Monday, May 9, 2016

Cathedral spires still dominate St.Petersburg skyline

After driving through suburbs filled with high rise apartments we finally arrived in historic St. Petersburg for our introduction to this beautiful city on the Neva River. St Petersburg is a relatively young city, only founded in 1703 by Tsar Peter the Great. Despite its short life, Petersburg has a rich and exciting history. From the early days of Peter the Great's "Venice of the North" to the modern events of the 1991 coup, the city has always bustled with life and intrigue, revolution and mystery.

As we drove around crossing magnificent bridges we passed the Hermitage, the Admiralty Buildings, Nevsky Prospect and stopped at St. Isaac's Cathedral, which was originally the city's main church and the largest cathedral in Russia. It was built between 1818 and 1858 to be one of the most impressive landmarks of the Russian Imperial capital. Today the gilded dome of St. Isaac's still dominates the skyline of St. Petersburg. The cathedral's facades are decorated with sculptures and massive granite columns made of single pieces of red granite, while the interior is very ornate adorned with incredibly detailed mosaic icons, paintings and columns made of malachite and lapis lazuli. A large, brightly colored stained glass window of the "Resurrected Christ" takes pride of place beside the main altar.

The church, designed to accommodate 14,000 standing worshipers, was closed in the early 1930s and reopened as a museum. Today regular church services are held and we were fortunate enough to see one. It was interesting to see the standing worshippers spread out all over the church rather than in one main area. The service was accompanied by a lovely choir, also standing, set off to one side. Apparently, services can last for several hours at a time. All that standing certainly takes some

Back in the car we passed the Church of the Spilled Blood. This marvelous Russian-style church, complete with onion domes, was built on the spot where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated in March 1881. After assuming power in 1855 in the wake of Russia's disastrous defeat in the Crimean war against Britain, France and Turkey, Alexander II initiated a number of reforms. In 1861 he freed the Russian serfs from their ties to their masters and undertook a rigorous program of military, judicial and urban reforms, never before attempted in Russia. However, during the second half of his reign Alexander II grew wary of the dangers of his system of reforms, having only barely survived a series of attempts on his life, including an explosion in the Winter Palace and the derailment of a train. Alexander II was finally assassinated in 1881 by a group of revolutionaries, who threw a bomb at his royal carriage. The decision was taken to build a church on the spot where the Emperor was mortally wounded. The church was built between 1883 and 1907 and was officially called the Resurrection of Christ Church a.k.a. The Church of Our Saviour of Spilled Blood. The construction of the church was almost entirely funded by the Imperial family and thousands of private donators. Both the interior and exterior of the church are decorated with incredibly detailed mosaics, designed and created by the most prominent Russian artists of the day.

Our next tour was the Peter and Paul Fortress, which guards the city of St. Petersburg and is located on an island, facing the Hermitage museum across the River Neva. When Peter the Great re-claimed the lands along the Neva River in 1703, he decided to build a fort to protect the area from possible attack by the Swedish army and navy. The fortress was founded on a small island in the Neva delta on May 27, 1703 and that day became the birthday of the city of St. Petersburg. The Swedes were defeated before the fortress was even completed. For that reason, from 1721 onwards the fortress housed part of the city's garrison and rather notoriously served as a high security political jail. Among the first inmates was Peter's own rebellious son Alexei. Later, the list of famous residents included Dostoyevsky, Gorky, Trotsky and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

In the middle of the fortress stands the impressive Peter and Paul Cathedral, the burial place of all the Russian Emperors and Empresses from Peter the Great to Alexander III. The Cathedral was the first church in the city to be built of stone.  The walls of the cathedral are also embellished with paintings of various bible themes, including many paintings of gospel stories by artists of the early and mid 18th century.

One major attraction is the tombs of most of the Romanov rulers of Russia from Peter the Great onward. Peter's tomb is at the front right, and people still leave fresh flowers on it. Also here are both Catherines, Elizabeth, all three Alexanders, Paul, Peter III, Anne - and now Nicholas I and II.  The remains of Nicholas II and his family were re-interred in the small Chapel of St. Catherine on July 17,1998.

On top of the cathedral’s gilded spire stands a magnificent golden angel holding a cross. This weathervane is one of the most prominent symbols of St. Petersburg, and at 404 feet tall, the cathedral is the highest building in the city.

Finally, we drove to our hotel passing more historical buildings and wonderful views of the Neva.

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