Russian churches and French gardens at Sankt Petersburg
As I have described in my previous post, the city you can find on the map under the name of Sankt Petersburg is actually a mix of old imperial splendour and Leningrad’s surprisingly vivid Communist symbolistics, which made me name this fascinating city Sankt Leninsburg. Today, however, I will forget about Lenin, red stars and proletcultism and focus just on some of old Russia’s very symbols: churches of Sankt Petersburg and the imperial estates at Peterhof.
When talking about Russian churches, the standard image almost everyone has in mind is the classic „candy-like” kind of church, with a lot of vividly coloured onion-shaped spires. While true, this cliche tells just as much about the Russian churches – in St Petersburg in particular – as the famous Lullaby tune tells about Brahms.
Emperor Peter the Great intended St Petersburg to be a European city and his royal court to look like any other great Western court. He banned oriental fashion (those long mantles worn by Boyars) and beards. In church building, he banned the Russian candy-like style and ordered that every church in the new capital should be built in Western style. This resulted in churches, cathedrals and monasteries built in whatever style in trend at the moment of building a new church, but still preserving in many cases the traditional onion ontop the spire, according to the motto „if not the whole candy, then at least the onion”.
One of the most representative examples of a mixture between Russian tradition and Western architecture is Smolny Monastery, which display elegant onions ontop a splendid Baroque structure. Architect Francesco Rastrelli designed the cathedral during empress Elizabeth, who wanted a place where she would retreat in her late years, but didn’t finish it due to empress’ sudden death. Her successor, empress Catherine the Second wasn’t a big fan of Baroque style and cut the funding for the monastery. It was only finished decades later, in 1835, under supervision and plans of the Russian architect Vassily Stasov, who stuck to Rastrelli’s original Baroque plans, only changing the interior to a more up-to-date fashion. (Stasov is the father of Vladimir Stasov, the art critic who aggregated in the second half of the 19th century right here, in St. Petersburg, the famous ‘Group of the Five’ Russian musicians who initiated the Russian national Romantic school).
A pupil of Rastrelli’s, Sava Chevakinsky, erected another Baroque cathedral, but already with strong roccoco marks: St Nicholas. It was intended as a marine regimental church and it actually consists of two churches under one roof. At the ground level there’s a low church which at first sight makes the visitor wonder where’s the whole vertical space development that can be seen from outside. In fact, this is the actual St Nicholas church, while at the upper floor there is another church, wider and higher: Epiphany church. When we went there, there was a service in progress (it was Sunday), and we had the privilege of listening to an exquisite Russian church choir singing in 8 voices.
There are exceptions too to this `no-candy-just-onion` rule. On one hand we see churches that you wouldn’t take for Russian until you go inside. Even then, what you see is a regular Orthodox church – dark, wall-painted, with specific ritualic elements – just much larger. Western tourists are usually astonished – for many of them, St Petersburg is their first opportunity to get inside an Orthodox church.
St Isaac’s Cathedral, as can be seen nowadays, is a re-re-remake of the original wooden church built during Peter the Great (whose spiritual patron was St. Isaac, as he was born on the day the saint was celebrated in the calendar).
The location Peter the Great had chosen for building St Isaac’s (the spot where nowadays Peter’s equestrial statue stands) proved to be too close to the marshes of Neva and thus unstable. All the first three versions collapsed succesively.
Therefore, the fourth version was placed a little further from Neva. Even so, the terrain was still soft and couldn’t support such a huge structure like the one commissioned by emperor Alexander I. The solution was to build a solid foundation first. The foundation consists of more than ten thousand wooden trunks that were submersed 6 meters underground and allowed a few years to stabilize. This enormous task was carried out using serfs and convicted criminals. A layer of stone was added ontop the wooden foundation to provide a solid ground for the new cathedral. A downscaled replica of the wooden foundation is also displayed in the museum.
The result was a huge neo-Classical cathedral that breaks the tradition of the Russian churches. The only element preserved from this tradition is the golden coverage of the spires.
There’s more to Neoclassicism in St. Petersburg than St. Isaac’s. Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan (or just Kazan Cathedral) was built in the first decade of the 19th century and displays an impressive semicircular colonnade. It was meant as a replica of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and it is consecrated to the venerated wonder-working icon of Our Lady of Kazan. I said I wouldn’t mention again anything about Leningrad, but I must spit this out: the Bolsheviks turned this church into a Museum of Atheism…
Exceptions to the ‘no-cake-just-onion’ rule go also to the other side than the completely Western appearance of St Isaac’s and Kazan: the Resurrection of Christ church, built entirely in spite of Peter’s ban on traditional Russian forms. Yet (or maybe `therefore’ ?) it is the most famous church in St. Petersburg.
The foundation of this church was laid on the spot where emperor Alexander II was shot in 1881 (he subsequently died from the fatal wound). His son, Alexander III, decided to build a church that would return to the old Russian tradition, thus abandoning the Western influence that had been dictating the trend ever since Peter the Great.
The church wasn’t completed until 1907. It was consecrated to the Ressurection of Christ the Savior, also bearing the alternate name of Church on Spilled Blood, or Savior on Spilled Blood, to commemorate the assasination of czar Alexander.
But it never served as a true worship place. Instead, during WWII it served as a morgue for the victims of Siege of Leningrad and later as a food warehouse, which attracted the cynical nickname of `Savior on Potatoes`. Personally I prefer the nickname of `Ice-cream Cathedral` for obvious reasons.
Its interior is remarkable due to the extensive mosaics which entirely replace traditional Byzantine-style painting.
Another example of `Russian traditional style reloaded` lies in the small town of Petergof, some 30 km west of the city, just outside the imperial estate at Peterhof. It was built in the 1890’s, just about the same time as the Ressurection Cathedral. At that time, there was an intense nationalist revival in Russia, associated with a late Romantic cultural movement, which led to the re-descovery of old traditional forms in Russian culture, highly emphasized and idealized.
Just a little sarcastic remark: many European nations, like Greeks, Romanians, Hungarians, Poles, who were living under either Turkish, Austrian or Russian domination, underwent national revivals early in the 19th century; as for Russians, who were only dominated by themselves, revival came a bit slower…
Since we’re already in the small town named after Peter’s summer residence, let’s pay a visit to the Russian Versailles, as Peterhof is often referred to.
As with the city itself, the summer residence of the royal family was intended to emmulate what Peter had seen in this respect during his long European voyages – namely Versailles, the shining palace of ‘Roi Soleil’, Louis XIV.
Versailles had a overwhelming influence on some of the greatest European monarchs in 18th century. Leopold of Austria was the first to create a replica at Schonbrunn, Peter followed soon and later Friedrich of Prussia built his own Versailles in Potsdam (Sanssouci). Immitation was very trendy at the time, but Peter was a particularly talented immitator. His immitation of Versailles turned out to be so good, some say it looks even better than the original. I cannot confirm, nor rule out, because I’ve never been to Versailles.
The design is simple and straightforward: a Baroque palace which separates Upper and Lower gardens. Fountains, gazebos, forests and small palaces fill the gardens, particularly in the Lower section. The backbone is a majestic cascade, richly decorated, running from the terraces of the palace all the way to the sea. The sea is indeed original, Versailles hasn’t got one.
Peter never lived in the main palace, he preferred the smaller houses like Marly (again, named after Louis XIV’s hunting lodge).
Since Peter didn’t find the palace suitable for living, we didn’t find it suitable for an inside visit (not to mention that the Hermitage had already compromised in me the very idea of visiting palaces). Instead, we paid a visit inside the Lower gardens. And I mean literally, because you have to pay to get inside. Upper’s for free.
Before our little trip comes to an end, just one more church. One of those Peter the Great would be horrified were he able to see it. It’s the Imperial Chapel of the palace. But I’m just a tourist, I can afford to like it.
That was about one third of the imperial residences outside the city (I saved Strelna and Tsarskoe Selo for a future visit, whenever that will occur) and even a smaller fraction of the churches in the city. It really is a big city. And a great one too.