Monday, November 14, 2011


On our first day in St. Petersburg, we cruised past Peter and Paul Fortress on our riverboat cruise. It was the last place we visited before boarding our cruise ship to leave Russia.
The fortress was the first building in the city and is considered the site of the founding of St. Petersburg.  Peter the Great (surprise!) built the fortress in 1703 as protection from a feared Swedish invasion. The invasion didn't happen, and as noted in a previous post, the fortress soon became a prison and remained one until 1924, when it became a museum. Like so many other important buildings in St. Petersburg, it was severely damaged by bombing during World War II but has since been restored.

There are numerous buildings in the Fortress, with the most famous being the Peter and Paul Cathedral.  With its 404-foot belltower (the tallest point in St. Petersburg) and the Russian Orthodox crosses on the outside, I expected a typical Russian Orthodox interior, but it was much more like a museum inside, which is really what it functions as.  I must say that while the interior was rich and ornate, it couldn't hold a candle to the cathedrals and palaces we had already seen in St. Petersburg, and the overpowering aqua green theme was not my favorite:

So why do tourists--local pilgrims as well as foreigners--make their way by the thousands to the Peter and Paul Cathedral?  It's because it is the burial place for all but one of the Russian emperors and empresses--tsars and tsaritsas--from Peter the Great (who died in 1725) to Alexander III (who died in 1894). I haven't quite figured out the Russian fascination with the Romanovs, who so often seemed to rule with a heavy hand.

The marble sarcophagi lined up in neat rows fill the interior of the Cathedral and are decorated with gold embellishments, fresh flowers, and artistic representations of the individuals:

Of course, there are plenty of double-headed eagles to be seen:
Some of the most recent additions to the Cathedral are the remains of the last tsar and his family, Nicholas II, Alexandra, and three of their five children, whose bodies were exhumed in 1991. After undergoing testing in laboratories for seven years, they were relocated to the Cathedral in 1998 on the 80th anniversary of their assassinations.  In 2007, two additional partially burned bodies were found not far from the original graves of the other members of Nicholas and Alexandra's family, and a year later DNA testing confirmed that they were the remains of the two missing children. Those bodies have yet to be interred.

We really hated to leave Russia, a place we'd definitely like to visit again.  I am sure we had a "sanitized" view of the country, being shielded from its social and economic problems.  However, that it is a country of rich culture and great beauty can not be denied.

Here are some final thoughts from the notes I took while our Russian tour guide was speaking:

• Although Moscow (population 10 million) is twice as large as St. Petersburg (4.8 million), St. Petersburg has twice as many tourists as Moscow.

• Russia is the largest country (area-wise) in the world, with Canada coming in second and China third.

• Education facts:
     - Primary and secondary school are free and required.  
     - After secondary school, students can go to high school for two more years or can get vocational training.
     - Universities were free during the Soviet era, but no longer.  Some scholarships are available to top students; others pay their own way.  The most expensive courses of study are law, banking, medicine, and psychology.

• Medicine:
     -Medical care was free during the Soviet era (but I wonder how many people could actually get care, and what kind of care that was).
     - Citizens now have insurance through work and school, and insurance is provided for pensioners. Those with insurance can get care at facilities closest to their homes.  (Does this mean that poor areas have poor clinics and hospitals?)
     - Medications are free to those with mortal diseases such as cancer.
     - Some doctors still make house calls.

Our guide taught us how to say "See you again some day."  I can only write it phonetically, but here it is:
"Dos-vee-DAHN-yah, Russia!"

Monday, November 7, 2011


All that exercise of strolling around cathedrals and ooh-ing and ah-ing and gasping with delight makes one hungry.  Following our visit to St. Isaac's, our tour group had a banquet-style lunch in a large hall, complete with Russian entertainment.  Those are usually not our favorite meals. Although the entertainment is fun, the food is usually what you would expect when 100 people are being fed all at once.  This meal, however, was probably one of the better group meals we had.  It included caviar, a delicious cabbage dish, and stuffed pork:

After being fed and "cultured" (not the petri dish version, the Russian folk song version), our bus took us to a cathedral with a very unusual name: The Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood.  Apparently its official name is Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ, but no one seems to call it that.  It looks like a larger and slightly more serious version of St. Basil's Cathedral:
Unlike St. Basil's cramped interior, however, the Savior on Spilled Blood has a large, open, more traditional interior, which would make it a fairy tale location for weddings, although I think this bride was just here for photos. I can't imagine officials would stop the heavy stream of paying tourists for a little wedding:
There are beautiful mosaics on the exterior:
. . . wonderfully prickly onion domes:
. . . and lots of ornate decor, gold leafing, and double-headed eagles:

Unfortunately for my two ice cream-obsessed siblings (you know who you are, Chris and Dave), there are horrible, unfair, Stalin-esque restrictions about what you can take inside with you. This is quite a contrast to the metal detectors found at many historical sites in the U.S., don't you think?

The "spilled blood" part of the name of this cathedral explains its origin.  It was on this very spot that Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1831 by a bomb thrown at his feet.  His son, Alexander III, had a temporary shrine erected at the site, then began a cathedral at the location to honor his father. It was completed in 1907 by Alexander II's grandson, Nicholas II, the last tsar.  Inside the cathedral are marble walls and an elaborate canopy shielding the exact spot where Alexander II's blood was spilled, and the floor of the shrine is made of the very cobblestones that were once stained with blood:
Just a bit gruesome, isn't it?

Besides the gory history, what makes this church stand out is that it contains 7,500 square meters of mosaics, which Russians claim is more than any other church in the world.  However, there is a church in St. Louis, Missouri, of all places, that has 7,700 square meters of mosaics.  From what I can tell from pictures, however, that Missouri Basilica can't begin to compare with this one in St. Petersburg, where every inch is covered with the tiny tiles, including the ceilings and support columns.  I loved the dominant sky-blue color and the mosque-like use of floral and geometric patterns framing the mosaics:

Even the marble floor has a mosaic quality:
Elizabeth, could you use your computer quilting program to make this into a quilt pattern for me?
After the Russian Revolution, the interior was almost destroyed by looters, and the Soviet government closed the building in the 1930s.  During World War II it was used as a morgue, and after the war it was used as a storehouse for vegetables (leading to its less popular nickname of "Savior on Potatoes"). Restoration work began in 1970 and continued for 27 years.

The obvious theme of the mosaics is the life of Christ, but ironically, this church has never really been used as a place of worship.  Although it was consecrated when it was completed, Alexander II intended it to be used as a memorial for his father, and since its restoration it has been considered more of a museum than a church and has never been re-consecrated.  That's a shame, because I thought the art was particularly beautiful and moving:
Mary, Queen of Heaven, flanked by the Twelve Apostles

I love the adult face of Baby Jesus and the "I have a headache" depiction of Joseph.

It was just outside the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood that we made our biggest purchase of the trip, this hand-carved and painted wooden fish that echoes the colors of the church's interior.
It has a secret drawer that opens when you pull the golden ring:

When children come to visit, this Magic Fish somehow always seems to have a goodie or two waiting for them:
You can bet that Savvy and Ella make a bee-line for the fish when they come to visit us.

Just one more church in St. Petersburg to go--the memorial to the slain family of Nicholas and Alexandra.

Thursday, November 3, 2011


Maybe I should rename this blog BIG CATHEDRALS AROUND THE WORLD.  It seems like I've covered an awful lot of them this year.  They start to run together even in MY mind. (Of course, a lot is running together in my mind these days.)  However, when I go back and look at my pictures and notes, the various cathedrals separate themselves out again and I remember their distinct features.  There are just a few more that I'd like to share before I finish off blogging about this trip.

It is interesting to me that cathedrals are among the major tourist sites in Russia, a country that was particularly God-less when I was growing up.  One of the truly magnificant sites in St. Petersburg is St. Isaac's Cathedral. St. Isaac was the patron saint of--guess who?--Peter the Great:
These beautiful gold domes were painted gray during World War II to make them a less obvious bombing target. It worked.
St. Isaac's had an unusual use during the years of Soviet control.  After being stripped of anything religious, it was used as the Museum for Scientific Atheism.  The Soviets really did have a rather sick sense of humor.  This is the official Russian version of its use during World War II:
Anyway, with the fall of communism, work to restore the building to its original purpose began and is still underway. 

I know I overuse the words "breathtaking" and "gasp" and "stunning," but take a look at the interior:
Aside from the wonderful riot of color common to most Russian Orthodox churches, there are a few things that make St. Isaac's unique. One is that fourteen different kinds of marble were used in its construction.  Another is that the beautiful frescoes, such as this one of Christ hanging on the wall:
. . . are gradually being replaced by mosaics.  Here is the mosaic version of the fresco above:
  Here are a couple of close-up shots:
Pretty incredible, don't you think? The mosaics will be much more durable than the frescoes.  (If you have seen DaVinci's The Last Supper, which is sadly not the painting it used to be due to fading and crumbling, you will understand.)  From a distance of about ten feet, it is impossible to tell that the reproductions are mosaics.

We particularly loved this iconostasis (the tiered, painting-covered wall that separates the nave from the sanctuary). Those green columns are malachite and lapis lazuli, not painted plaster:
I love the scene over the door frame, a rather bizarre combo of statuary and painting:
If you look through the golden doors, you see Christ in a red robe waiting to welcome us into his kingdom:
At the apex of the main cupola is the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. During the Atheist Museum years, this dove was replaced with a Foucault's Pendulum.

I wonder what they did with these massive doors and friezes during those years? Perhaps these are replicas:

This bust of the main architect and builder of the cathedral, Frenchman Auguste de Montferrand, is prominently placed.  He gave 40 years of his life to not only the construction project, but also the interior design.  Montferrand himself planned the murals and oversaw the artists.  The cathedral was dedicated on May 30, 1858.  Guess whose birthday that was?  Yep.  Peter the Great's.  Montferrand, his magnum opus complete, died just two weeks later.
This extremely accurate model of St. Isaac's is built to a scale of 1/166:
I call this mural "Jesus and the Crystal Ball." I really like the artist's use of shadow to add depth:
One last lingering look at a small, exquisite side chapel on our way out the door: