On the Nilov-Brick Road

As a child, I always had an interest in both Arabic and Gothic architecture, in my eyes, both were at two different ends of architectural design and aesthetics. I have yet been able to see any Middle-Eastern Mosques or Gothic churches of Europe in the flesh, but I did come really close to the former kind in the most interesting, and unusual settings.

The Arabic Coast during sunset, at Tokyo Disney Sea

This picture was taken at Tokyo Disney Sea, a branch of the Disney Amusement Parks in Tokyo, Japan that includes themes and features from the books of Jules Verne (take Journey to the Center of the Earth, for example), from the Little Mermaid, and from the Indiana Jones Franchise. My favorite area of the park was the Arabian Coast, taken straight out of the Disney film Aladdin, which was also my favorite Disney movie. Being at this fictional Arab-inspired display was often emotional for me, I loved the bright colors, the domes, and just simply the aesthetic that I wasn’t able to see in everyday life.

While looking through the pictures of Prokudin-Gorsky, I came across a very familiar sight.

View of the monastery from Svetlitsa

The bridge leading up to the dome-d buildings that seemed to be surrounded by a body of water reminded me a lot of my precious Arabic Coast. Included in my interest for Gothic and Arabic architecture, is my curiosity for traditional Russian architecture. Much like the paradox that Russia is, it doesn’t fit the European aesthetic (for me this would be either Gothic, Greek, or Roman) and it doesn’t really fit the Asian aesthetic either (for me what comes to mind are imperial palaces or Buddhist temples). The unique, and picturesque monastery found in this photo is on Stolobnyi Island and is surrounded by Lake Seliger, the location is found northwest of Moscow.

Prokudin-Gorsky took this picture of the monastery in 1910, five years removed from the 1905 Revolution, and seven years earlier than the Revolution of 1917 (which took place during World War II). The photographer and his work were seen as innovations at the time because he employed his knowledge in chemistry to produce colored photos before colored photography existed. By using three different colored glass filters, Prokudin-Gorsky was able to emulate colors; his mission in using his specialized technique was to travel the entirety of the Russian empire on behalf of Tsar Nicholas II in order to show peoples of the empire the diversity and complexity of itself. 

The photographer was sent to Norway after the 1917 Revolution, and never returned after the Soviets took power; as Prokudin-Gorsky and his work were caught in Russian history, so would be the monastery of Nilov. The edifice was ‘predicted’ by Saint Nilus, the saint traveled to the island of Stolobniy in order to continue his monastical works in seclusion. Upon his deathbed, Nilus predicted that the island would be the home of a new monastery; after his death in 1594, coenobite (“a member of the monastic community”) Herman founded the monastery. In more contemporary history, after the October Revolution the Soviets had the monastery closed, in the inspiration of the “Program of the Socialist Revolutionaries” that religion would be a private rather than a public affair. Afterwards, the land would serve as a commune, a children’s labour colony, a hospital and prisoner of war camp during World War II, then again a children’s home, and lastly a nursing home. After the Cold War the land was given back to the Orthodox Church and has been a functioning monastery and popular tourist site ever since.

A 20th century depiction of the Nilov Monastery 

What drew me to Prokudin-Gorsky photo was the almost heavenly presence of the monastery surrounded by the lake, and the architecture attributed to unique Russian aesthetics which added a level of mystery to the photo. After standing for over four-hundred years, the monastery has added and taken down different elements to its dominion, in the same manner it is interesting how the presence of Russian orthodoxy in Russian society and the purpose that the monastery has played (as a religious edifice, hospital, and tourist destination) have all been transient and changing as well. If Disney was interested in bring in a… new demographic, it could very well look into the pictures of Prokudin-Gorsky for inspiration for a ‘Pre-Soviet Revolution Land’.


11 thoughts on “On the Nilov-Brick Road

  1. Wow, this display of architecture is incredible! Something that caught my attention while reading your post was the first use of the building, a monastery, and the reasoning for its closing. I am sure this place was well known at the time of it being a monastery, but at the same time it almost feels like it is hidden away when looking at the picture. It might be because of the bridge that you have to cross to get there, or the stone wall and tall trees outlining the perimeter. I just found it funny that the Russians closed it due to their movement of private religion versus public religion when, looking at the picture, I got that sense of the area being kind of closed off and hidden from the surrounding area.


    1. I totally agree that it really does look secluded from the start! I think thats kind of what drew me to it? It looked very mysterious to me, kind of a Dracula’s Castle kind of vibe but in a very different way. I didn’t really know how it worked, maybe people only walked down the bridge when it was time to go to church. Either way, I could see why it would look like it was supposed to be hidden. It would look even more mysterious if the photo was taken with different lighting on a not-so-sunny day.


  2. This was very interesting to read. The one thing that stuck out to me was how you mentioned that the monastery is 400 years old. That is very good craftsmanship and architecture for it to last that long. Did you find out what methods or techniques they used in order to make the monastery last that long? The church from my home town was built in 1900 and it needed to be repaired extensively this past year. It is good to see that religious buildings are treated with respect and love. Overall, a great post.


    1. Thank you! I think that over 400 years it would’ve probably had periods of remodeling, rebuilding, and maybe even tearing things down? Also, I feel like many mosques and cathedrals in the Middle East and Europe were meant to last and probably have structures and foundations very different from those built in America (but I’m not quite sure). But regarding the upkeep process, I feel like it may have been something like what the French were trying to do with Notre Dame this past April with new additions or remodelings to the 800 year old building (older than the Nilova Monastery) despite the fire that did end up taking place.


  3. I like that you were drawn to this image because you saw the blend of architectural styles that you already had an appreciation for. Russian orthodox architecture has a lot of its stylistic roots in Byzantine architecture which is mostly a blend of Islamic and Roman architecture styles. I agree it is really interesting to see how elements from these different cultures can be found in the architecture of places where you would perhaps not expect them. You mentioned at the end of your post that there have been elements removed and added to the complex. I think it would be interesting to know what major changes occurred especially in the time period of our course.


    1. I would absolutely love to study and see what the major changes took place there as well. Its just amazing overall that the structure has been able to survive so long and hasn’t made very drastic changes in its Russian orthodox architecture.


  4. Hi!
    I want to start by saying I LOVE your title. It made me really curious about what your blog was going to be about, and I think it was great for reeling in readers. I love how you brought a piece of yourself into this post, and found the parallels between Disney and the monastery. The photo you chose is very beautiful, and I really appreciate the history you put behind it as well. It’s really interesting that someone predicted on his death bed a monastery would be built there! I’m definitely curious to see what the monastery looks like now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much! I think when I found the photo I was just really taken back because it looked so similar to what I saw at Disney Land! That I side, I am really interested in religious architecture and I felt like the Nivola Monastery, specifically because it is surrounded like a lake, was especially mysterious and heightened my curiosity which made me want to look into it.


  5. Agree with Lauren about your title –although I confess I had no idea where you going when you started….I loved every moment of the ride! The photo from Tokyo Disney is wild! I really appreciate the detail you brought to the discussion of why the monastery was built where it was and its symbolic resonance in Russian culture. Check out Landry’s post — he also wrote about Nils and likes architectural photography: https://landryhendersonhistory.news.blog/2020/02/03/three-nil-the-island-monastery/


    1. Thank you so much! I really just wanted to share the thought process I went through when looking at all of Prokudin-Gorsky’s photos for the first time. I think that overall Russian history is already interesting because of how it doesn’t really fit both European stereotypes and Asian stereotypes. And added onto that, I think the fact that it is a monastery made it more interesting because I know that very old monasteries are constantly changing and rebuilding, so there is a lot more history to look at here!


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