Monday, June 29, 2009

Cathedrals of St. Petersburg

We slept in this morning since the tour was not scheduled until the afternoon. I went up for breakfast and worked on the blog. I had two glasses of fresh squeezed orange juice....I am getting spoiled. The day is cloudy and not as warm as yesterday so even though it is Saturday there were no people on the beach as we passed. We arrived at the first Cathedral, the Cathedral of St. Issac. It is the largest of the Cathedrals we saw today. The beautiful chandeliers were electrified from the beginning --apparently St. Petersburg was electrified in 1839! But I didn't think electric lights had been invented until 1870 something.....hmmmm....could it be Russian bravado?

Because St. Petersburg is built on so many islands - you must cross many bridges. The bridges on the Neve (the main river in Petersburg) were raised (they are all draw bridges) at 4:45 in the afternoon because of a race that was being held This fact made our bus driver and tour guide mindful of the hour and time. If we did not cross over the Neve in time, we would miss our sailing time. It was also Youth Day -- which meant that students could enter any of the museums and venues for free -- so there were many young people on the streets. Perhaps more than usual for a Saturday. Traffic was better than the first day, but according to our guide that was because most people leave the city on the weekend for their dachas. When pressed about how it was possible to afford dachas when the apartments here were so expensive, she said that many people have very modest dachas indeed, but some of these have been in families for a long time. When the communists were in power you could eventually get an apartment in town for free. That meant that when the Soviet Union broke up -- the people in those apartments were grandfathered in (so to speak) and owned their own places. Her parents for example got their apartment this way. She inherited her grandparents apartment. She admitted that young people are not so lucky and even apartments in the rundown pre-Soviet brake-up apartments are extremely expensive. Just like at home, people here are very proud to be Russian and so we do not here any complaint or criticism from her.

The streets are lined with young women dressed in blue and white holding flags. I asked what the flags said, Nadya explained that the big soviet oil company is sponsoring the race and these girls are advertising for them.
The Russian Cathedrals are nothing like those in the rest of Europe. Most European Cathedrals were built during the middle ages, and these edifices share little with those except size. Only one of the Cathedrals of St. Petersburg has the characteristic onion domes, however. If anything was built by Katherine or Peter it was built by Italians. Interestingly enough these Cathedrals do not contain icons--except as an afterthought. Since they were built so much later than the typical Cathedrals, they also employ more modern innovations -- such as electricity. The Cathedral of St. Isaac for example was not completed until the 19th century. There are small chapels in each of the Cathedrals reserved for worship. The majority of each building is a museum filled with tourists like me. Interestingly enough, this church has a beautiful stained glass panel ( Russian Orthodox churches do not have stained glass) in the alter area.

St. Isaac's is one of the largest cathedrals in the world. It was designed in 1818 and completed 40 years later. It was designed by an unknown architect at the time --- Montferrand. Since the ground is very marshy --- wooden pilings were placed in the bottom to support the weight of the building which has 48 solid red granite columns. The doors are interesting -- with three dimensional biblical characters (quite large) -- made of cast bronze. Our guide mentioned that the scenes to one side were old testament. I didn't have the heart to correct her--last time I checked Christ was considered a new testament character......but I assume that most Russians are a bit like the Chinese when it comes to knowing anything about religion. If there are of a certain age --- they would be tabula rosa---
Some other interesting features are that from the time of the Revolution (1917) the Cathedrals were closed. Some were torn down or at least partially demolished. The Cathedral on the Spilled Blood was used only by the nobility and was especially vulnerable to the animosity that was generated by the revolution. Most of the Cathedrals here in St. Petersburg were used for storage and a part of the Cathedral of St. Isaac was used as an anti-religious museum. A pendulum was hung in the center from the great dome and apparently scientists used the space during part of this time. Each of the Cathedrals has a miracle story about surviving the seige of Lenningrad during WWII -- The Cathedral of the Spilled Blood was directly hit by a bomb that did not explode! The Cathedral of St. Isaac survived because German pilots used it as a landmark for bombing military sites.

Another major difference between Russian and European Cathedrals is the use of mosaics EVERYWHERE! Our guide explained that the weather in St. Peterburg is bad for paintings --- so the original paintings were done and then artisans created tiles to match and these were then placed on the walls and ceilings. From a distance -- you cannot tell that these are mosaics. There were pieces set at ground level so you could appreciate the work of the mosaic artists up close. To be able to duplicate the color of the artists with such precision on a ceramic tile piece is really remarkable.....I cannot even imagine how to do that after learning how to mix the color on a palette. There are no seats in a Russian Orthodox church, even for the emperor. All must stand before God equally! The services often last up to three hours. I asked the guide about people with disabilities, and she said that they were allowed to be seated --- but only those with disabilities.

People in Europe are generally more fit than we Americans -- at least in part because they walk everywhere (or bike) and our cities are designed for automobiles! I think also that they may be more used to standing --- we would find it impossible to stand for that long without passing out.

These cathedrals were utterly beautiful, but my favorite was the Church on the Spilled Blood. The color inside was so vibrant, so unlike any other church --- turquoise, rose, red, greens, cobalt, and of course much gold everywhere picking up and reflecting the light --- gave the interior such depth and warmth. Malachite columns, Lapis lazuli columns and the ever present gold leaf make every inch of this church nothing short of spectacular. Where there are not religious pictures there are symbolic designs running the length of the supporting columns. Perhaps it was because of the constant darkness and overcast that color was so important, but for whatever reason these churches have a warmth --- a palpable warmth that even St. Peters in Rome lacks!
When we reached the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, the last stop on the tour, many buses were dumping people onto the square. Young naval cadets in full dress, teams in the race, young women that look like cheerleaders, are all excitedly gathering. This cathedral is the oldest of the ones we have seen having been built in 1712.

The church is of Baroque (it was designed by Trezzinni) design. Peter the great wanted nothing to do with traditional Russian architecture. A problem of all these churches is that the ground was marshy and therefore it can sink. The bell tower was completed first to test the foundation and it also provided Peter a good spot to survey the building. Peter recognized the value of the sea port since he was a sailor......and loved the sea. The small building just outside the church was designed to house his personal boat.

This church has become the burial spot for all Russian emperors (including those whose remains were found in the 1990s and confirmed through DNA testing to be the last Romanovs...including the servants who died with them in 1918. While the sarcophagi of the tsars are above ground --- their bodies rest 2 meters beneath these according to the Russian Orthodox tradition.
Once back aboard ship we left almost immediately and happily set the clock back one hour to regain some of the sleep we lost as we sailed toward Russia.

No comments: