Музей Марка Шагала
Беларускi english deutsch francais русский

Liudmila Khmelnitskaya. From the history of Pokrovskaya street - Marc Chagall's native street


Liudmila Khmelnitskaya.

From the history of Pokrovskaya street -

Marc Chagall's native street



In the early XX century any newcomer, who wanted to get to Pokrovskaya street, had to give a bit longer explanations to Vitebsk cabmen than usually. The latter would certainly ask to which of Pokrovskaya streets a client wanted to get. The point is that there were two Pokrovskaya streets in Vitebsk at that time, one of them was situated in so-called 3rd (Zadvinskaya - means over the Dvina river) part of city and the other one was in the 2nd part. The both streets received their names thanks to the churches named in the memory of Pokrov festival (the Protection of the Virgin). Pokrovskaya street in Zadvinje (the area located over the Dvina river) appeared already in XVIII century and Pokrovskaya street in the 2nd part was put on the maps of Vitebsk much later (before 1860iesth it was named Trinitarskaya as it led to the Roman-Catholic Church of Trinitarian monks that was reorganized into the Protection Orthodox Church after the monkery exile).

"There, in Pokrovskaya street, I was born once again" - recalled Marc Chagall many years after leaving Vitebsk forever. In his book "Ma vie" the artist wrote: "Though my art played no role in the life of my relatives, their lives and deeds on the contrary influenced my art a lot" (1). I suppose these words apply to the wide circle of his neighbors, life-style of residents of Pokrovskaya street and neighboring area as well as to the narrow circle of the artist's family. From the very beginning I would define myself not as an arts critic but a town historian and make an attempt to study some moments of Chagall's native street and find their traces in his creativity.

Vitebsk is a city with over a thousand-year long history. The district of Zadvinje started to form rather late. First churches that usually made a center of arising boroughs of country-side type were built along the Eastern Dvina and mentioned in written sources from XVI century. We are interested particularly in the Northern part of Zadvinje from the Elias (Iljinskaya) Church to the Protection (Pokrovskaya) Churches.

From XVIII century this part of town was named Prismushki after the name of the outlying district in the north bordering upon the town land intended for construction. Till the middle of the last century Prismushki remained the outskirts and the most sparsely populated area.

First attempts to adjust the amorphous planning structure of the area were made in the late XVIII century. In 1778 Catherine II confirmed regular plans for towns of Polotsk and Mogiliov namesnichestvos (political subdivision ruled by namesnik - an appointed head), Vitebsk happened to be among them. The first regular plan for Vitebsk was extremely poor as - being drawn in the metropolitan ministerial rooms - it did not take account of the actual relief and historically formed city planning. Nevertheless, Prismushki, in the contrast to the city center, was redeveloped in accordance with the first regular city plan. Thus a quadrangular square named Polotskaya appeared in the area (where the monument to Marc Chagall is located now). From Polotskaya square several streets ran in radial directions forming together with lateral streets sections of geometric shape. Pokrovskaya street was located almost in parallel with the Dvina river and connected Polotskaya and Iljinskaya squares.

Polotskaya square initially assigned "for peddling shops and butcher stalls" became the biggest market-place in Zadvinje. As N.Ja. Nikivorovski, famous Viteskl local lore and folklore specialist, recalled in his book "Pages from recent history of Vitebsk city", published in 1899, in the square "trade was in full swing on Sundays in the daytime and a bit weaker on Wednesdays and Fridays - mainly it concerned trade and sale in agricultural products, household trucks, cattle and provisions" (2). Indispensable attributes of the market-place were "rough rumpus, juratory convictions, disputes, invectives, fights, casual shoves, arms stretched towards other's pockets for purses and ladings on carts, stealing of somebody's horse, so on" (3).

The status of Iljinskaya (means Elias) square, Pokrovskaya street ended with, was rather of those entrenched city squares. Let's get back to picturesque memoirs of Nikiforovski in order to see its distinctive features clearly: "Entrenched squares - longitudinal quadrangles - due to their miserable and squalid state were not to be compared with market squares and though they were surrounded with Philistines' houses they did not attract visitors but were rather a den of stray domestic animals and assembly place for inhabitants' cows and goats before depasture. And only in summer when some rare dry spots appeared kids used to play knucklebones, gorodki or spar." (4)

It would be logical to assume that such divergent statuses of squares predefined some specific differentiation of neighboring streets' territory. Indeed residential areas adjacent to market squares were of high prestige. There first masonry houses appeared and in the early XX century whole blocks of masonry houses were built. The rather long Pokrovskaya street (its length made 400 sazhens - about 850 meters) was paved partially - at the very beginning. (5) Further from the market square masonry houses dwindled and finally disappeared at all. Houses in the area adjacent to Iljinskaya square did not differ much from country-side houses: there would be a small wooden house surrounded as a rule with several household buildings on a land allotment with orchard and garden without fail. Thus, a walk from the beginning to the end of Pokrovskaya street could bring quite varied emotions to idle spectators.

We can see such variety of emotions in the works by Chagall. He drew Pokrovskaya street as with small masonry houses ("My parents", 1910, "Street in Vitebsk". 1914, Saint Petersburg, Russian Museum) as well as with big two-storied stone buildings surrounded with plain wooden neighbors ("Village street", 1909, Paris, private collection) and usual "village" streets of low wooden houses ("Dead man", 1908, private collection; "Russian wedding", 1909, Zurich, Brulle's collection).

The Chagalls' messuage (one masonry and 3 wooden houses) was located almost in the very middle of Pokrovskaya street, which in 1850ieths was divided into two parts: 1st and 2nd Pokrovskaya street. The Chagalls' messuage was the last but one on the odd side of 1st Pokrovskaya street, that was renamed Bolshaya (big, great, important) Pokrovskaya street in the early XX century (the latter name, as I think, could witness higher prestige of the starting part of Pokrovskaya street as Malaya and Bolshays streets were of almost equal length). Allocation of separate buildings on the Chagalls' land is to be clarified. However, now we are almost convinced that one of the houses was situated in the heart of the allotment and there was the artist's studio. I came to this conclusion after analyzing the city landscape in three Chagall's works: "View from the window in Vitebsk" (1908, Saint Petersburg, Gordaeva's collection), "View from the window. Vitebsk" (1914-1915, Moscow, Tretyakov gallery). The window of the room where the artist worked faced Vygonnaya (means depasture) street. It made an uneven line cutting the precise geometrics of the area and according to its name was used for depasturing cattle to the grassland outside the city trenches. In city planning the street had auxiliary functions so no wonder that Chagall could see no principal front sides of the houses but their backyard facades, closed from inside gates, step ladders leading to lofts, and so on. In "Ma vie" we can find his recollections proving that he used to draw from life: "Wicker fences and roofs, log houses and fences, and everything behind them enraptured me. What exactly - you can see in my painting "Over the city". Or I can tee you. Chains of houses and booths, windows, gates, chickens, nailed up workshops, church, flat hill (desolate graveyard) everything lay spread before my eyes when I was looking from the loft's window lying on the floor." And further: "My studio was in our backyard (...). The room was lit deep-blue with sunlight coming from outside through the only window. It cam from faraway: from the hill where the church was located. I used to draw this hill with the church many times and always with pleasure."(6)

The church on the flat hill as cited above was destined to become one of the constant images in Chagall's creativity. Silhouette of the Orthodox church with massive dome and triangular fronton above till the end of Chagall's life would be an obligatory attribute of the artist's reminiscence of his native city. Most researches incline to believe that church was the Protection Church after which the street was named. However, the true image of the Protection Church is well known nowadays due to numerous photos of the turn of XX century. The temple had other shapes peculiar to the pseudo-Russian style. Thus we are interested in the Saviour Church which was located on the other bank of the Dvina almost opposite the Chagalls' house. Due to optical delusiveness of the landscape it looked much closer and blended with the general silhouette of Zadvinje area.

In addition to the symbolic image of the Saviour Church Chagall used to draw other Orthodox churches located in the neighborhood in Prismushki - the Elias and Protection Churches.

According to the data of the National Archives of the Republic of Belarus in 1913 Jews made about 86% of the homeowners in Bolshaya and Malaya Pokrovskaya streets. (7) The neighboring streets were similar. Therefore it might look quite strange that the areas of such compact Jewish population had two orthodox churches - the Protection and Elias Churches. Here we should note that the above ethnic and confessional situation in Pokrovskaya street used to vary. Jews started to settle in the area only in the 2nd half of XIX century. Before uniate Belarusians made the majority of the population. They were forced to adopt Orthodoxy after 1739 during liquidation of the Uniate Church as a religious confession in the Russian Empire.

Uniate religion that was a synthesis of the Byzantine Orthodox and Roman Catholic religions gave the world unique works of sacred art (first of all in iconography and architecture). Uniate Elias Church of rare beauty built in late XVII - early XVIII was an example of the local school wooden architecture. Built in the shape of a crucifix it consisted of five bulks with hip-roofs with Baroque-style domes. Handycraftsmen of the middle-age Vitebsk had guild organizations and Elias Church was a fraternal church of the helmsmen guild. Every guild had its own way of living, laws and rituals. "Over the Dvina river sailing gentlemen helmsmen" (as they wrote on one of the church gonfalons) kept the fraternal icon of the Holy Trinity, big fretted wooden candlestick and guild treasury in Elias Church. The latter was kept in the so-called "bratskaya shkapa" (fraternal box) that was put on the table for general meetings "for keeping respect towards the guild and themselves". After "shkapa" opened the guild members had no right to have their hats on and stay armed.

By the beginning of XX century the majority of uniate articles from Elias Church were not used for service conduct and made a part of the Vitebsk Religion and Architecture Museum collection under the Nicholas Cathedral in immediate proximity to the studio of Jury Penn.

First documental proofs of the Chagalls' life in Pokrovskaya street date back to 1897. Seven years later during the fire in Prismushki on the 13th of April, 1904 the wooden Elias Church was perished. Several years later it was rebuilt in stone repeating in fact the composition and basic architectural forms of the wooden construction. This is how it is represented in the works of marc Chagall, who used to rent flats not far from the church before and after his trip to Paris ("Newspapers seller", 1914, Basel, Ida Meyer-Chagall's collection).

In some works the artist depicted the Protection Church together with the Elias Church  as it was located nearby - however, always in fragments and even rather relatively ("artist in front of the church", 1914, private collection: "Over Vitebsk", 1922, Zurich, Kunsthauz). Regardless of the logic of the contemporary urbanomics rules the Protection Church in Chagall's days was located not in Pokrovskaya street but in Iljinskaya street, which was located a block faraway. I suppose, we will find an explanation for this fact in the middle-age past.

At the time when in the late XVIII century Shneur Zalman, a spiritual leader of Belarusian Chassids and father of Chassid tsadiks and rabbis dynasty of Shneerson, was preparing to start his activity a wooden church in honour of the Protection of the Virgin was built in the uniate Prismushki  not far from the Elias Church. In fact, thanks to the church appeared Pokrovskaya street, its line was fixed in the regular city plan. But the church itself did not long much. Having fallen into decay fifty years later, for some reason it was not rebuilt and by 1860ieths was ruined completely. After the revolt of 1863 was suppressed the Tsarist government started to use expansion of the Orthodox Church as a tool of the district Russianization. New churches were erected according to standard design plans where architectural forms of pseudo-Russian style were widely used. Then the Protection Church was built in stone according to such design on the same site where the former Elias Church had been in Pokrovskaya street, not in the neighboring Iljinskaya street.

 Who were the parishioners of the Protection and Elias Churches in the area populated mostly by Jews in Prismushki in the early XX century? It deserves to be noted that besides not rich merchants and philistines there lived soldiers. According to the church registers in 1863 among 786 people soldiers made 25% of the Elias Church parish. In the early XX century almost opposite the Chagalls' messuage there was a big complex of back-line service barracks on the even side of Pokrovskaya street. The military authority was established there in the late XVIII century. Primarily there was "a guardroom by the turnpike" and the house of Vitebsk major Earl Minikh, later - kantonist school and barracks. By the way, after kantonists (children of soldiers, registered in the military authorities from birth)  Kantonicheskaya street was named , that was the street the area where tha Chagalls lived started with. Therefore images of soldiers appeared on Vitebsk works by Chagall probably not by accident. They were as peculiar to Pokrovskaya street as a lanky and skinny cabman "resembling a ship captain": "Tan'ka - laundress and thief", "stove-maker with wife and a dozen of kids", baker's family. In the painting "Russian wedding" (1909, Zurich, Burle's collection) Chagall depicted a soldier leading the wedding procession and playing the violin. In another painting "Soldier drinks" (1911-1912, New York, Guggenheim museum) a soldier is depicted by samovar in some tavern or house. Chagall as usual was very accurate in details - he drew "41" of the soldier's straps (41st infantry division and 41st artillery brigade lodged in Vitebsk from the late XIX century).

After World War I started a lot of military men appeared in Chagall's works.  Some of them were the soldiers from the local military subdivision. For example, the widely-known "Wounded soldier"(1914) with the figure "100" on his straps was a soldier of the 100th infantry Ostrovski regiment lodged in Vitebsk for over 10 years.

As early as in the late XIX century to the north of the back-line company barracks a railway side-line was laid turning round Prismushki and ending at the bank of the Dvina. No doubt, it was actively used during the war as the town was overcrowded by soldiers, casualties and refugees. Possibly it was depicted in the graphic work "Vitebsk. Rail-way station" (1914, Saint Petersburg, Russian museum) by Chagall. Vitebsk central rail-way station, as one can see on numerous postcards and photos of the turn of XX century, was a big presentable building with a plenty of mounted metal constructions on the side of the platforms. Complete absence of the above elements and presence of familiar silhouettes of Zadvinje under the dome of an Orthodox church allows assuming that Chagall depicted his native Primushki.

Ending my story about the history of Pokrovskaya street I would love to cite the artist's lines:

My homeland - in my soul.

Did you understand?

I enter it without a visa.

When I feel lonely - it sees,

Puts me to bed, tucks my blanket, just like mum.

Green gardens flourish inside me,

Sullen, doleful fences,

Dark alleys curve around.

But no homes,

Where my childhood passed.

And just alike they were razed.

Where's their home?

In my soul worn through...



1. Chagall. My life. Moscow, 1994. p. 21.

2. Nikiforovski N.Ja. Pages from recent history of Vitebsk city. Vitebsk, 1899, p. 74.

3. Ibidem, p. 82.

4. Ibidem, p. 83.

5. Record book of the Vitebsk province for 1889. Vitebsk. 1889, p.53.

6. Chagall. My life. Moscow, 1994. pp. 33, 78-79.

7. National archives of the Republic of Belarus. Fund 2496, op. 1, file 5164, pp. 316-324.




На главную
Сайт обновлен в 2008г. за счёт средств гранта Европейского Союза

© 2003-2008 Marc Chagall Museum
based on design by Alena Demicheva