MOSCOW was just a village when the Danilovsky Monastery was built in 1282. The site saw gradual neglect through the centuries, but it was the 20th century that brought the most indignity: In 1928 it was made into a reform school. Its Holy Trinity Cathedral, an example of late Russian Classicism by Bove, the architect who oversaw the rebuilding of Moscow after the fire of 1812, was turned into a three-story recreation center. Most of its frescoes were plastered over; the 45-meter-high (150 feet) bell tower over the main gate was dismantled and its bells sold to an American. The cemetery was destroyed, and the graves of national figures such as Nikolai Gogol were moved.
Just outside the monastery walls, the gold-domed parish church was turned into an umbrella factory.
Hidden away in a sleepy neighborhood of warehouses and red brick factories that look as though perestroika is passing them by, the father of Moscow monasteries has been off bounds to lovers of Russian culture for many years. But a growing national consciousness has turned into a passion for restoration of historic buildings in recent times, and the Danilovsky, a national and religious shrine, is a focus of this effort to recapture the past.
By June, the Danilovsky, set on a bend of the Moscow River that once formed part of the city's southeastern defense perimeter, will be ready to host some of the main events commemorating the Christianization of Kievan Russia, in AD 988.
The first monastery on the site, with a wooden church, was built in 1282 by St. Daniel, the fourth son of Alexander Nevsky and first of the Moscow princes. In 1330, however, his grandson, Ivan I, moved most of the monks into the well-fortified Kremlin, to the Spassky Monastery.
It wasn't until the reign of Ivan IV, the Terrible, that the monastery was revived and a stone church built in 1564. It was given the unwieldy name of Cathedral of the Holy Fathers of the Seven Ecumenical Councils. The monastery was by that time one of a ring of defensive monasteries around Moscow. Archers shooting from its walls helped to repulse an attack by Crimean Tatars at the end of the century.
Now the monastery, which was handed back to the Moscow patriarchate in 1983, has become a different sort of outpost: It houses the Department of External Church Relations of the Orthodox church and will eventually have a church hotel and conference center outside its walls. Inside the walls, though, it is already a functioning spiritual center, with a working church and 26 monks. (This number will increase to 60; the Moscow patriarch will also have his residence here.)
Restoration required a painstaking study of old photos and engravings, wall soundings, and scraping of plaster. All the work has been paid for by church contributions (about $25 million worth). The ground-floor iconostasis in the Cathedral of the Holy Fathers was painted in the style of the late 15th century by a monk from Pskov. A team of female restorers, all believers, has spent the last three years working on 17th- and 18th-century icons brought from a defunct monastery in Kostroma, north of Moscow. These will decorate the main iconostasis, on the second floor of the white-vaulted cathedral.
On Sundays here one can see people of all ages pushing toward the altar. Monks say that pilgrims come from outside Moscow, some to pray for recovery from illness.