This Russian Orthodox Church in St Petersburg is one of Russia’s mosaic treasures. Its official name is actually the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ. So where does the spilled blood reference come from? The blood belongs to the assassinated Alexander II of Russia, who was mortally wounded on that site on March 13, 1881 (Julian date: March 1).
The Church is prominently situated along the Griboedov Canal. The embankment at that point runs along either side of a canal. As the tsar’s carriage passed along the embankment, a grenade thrown by a conspirator exploded. The tsar, shaken but unhurt, got out of the carriage and started to remonstrate with the presumed culprit. Another conspirator took the chance to explode another explosive device, killing himself and wounding the tsar. The tsar, bleeding heavily, was taken back to the Winter Palace where he died a few hours later.
Alexander III started this cathedral as a memorial to his father in 1883 and it was finally completed in1907 under Nicholas II.
St Petersburg’s architecture is predominantly Baroque and Neoclassical, but the Savior on Blood harks back to medieval Russian architecture in the spirit of romantic nationalism. It intentionally resembles the 17th-century Yaroslavl churches and the celebrated St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. The Church contains over 7500 square metres of mosaics — according to its restorers, more than any other church in the world.
The interior was designed by some of the most celebrated Russian artists of the day – including Viktor Vasnetsov, Mikhail Nesterov and Mikhail Vrubel – but the church’s chief architect, Alfred Alexandrovich Parland, was relatively little-known (and Russian, despite his name). Perhaps not surprisingly, the Church’s construction ran well over budget, having been estimated at 3.6 million roubles but ending up costing over 4.6 million. The walls and ceilings inside the Church are completely covered in intricately detailed mosaics – the main pictures being biblical scenes or figures – but with very fine patterned borders setting off each picture.
In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, the church was ransacked and looted, badly damaging its interior. The Soviet government closed the church in the early 1930s. During the Second World War, it was used as a warehouse for vegetables, leading to the sardonic name of Savior on Potatoes. It suffered significant damage during the Siege of Leningrad. After the war, it was used as a warehouse for a nearby opera theatre.
In July 1970, management of the Church passed to Saint Isaac’s Cathedral (then used as a highly profitable museum) and proceeds from the Cathedral were funneled back into restoring the Church. It was reopened in August 1997, after 27 years of restoration, but has not been resanctified and does not function as a full-time place of worship. Right now it is a Museum of Mosaic. Even before the Revolution it never functioned as a public place of worship; having been dedicated exclusively to the memory of the assassinated tsar, it commemorated only panikhidas. The Church is now one of the main tourist attractions in St. Petersburg.
The shrine is located on the exact spot where Alexander II was wounded.
Four columns of gray violet jasper serve as the base of the shrine. Rising up the shrine, small rectangular columns unite the carved stone awning and the decorated mosaic icons with images of the patron saint of the Romanov family. The columns are supported by a frieze and cornice and stone-carved pediment with vases of jasper along the corners.
The church has an outstanding and varied collection of mosaic icons.
Several icons were completed in the traditions of academic painting, modernist style and Byzantine icon painting. The large icon of St. Alexander Nevsky was created according to a design by Nesterov. The icons of the main iconostasis Mother of God with Child and the Savior were painted to designs by Vasnetsov.
The mosaic panel Pantokrator (Almighty) which depicts Christ giving a blessing with his right hand and holding the gospels in his left, in the platform of the central cupola was painted according to a design by N. Kharlamov.
Parland and Andrey Ryabushkin completed the framed icon mosaic ornaments.