Approaching the town you can already see majestic walls and towers of the largest Russian monastery. Its total area is about 12 hectares. A whole stone town coming down to us almost untouched from the times of the Moscow Rus is situated on this territory. It is difficult to believe that this abundance of medieval constructions lies far from noisy city centers and busy roads. But it gives its own charm to Kirillov. Organic tie of the monastery ensemble with the environment increases impression of the ancient architecture.
The grandiose ensemble of the Kirillo-Belozersky monastery was formed mainly during two centuries – from the end of the 15th till late 17th centuries. Historically formed structure of the monastery includes the Big Assumption, the Small Ivanovsky (Ivan’s) monasteries and the New Town. The best way to begin the visit is to start from the main entrance – the Kazan Tower. The cobbled road planted along with centenary birches, leads to the Holy Gates through which you can get to the Big Assumption monastery. All main buildings are concentrated here around a large square. The cubic volume of the one-domed Assumption cathedral built in 1497 and decorated with murals in 1641-1650 dominates over the ensemble of the Big monastery. The cathedral was erected within 5 warm months by Rostov stonemasons led by the master Prochor. Methods of the early Moscow architecture became fully apparent in the decoration of its facades: division of the walls into parts, patterned brickwork with the use of ceramic tiles, perspective portals with ogee-shaped tops. Several side-chapels adjoin the cathedral: from the southern side – the church of St. Kirill Belozersky built in 1792-1794 over the grave of the monastery founder and used as a functional church since 1997; from the northern side – the churches of St. Vladimir and St. Epiphanius of Cyprus. These buildings along with the northern parvis of the Assumption cathedral are known as family burial vaults of the princes Vorotynsky, Telyatevsky, Sheremetiev.
Near the cathedral there is the most significant construction of the monastery – the Refectory with the church of the Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple built in 1519. The sizes of this building were determined by the way of life of this rich and populous cloister. The brethren of the Kirillo-Belozersky monastery gathered not only for an obligatory common prayer in the cathedral, but also for common meal. As a result the biggest refectory of its time (17 x 17,5 m), a cellarer’s chamber and a small church turned out to be in one single complex. On the lowest storey there were numerous service rooms, including the bakery, warming the upper floor with the heat of its stoves. The church, the refectory and the cellarer’s chamber are traditionally positioned on one axis which gives more austerity to the architectural ensemble. A well-proportioned faceted pier of the church contrasts with massive volume of the refectory.
A belfry is attached to it. Massive forms and height of this building were predetermined by a large number of bells and their considerable weight. The church of Archangel Gabriel erected in 1531-1534 adjoins the belfry from the east. It is undoubtedly one of the most interesting constructions of the 16th century in the monastery. The church of Archangel Gabriel was built with the money donated by the Grand Prince Basil III. He had visited the monastery in 1528 with his second wife Helena Glinskaya to pray for an heir whose birth was marked by the erection of two churches. The architectural forms of the church of Archangel Gabriel, and of the Church of John the Baptist built at the same time, reflected the new features brought to the Russian architecture by the Italians involved in intensive construction work in Moscow in the 15th-16th centuries. The most interesting architectural solution was the upper part of the church. It was made in the form of a tier of bells with a clock placed in the north-west corner. In 1638 the tier of bells was turned into a sacristy with small windows, which was spanned by a cloistered vault.
Well-preserved civil buildings of the 16th-17th centuries - a Treasury chamber, a house of the Father Superior, a cook-house and monks’ cells - add peculiarity to the architectural ensemble of the Assumption monastery. The northern wall includes an interesting ensemble consisting of the Treasury chamber, a drying room and the Holy Gates with the church of St. John Climacus. In 1585 the Holy Gates were covered with murals by local icon painters – Elder Alexander and his pupils Omelyan and Nikita. It is evident from the inscription on the smaller passage arch. The Treasury chamber was originally a small structure constructed in 1524 near the Holy Gates. Later on as the monastery became wealthier, this building was expanded from the east to the west attaching new rooms. In the second half of the 17th century they added the upper storey – a drying room, destined to keep the priests’ vestments and the monastery library. The northern facade of this building is decorated with patterned brickwork and balusters reminding similar elements of the Assumption cathedral. On the western side of the main church stands the Father Superior’s house. In the 17th-19th centuries there were reception and dwelling rooms of the archimandrite and also guest rooms for noble pilgrims. The initial look of this building was determined by beautiful windows with ogee-shaped casings and high opened porches – stairs leading to the upper floor. The modern facade with a columned portico is a result of the reconstructions of the 19th century. Today the main exhibitions of the Kirillo-Belozersky museum are situated there. Behind the Father Superior’s house there was a service yard of the monastery with a cook-house, bakeries, bath-houses, granaries, ice-houses, kvass-rooms and other service structures. Only the cook-house has come down to us. Since 1982 exhibitions are placed in its restored building.
In the south-eastern part of the Big Assumption monastery there is an interesting complex consisting of two spacious chambers which are connected with an inner porch. It ends with a covered passage leading to the refectory of a large hospital church of St. Euphimius and then to the quadrangle of the church with a tent-shaped roof. The Big hospital chambers were constructed by local stonemasons headed by Yakov Kostousov.
In the second half of the 17th century wooden monks’ cells were gradually replaced with stone ones. They were traditionally situated around the Assumption cathedral. In the 19th century facades of the monks’ cells were greatly reconstructed: windows were hewn wider, their casings were carved away, stone porches were replaced with wooden ones.
The eastern building of the cells separates the Big Assumption monastery from the territory of the Small Ivanosky. Stone construction there was started with the erection of the church of St. John the Baptist with a side-chapel dedicated to St. Kirill Belozersky (1531-1534). Later on the territory around the church was enclosed with a small stone wall and became somehow isolated. Its memorial character was connected with the dedication of the side-chapels to St. Kirill Belozersky and his spiritual teacher St. Sergey Radonezhsky. Near the churches on the slope of the hill there are two constructions known as local sacred places: a chapel and a capony over Kiril’s mud-hut. Stone cells were never built in the Small Ivanosky monastery where poor and sick monks used to live. In 1730-s small hospital chambers in the form of a single-pier room with an inner porch were erected there.
By the end of the 16th century wooden fortifications of the Ivanovsky and Assumption monasteries had been replaced with modern stone ones. They included two gateway churches – the church of Transfiguration and the church of St. John Climacus. The height of the wall reached 5,5 meters. Both an exterior side of the wall and towers were decorated with patterned brickwork. In 1610 when the threat of the Polish-Lithuanian invasion appeared, the walls were raised. Besides a new fortification, Ostrog (a type of a little fortress), was constructed from the northern part of the monastery. This fortress withstood the long siege of the Polish-Lithuanian detachments.
Successful defence provoked the government to strengthen the Kirillo-Belozersky monastery in a better way. It was also caused by interior disorders and threat coming from the northern neighbour - Sweden. In 1653 the Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich issued an edict to erect new fortifications. Grandiose construction lasted for 30 years. It was difficult to find any other fortress in the Russian State which could equal it in size and fire-power. The works were led by the town elder Kirill Serkov. The walls of the New Town stretching out for almost two kilometers enlarged the territory twofold. The monastery had a form of an irregular quadrangle in the corners of which stood high faceted towers. Building of the New Town ended the last large stage of the monastery construction.
When Russia had gained outlet to the Baltic Sea at the beginning of the 18th century, there was no need any more in the northern monasteries. Trade routes passing near the monastery lost their former importance. Reforms of Peter I and Catherine II put an end to its economic power. For a long time the enormous territory of the New Town was used for different service buildings, then for vegetable gardens. The fortification walls gradually dilapidated, vaults collapsed here and there. Since 1919 restoration work was begun in the monastery. In 1997 a considerable part of the fortification walls near the Vologda Tower was opened for visitors of the museum.
A wooden church of the Deposition of the Robe (1485), the most ancient construction of the North, is being preserved on the territory of the New Town since 1958. Near it there is a wooden windmill of the 19th century transported from the village Gorka.