Graffiti – drawings or signs on the walls – are not actually only a recent form of expression. Several ancient churches in Russia have them too! They are, of course, not exactly very alike to the ones we can see today on the streets of modern cities.
But nevertheless, they are a very unusual cultural phenomena.
The walls of The Saviour Church on Nereditsa near Velikiy Novgorod, that was built in the end of 12th century, has copious amount of ancient graffiti. They are a valuable source of historical information, just like the birch bark manuscripts. Those inscriptions weren’t considered as something profane at the time of their making. They were always placed beneath the frescoes, so they never harmed the decor of the churches. The words were usually scratched out by some sharp object. The content of the graffiti varied, among them you can find different messages about current events, prayers, names of those who have been here, even some business records! But mostly the inscriptions were addressed to the god and the Saints, people asked to protect their families or grant peace to their deceased loved ones.
One such graffiti was connected to the burial of knyaz Vsevolod Mstislavich, who ruled this land from 1117 till 1136. Also the scientists have found several sentences written in the oldest known alphabet of slavic people – Glagolic script. This discovery is particularly fascinating for the archaeologists since it was very rare in the 12th century, because it was replaced by Cyrillic. The text of a prayer on the walls of this church is probably the longest known inscription in Glagollic script up to this day. One of the walls has an image of a battle between the Slavic and European warriors.
What is interesting is that the graffiti seems to have been drawn not only by grown ups but also by kids. This conclusion was reached because of the style of the drawings and also because of their placement. Some of them are located so low that they are very likely to have been made by children.
In the tower of The Cathedral of the Nativity of the Theotokos in the Monastery of St. Antony researches stumbled upon an image of an animal that resembles a lion or a sphinx. Another interesting discovery was made in another ancient Russian church – a pagan text. Apparently it was some kind of a spell or an incantation. But the text was struck through, likely by one of the orthodox priests, as an indication of the fact that a christian church will not tolerate pagan inscriptions and practices in it’s walls.
Mostly the inscriptions were popular during the period from 12th to 16th century. Later, not many people were drawn to leave a couple of words on the ancient stones of the holy buildings. It seems that this decline of the graffiti’s popularity has a lot to do with the spread of paper and the fact that it became more available to the people.
Although there are some known instances of later inscriptions. Many graffitis can be seen in the churches of the village Bolshiye Vyazyomy. The messages there come from the 17th century. A lot of them were written in latin, for example one can find a very legible word “ego”, which means “I”. Right next to it there is even a certain date – 1618. Many polish soldiers of that time have left there their autographs, indicating their name and the fact that they have prayed here. French people who have visited the churches have also left their names. Soviet school children have done something way more daring – they have written indecent words on the walls of the building. But at some point after this, graffitis of the soviet period have been covered, so the only inscriptions that are left come from the older times.
The amount of material gathered about this phenomena is not as abundant as the scientists would like it to be, since some writings and drawings were covered up entirely in the earlier years during restorations. Researches continue looking for the new graffiti and who knows what other facts the uncovered wall newspapers of the past will tell us about our ancestors?