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.
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.
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.
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’.