Constructed during the Russian Empire’s enormous power and wealth, churches in St. Petersburg were viewed just as imperative as glamorous palaces to exemplify the country’s rulers’ dominance and cachet. Czars often hired the city’s best architects to lead the construction projects, with very little cap on each operational budget.
As you gaze and study Russian churches, there are main signature components to look out for:
- The “onion dome(s)”: It’s unclear where the stylistic influence derived from, but many scholars have speculated the onion domes to have been inspired by Eastern countries, including: India and Persia at the time. On the other hand, some also believe that the domes symbolize burning candles.
- The number of domes: One dome means a single God, three domes symbolize Trinity, five domes represent Christ and his four evangelists.
- The color white: Often standing for purity, holiness and divine light.
- Multicolor ornamentation: There is no evident backstory to the emblematic use of vibrant colors, but they allow churches to stand out in midst of Russia’s harsh winters and frosty piles of snow.
- The five senses: Russian Orthodox services are designed to enhance a human being’s five senses, thus the structure of every church ensures the utmost balance between: light, movement, sound and smoke.
Many of St. Petersburg’s iconic churches are attached to the city’s most prominent museums and palaces, including: the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, which is situated in the heart of the Peter and Paul Fortress (previously mentioned in another article.)
Savior on the Spilled Blood
Griboyedov channel embankment, 2Б, St Petersburg, Russia, 191186
Besides the Hermitage Museum and the Winter Palace, Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood is the other major attraction in St. Petersburg drawing millions of travelers every year. Commissioned by czar Alexander III in 1883, the church was meant to honor the assassination of his father, Alexander II, which explains the name “spilled blood.” Compared to the Baroque and Neoclassical architectural styles often depicted throughout the city’s popular palaces and museums, Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood resembles Moscow’s famous St. Basil’s Cathedral with traditional Russian influences of romantic nationalism – a form of Art Nouveau often depicted social and political reform through design. The most magnificent component is the 7,500 square meter of mosaics inside the church, illustrating scenes from the Bible.
St. Isaac’s Cathedral
St Isaac's Square, 4, St Petersburg, Russia, 190000
Saint Issac’s Cathedral was commissioned by Alexander I in the early 1800s to honor Saint Issac of Dalmatia, who was Peter the Great’s patron saint. In 1931, however, the Soviet government transformed the cathedral into a museum of atheism. Later during World War II, the museum survived Nazi’s storms of attacks. Finally in 2017, Saint Petersburg’s governor offered the cathedral back to the Russian Orthodox Church. The gesture ignited protests by locals citizens who preferred the building to remain as a museum, which is the technical status of the architecture today.
Unlike Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood’s romantic nationalism style, St. Issac’s Cathedral embodies Neoclassical period’s Russian-Byzantine features, including: a Greek-cross blueprint, a giant dome in the center, and four smaller domes. The same design for the main dome can be seen in the U.S. Capitol building. St. Issac’s dome is adorned with twelve statues of angels, it was later painted in gray during WWII to avoid the Nazi’s attention.
Ploshchad' Rastrelli, 1, St Petersburg, Russia, 191124
Meant to be a convent, the Smolny Cathedral was built for Peter the Great’s daughter, Elizabeth who was denied the succession of the throne and later chose to become a nun. But once her predecessor, Ivan VI, was overthrown during a coup, Elizabeth accepted the throne while the construction of the convent sustained under her reign. The church’s blue-and-white exterior is a proud accomplishment by Italian architect Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli, who also redesigned the Winter Palace and created the Grand Palace within Peterhof.
Kazan Square, 2, St Petersburg, Russia, 191186
Modeled after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Kazan Cathedral and its Empire-style design by architect Andrey Voronikhin didn’t come without protests from the Russian Orthodox Church who disdained the appearance of a Catholic basilica in the nation’s capital city at the time. Throughout the 19th century, the cathedral witnessed various political uproar, especially during 1876’s Kazan demonstration – Russia’s first political protest – which occurred in front of the church. After 1917’s Russian Revolution, the cathedral closed its doors only to be reopened later in 1932 as a pro-Marxist / Leningrad’s largest antireligion museum. Finally in 1992, the cathedral rebounded to the Russian Orthodox Church. Today, it is one of the many iconic establishments in St. Petersburg.
The Naval Cathedral of St. Nicholas in Kronstadt
Yakornaya Ploshchad', 1, St Petersburg, Russia, 197762
The Naval Cathedral of St. Nicholas in Kronstadt was built in the early 1900s as a tribute to fallen seamen in the Russian Navy. The cathedral has gone through various phases of being a theater, a House of Officers, and finally a museum of the Navy. The building highlights Elizabethan Baroque style topped with five ornate domes.
Up until the Russian Revolution, it remained as the navy’s main place of worship. Inside the church, there are memorials and plaques dedicated to crew members who passed away from sunken Soviet submarines. The church is dedicated to Saint Nicholas – the patron saint of seamen – whose Greek icon made in the 17th century is shown in the cathedral’s main shrine along with a part of his relics.
Cathedral of St. Andrew’s the First-Called
11, 6-aya Linia Vasilevsky Island
The last Baroque-style cathedral is a charming pink-and-white structure ignited by Peter the Great. Swedish architect, Nicodemus Tessin the Younger, was asked to design the St. Andrew’s Cathedral and to emulate it after Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. By the time Tessin’s concept was ready for approval, the czar had already passed away.
Once the cathedral was built, it also experienced devastating damage from bombings during the Siege of Leningrad. Since restoration, the alluring cathedral offers daily service with its own choir performing inside, if you’re lucky to catch a random performance. Today, the cathedral has become one of the main attractions on Vasilevsky Island in the old town of St. Petersburg.
Izmaylovskiy Prospekt, 7А, St Petersburg, Russia, 190005
The most notable feature of the Trinity Cathedral is its vivid collection of icons, including: the Nativity, the Jesus Christ, the Beginning of Life Trinity presented by Empress Elizabeth. Other unique and divine objects are housed under the glorious blue dome, such as: a big ark made in a silver cross, and two large Gospels in ancient bindings. But many of these items were looted by 1922, in addition, the cathedral went through a severe fire in 2006. Although it was able to reopen in 2010, the glory that the cathedral experienced pre-Revolutionary was unfortunately never quite retrieved.