The view, generally accepted until quite recently, that medieval Russian towns had no plan, and grew in a haphazard manner, is fundamentally wrong. Novgorod grew from century to century in strict accordance with a plan - unrecorded, it is true, but never violated. Its builders had a common town - planning concept, which tied the city into its natural environment, and established its dominance over a vast surrounding territory.
The architectural focus of Novgorod emerged with the building of its first stone structure, the Cathedral of St. Sophia, erected in 1045 y. in the reign of Prince Vladimir, son of Yaroslav the Wise; and this role St. Sophia's has retained to the present day. No house, church, or palace in Novgorod was allowed to surpass the Cathedral in height; only outside the city were taller and more monumental buildings to rise, such as St. George's Cathedral, or the Transfiguration Cathedral in the Khutyn Monastery. Only once in all Novgorodian history was an edifice higher than St. Sophia's constructed. This was an exceptional case, which legend and chronicles associate with Sotko, or Sadko, Sytinich, a rich merchant and the hero of one of the Novgorodian bylina cycles, who is said to have built to the left of St. Sophia's a huge church. It was dedicated to Sts. Boris and Gleb, the first and most popular Russian saints, two princes of the eleventh century said to have voluntarily suffered death rather than imperil the unity of the Russian land by defending their rights of inheritance. Surviving seventeenth - century engravings made from older drawings, views of Novgorod in icon backgrounds, and the remains of the church itself, uncovered by the archaeologists in 1940 - 1941 yy., give an idea of the building's immensity. In the course of nearly seven centuries until our own, no other structure transcending St. Sophia's in height was erected. This consistent control of the height of buildings is an instance of the wonderful self - discipline of Novgorodian architects who followed the same basic principle, carefully maintaining the central role of St. Sophia's in the city's plan.
Somewhat later, three other edifices arose as subsidiary focal points of the city. One of them, St. Nicholas's Cathedral, was begun in 1113 y. in Yaroslav's Court on the right bank of the Volkhov, as if with the special purpose of balancing the majestic pile of St. Sophia's on its left bank. Being but little lower than St. Sophia's, the Cathedral of St. Nicholas was the dominant architectural feature of the Market Side as was St. Sophia's in the St. Sophia Side. Another was the Cathedral of the Nativity of Our Lady in St. Anthony's Monastery, built four years later, in 1117 y., lower down the stream of the Volkhov. And a third was St. George's Cathedral in the St. George (Yuriev) Monastery, constructed in 1119 y., to the south of the city, higher upstream and nearer to Lake Ilmen.
A single master plan may be discerned in the building of these three cathedrals, the largest in Novgorod after St. Sophia's. It is felt in the regular order of their construction, and in the affinity of their architectural forms. Presumably the work of the same architect, Peter, the three edifices are disposed, in their relation to each other and to St. Sophia's, so as to mark the angles of an imaginary narrow rhomboid drawn along the Volkhov. The short diagonal of the rhomboid, connecting St. Sophia's and St. Nicholas' - in - the - Court, would be accentuated by the Great Bridge across the Volkhov; and the line forming its long diagonal, linking St. Anthony's and St. George's, would lie along the Volkhov itself. St. George's Cathedral in the St. George (Yuriev) Monastery was visible from afar, its domes serving as a landmark for sailors in navigating the boats which approached the city from Lake Ilmen. St. George's thus did duty for the city's southern outpost. In the north, the Cathedral of St. Anthony's Monastery fulfilled the same function. Built in the bend of the Volkhov, it was a landmark for the boats travelling upstream from the north. Those vessels, we must remember, were sailing along the great trade route "from the Varangians to the Greeks" which led to Novgorod from the Baltic Sea in the north, and from Kiev and Constantinople in the south.
The cathedrals of St. George's and of St. Anthony's Monasteries, though separated by a considerable distance, are structurally related. Three - domed, with a stair - tower, they are similar in their architectural features. These elements of structural parallelism in two edifices so widely removed in space reflect both the uncommon breadth of vision of Russian medieval architects and their highly developed skill in town - planning.