Juggling schedules

The three-year-old could still stay full days. Walsh runs clinics in primary care four days a week, so “it is impossible to change hours to facilitate this. I’ve now had to find a childminder for the afternoons and start settling in again. To say the situation has been stressful is an understatement.”

The combination of a creche in the mornings and childminder in the afternoons is proving more expensive than full days in the creche would be. But it is her last option and she may have to take a career break if arrangements falter.

Other parents have similar stories, telling of the difficulty of juggling the same hours at work with reduced hours in childcare, the fees which haven’t changed and the dread felt that a child could be sent home with a sniffle.

“Our creche has reduced its hours. They haven’t reduced fees,” says Olivia, who doesn’t want to use her real name because she does not want to be perceived as critical of her creche or her employer, when she’s just frustrated by the system. “It used to be 7.30am to 6pm. Now it’s 8.00am to 5.30pm, which can be challenging . . . I know management are keen not to raise fees, but they say with the pod system, it’s impossible to have the staff for longer hours.”

Consequently, she has to finish work at 5pm. “Right now I’m still WFH [working from home] but it will be even more challenging once I go back to the office in a couple of weeks. In the old days, I used to drop three kids to creche for 7.45am, where they got breakfast and two were brought to school from there. Then I could work from 8am to 5.30pm. Now, we need to split drop-off for school and creche, make it to work for 9am and rush out of work at 5pm for pick-up.”

Regina Bushell, managing director of Grovelands Childcare: “There is a sustainability problem if parents only want to do five hours, but there are staff there who need to be paid for 10 hours.”
Regina Bushell, managing director of Grovelands Childcare: “There is a sustainability problem if parents only want to do five hours, but there are staff there who need to be paid for 10 hours.”

Her employer is understanding, but the hours have to be made up. “It’s just back to the same old juggling – logging in early morning or after kids go to bed.”

So what exactly is going on to put Ireland’s already-struggling childcare infrastructure under such additional strain? “The pre-Covid pressures are back with a bang,” says Frances Byrne, policy director with Early Childcare Ireland, which represents 3,900 childcare providers providing care for 120,000 children.

Irish parents already pay the third-highest proportion of their income on childcare of OECD countries, due, provider say, to the lack of spending over generations by successive governments.

Scant investment

According to the OECD, Ireland was spending just 0.1 per cent of gross domestic product on early years prior to Covid, the lowest investment of any developed country. During Covid, additional government funding “kept the show on the road” and meant that creches were able to keep staff employed and stay open, Byrne says. But as the world returns to normal, there’s no certainty over how long that funding will be available.

Meanwhile, although the pod system is supposed to offer some flexibility – allowing staff to move between pods to cover breaks for each other for example – in practice many creches feel they’ve been left with a choice of hiring more staff or reducing hours. Regina Bushell, who is the managing director of Grovelands, which operates six childcare centres in the midlands and runs the Seas Suas group representing independent childcare providers, explains how it has reduced the places available to babies.

“The regulations require a ratio of three [babies] to one [staff member]. But realistically for governance, I need a three to two ratio, because that one person has to have annual leave, lunch breaks, their comfort breaks, they may go out sick. I require those three babies to be in on a full-time basis to cover the cost.”

“Service providers would love to be able to provide as much flexibility as required. But there is a sustainability problem if parents only want to do five hours, but there are staff there who need to be paid for 10 hours.”

One mother in a different part of the country, Sinead, said her daughter used to attend after-school care from 2.30pm to 5.30pm five days a week. She had been hoping to use the care for two days, not five because of Covid-prompted changes to her work, but the provider can only do all or nothing.

Sinead is understandably annoyed, but, explains Byrne, “It’s not an inflexibility by choice; it’s an inflexibility imposed by the funding models.”

Funding is tied to attendance, says Byrne. So the National Childcare Scheme is the most flexible, but it can only offer flexibility “for up to eight weeks”, says Byrne. “If someone is saying I’m not going to need care on a Wednesday because I’m working from home or I reduced my hours, it’s really difficult for providers to offer that flexibility. Over time, their public funding will be withdrawn.”

The answer, believes Early Childhood Ireland, is more money and more flexibility. The Government has committed to doubling spending by 2028, but a five-year budget is needed, says Byrne.

And the models must adapt to post-Covid working. In Scandinavian counties, the provider is not “punished” if a parent is in a position to reduce their child’s hours. “We need to move to a Scandinavian model, where everybody pays something, but the richest pay more – but even the richest only pay up to a certain amount.”

As things stand, says Olivia, Ireland is no country for working parents and “definitely no country for working mothers.”

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France recalls ambassadors from US, Australia over submarines row

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President Emmanuel Macron ordered the recalling of the envoys after Canberra ditched a deal to buy French submarines in favour of US vessels, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.

Le Drian said in a statement that the decision was made to “immediately” recall the two French ambassadors due to “the exceptional seriousness of the announcements made on September 15th by Australia and the United States.”

The abandonment of the ocean-class submarine project that Australia and France had been working on since 2016 constituted “unacceptable behaviour among allies and partners,” the minister said.

“Their consequences affect the very concept we have of our alliances, our partnerships, and the importance of the Indo-Pacific for Europe”

US President Joe Biden announced the new Australia-US-Britain defence alliance on Wednesday, extending US nuclear submarine technology to Australia as well as cyber defence, applied artificial intelligence and undersea capabilities.

The pact is widely seen as aimed at countering the rise of China.

The move infuriated France, which lost a contract to supply conventional submarines to Australia that was worth Aus$50 billion (€31 billion, $36.5 billion) when signed in 2016.

The French ambassador recalls from the United States and Australia, key allies of France, are unprecedented.

France has made no effort to disguise its fury and on Thursday accused Australia of back-stabbing and Washington of Donald Trump-era behaviour over the submarines deal.

“It’s really a stab in the back,” Le Drian said Thursday. “We had established a relationship of trust with Australia, this trust has been
betrayed”.

France has also called off a gala at its ambassador’s house in Washington scheduled for Friday. The event was supposed to celebrate the anniversary of a decisive naval battle in the American Revolution, in which France played a key role.

‘Extremely irresponsible’

Australia earlier shrugged off Chinese anger over its decision to acquire US nuclear-powered submarines, while vowing to defend the rule of law in airspace and waters where Beijing has staked hotly contested claims.

Beijing described the new alliance as an “extremely irresponsible” threat to regional stability, questioning Australia’s commitment to nuclear non-proliferation and warning the Western allies that they risked “shooting themselves in the foot”.

China has its own “very substantive programme of nuclear submarine building”, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison argued Friday in an interview with radio station 2GB.

China claims almost all of the resource-rich South China Sea, through which trillions of dollars in shipping trade passes annually, rejecting competing claims from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Beijing has been accused of deploying a range of military hardware including anti-ship missiles and surface-to-air missiles there, and ignored a 2016 international tribunal decision that declared its historical claim over most of the waters to be without basis.

France’s European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune said on Friday that Paris was unable to trust Canberra in ongoing European Union trade deal talks following the decision, before the ambassadors were recalled.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, in Washington, said she understood the “disappointment” in Paris and hoped to work with France to ensure it understands “the value we place on the bilateral relationship and the work that we want to continue to do together”.



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Pope Francis calls President Higgins a ‘wise man of today’

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Pope Francis has described President Michael D Higgins as a “wise man of today” during an Audience in the Vatican on Friday morning.

President Higgins met the Pontiff for the fourth time on Friday and discussed issues including climate change, environment and global inequality.

During the formal photocall, the Pope said: “Today, I did not just meet a man, a President, I met a wise man of today.

“I thank God that Ireland has such a wise man as its Head (of State).”

A statement issued by the Vatican said that after the audience with the Pope, President Higgins met with Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, accompanied by Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States.

“During the cordial talks, various matters of mutual interest were discussed, such as migration and the protection of the environment, with particular attention to the prospects of the 26th United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP26), to take place in Glasgow.

“There was also a joint reflection on the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic and the future of Europe, focusing finally on the theme of the strengthening of the peace process in the country.”

The President was accompanied to the Vatican by his wife, Sabina Higgins, and by Ireland’s Ambassador to the Holy See, Derek Hannon.

He presented to the Pope a ‘Bata Iascaire’ or ‘Fisherman’s Stick’ made on Inis Mór, the largest of the Aran Islands.

Artist Lochlainn Cullen took a local blackthorn stick and wove it with special cotton, using knots drawn from fishing.

The spiral is called ‘St. Mary’s Hitch’ and consists of three interwoven strands and represents the divine trinity.

A controversy around Mr Higgins’s declining of an invitation to a church service in Armagh next month marking the centenary of partition and creation of Northern Ireland, which the queen will attend, had threatened to overshadow the Vatican visit.

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