Medieval Russians Built Churches in One Day to Ward Off Epidemics

Dec 18, 2020 0 comments

In the middle ages, many Russian communities, especially in the Novgorod and Pskov regions, believed in building churches as response to calamities raging at that time, most often epidemics. The tradition known as obydennye khramy requires that the church be completed within the course of a single day. These one-day votive churches were built by communal labor and were simple in design and small in size. Construction usually began at night and ended before sunset of the following day. By nightfall, the church had to be consecrated. Made of wood, they stood no more than 40-50 years.

obydennye khramy church

A “modern” one-day votive church being erected in Chersonesus, near Sevastopol, Crimea, in 2015 in a bid to revive the ancient tradition.

The first recorded instance of obydennye khramy dates back to 1390, when a village in Novgorod erected a small wooden church in response to the Black Plague that was raging across Europe. In the words of the Novgorod Chronicle: “On Wednesday the peasants erected a church, in a single day; they brought in logs from the forest and on the Saint Sophia [side of the city they built a church to] Saint Afanasii, with the blessing and at the urging of the bishop; and Bishop Ioann consecrated it on the same day and celebrated the Liturgy; through the mercy of God, the intercession of Saint Sophia, and the prayers and blessings of the bishop the pestilence ended.”

During the 15th and the first half of the 16th centuries, one-day votive churches appeared regularly in the Pskov and the Novgorod regions. All of these churches owed their existence to some epidemic disease threatening the community. In the majority of instances, it was either the bubonic plague or a combination of bubonic and pneumonic plague which mobilized the people into action. There are at least two churches in Pskov, erected in 1522, in response to the mysterious English sweating sickness. A decade later, there was an outbreak of smallpox in both Novgorod and Pskov resulting in many more churches in both cities.

Related: Black Weddings: Marrying in The Time of Cholera

Building a one-day votive church was usually a community decision. Sometimes, the Tsar himself ordered one built. In 1522, after the construction of a one-day church dedicated to Saint Varlam Khutynskii failed to halt an epidemic in Pskov, Vasilii III ordered a second one built in honor of the Intercession of the Virgin Mary with funds from his own treasury. Again in 1532, when Pskov was in the midst of a smallpox epidemic, the grand prince paid for the erection of the church of the Archangel Gabriel. Two decades later, Ivan IV ordered the construction of two churches in a desperate attempt to please the Gods and alleviate the widespread suffering from an outbreak of bubonic plague in the city.

The last known obydennyi khram church was built in 1654 in Vologda. Thanks to a detailed account, we know a lot about why and how it was built.

That year, a serious plague epidemic broke out across central Russia, killing people by the thousands. “Bodies littered the streets like cordwood,” said a contemporary account. Up to a dozen people had to share a single grave, and those were the fortunate ones. Many went unburied, and their bodies lay in the streets to be devoured by dogs.

By August, the plague had reached Vologda, and many people died within hours of being stricken by the disease. Driven by fear, many people turned to spiritualism, offering prayers and fasting in atonement for their sins, but nothing worked. Then they vowed to build a church, promising to erect it within 24 hours.

On October 18, 1654, at precisely 1 A.M., the foundation for the church was laid. Some took charge of the ground plans; others supervised the hauling of the wood. Some made torches out of birch bark and with these ringed the construction site, providing light for those building the church. By nightfall of the same day the work was completed, except for the interior walls that were left rough and unhewn. Icons were borrowed from several nearby churches for the formal consecration the following day. The new church was dedicated to the Savior. Five days after its completion, a local artist painted an icon of the Savior for the new church in a single day.

Accounts state that the completion of the church brought a remarkable “transformation of death into life,” although modern researchers like to point out that the epidemic was already on the decline when the Vologda church was begun. Vologda's northerly location and the onset of cold weather prevented the disease from having a major demographic impact on the town, since the plague bacterium is highly sensitive to changes in temperature.

No obydennye khramy church survive in their original state, although many have been rebuilt with stone and exist to this day. This include the Spaso-Vsegradsky Cathedral in Vologda—the same one that was erected in 1654. It was rebuilt in stone some thirty years later. Other examples include: the Church of Varlaam Khutynsky in Pskov, the Church of Simeon in Veliky Novgorod, and the Church of the Anastasia Uzoreshitelnitsa in Pskov.

Lately, many orthodox communities have tried to revive the ancient tradition. In 2011, for instance, seven new churches were built in seven cities in one day to celebrate the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos. Previously, similar projects were undertaken in Kemerovo, Moscow, Minsk, Kiev and many others.

# Russell Zguta, The One-Day Votive Church: A Religious Response to the Black Death in Early Russia, Cambridge University Press
# Wikipedia


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