The Church of John the Baptist, an old monastery carved into a white mountain of chalk in Russia’s Voronezh region, is one of the world’s most visually-striking Christian places of worship.
Russia is home to some of the most beautiful and intricately decorated religious buildings in the world, but very few of them manage to impress by blending into their natural surroundings. One such rare edifice is the Church of John the Baptist, part of the Divnogorye Museum-Reserve in Voronezh. First mentioned in historical documents dating back to the 17th century, this unique monastery is carved in the side of a mountain of chalk, with its decorative bell tower sitting on the mountain itself.
Photo via English Russia
The shores of the Don River in Voronezh weren’t always as peaceful as they are today. Back in the 17th century, when the Russian Tsar’s troops and the raiding cossacks led by their legendary leader Stepan Razin constantly did battle in the region, Orthodox monks needed robust shelter to practice their faith in peace. The chalk mountains and cliffs of Divnogorye proved perfect.
Not much is known about the origins of the Church of John the Baptist. Some say it dates back to the 12th century, and that it was founded by Greek monks Xenophon and Joasaf, while others believe it was the work of two Sicilian monks, sometime in the 1600s.
Cave churches can be found all around the world, but they made perfect sense in this area of Russia, as the soft limestone and chalk mountains were easy to carve into. There was no need to bring construction materials and hire builders, as all the materials were already provided by nature.
The first historical mention of the place is a 17th-century letter from one of the monks to Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich, complaining about the sorry state of the monastery, caused in particular by continuous military conflicts between the tsar’s troops and Stepan Razin’s cossack. The situation had forced the monks to procure their own means of defense and carve several exits through the mountain.
Closed and restored several times during its troubled history, the Church of John the Baptist is currently managed by the Divnogorye Museum-Reserve, but the Russian Orthodox Church hopes to change that. Once under its patronage, the monastery was confiscated during the Soviet era, but the Orthodox diocese asked for it to be returned, according to law.
Last year, Marina Lylova, one of the founders of the museum that oversees the monastery, told RFERL that if the church takes control of the site, it would destroy its fragile interior through “renovations”. Lylova added that the place had already had floor tiles laid by the Orthodox church because the chalk “stained the monks’ robes”. Other historical irregularities had also been allegedly smoothed over.
Obviously, the Russian church denies the allegations, claiming that if its request is approved by the state, it will see to it that all the historical elements of the chalk monastery are preserved. Still, over 5,000 people have already signed a petition opposing the transfer of the monastery to the Orthodox church.