In St. Petersburg, churches are like museums

Time Magazine’s designation of Vladimir Putin as the person of the year for 2007 has served to spotlight one of the most beautiful cities in the world, St. Petersburg – where churches may function as museums and museums may function as churches.

Symbolically, the name St. Petersburg emphasizes its holy patron and its cultural links with ancient Greece and Rome. Even the emblem of St. Petersburg, of two crossing anchors, is similar to the Vatican emblem of two crossing keys. The history of the church in Russia and the history of St. Petersburg have been complementary struggles of destruction and rebirth. And, the rivalry between St. Petersburg and Moscow has always been intense. The St. Peter and St. Paul Cathedral, the oldest church in St. Petersburg, is the resting place for all the tsars from Peter the Great to Nicholas II. Conversely, all Soviet dignitaries are buried in the shadows of Moscow’s Kremlin.

The spectacular churches and museums in this former capital city of three revolutions and three names – St. Petersburg, Petrograd and Leningrad – suggests a country influenced by faith with an uneasy relationship between church and state. In comparison to the intellectual and Latin roots of the church in neighboring Poland, the Russian Orthodox faith is rooted in the worship and ritual of Byzantine culture. The fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 was a devastating blow to the Russian Church, and Ivan III declared it was Russia’s sacred duty to become “the Third Rome” – the beacon of Eastern faith. This mission was instrumental in Orthodox Russia’s wars with Roman Catholic Poland.

The churches and museums in St. Petersburg are religious and cultural treasures. The majestic St. Isaac’s Cathedral, some 101 meters high, is adorned with white Italian marble, gilded bronze and an interior embellished with ceiling paintings and mid-19th century masterpieces of Russian art. The gleaming gold dome of St. Isaac Cathedral is visible throughout the city. The spiritual orientations of St. Isaac Cathedral and square personify a majestic approach to the city of St. Petersburg.

The Cathedral of St. Nicholas is considered one of the finest examples of Russian baroque architecture. The blue and white façade of this ornate ceremonial church is decorated with Corinthian columns and crowned with five golden onion domes. Its common name – the Sailors’ Church – is a symbol of St. Petersburg’s blessing as a city of naval glory. The cathedral was a worship center of prayers for the Russian sailors who perished during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05.

The Church of the Resurrection of Christ is one of the most picturesque churches in St. Petersburg. This breathtaking church – also known as Church on the Spilled Blood – was built with significant funds from people’s donations. After 24 years of construction, this architectural masterpiece was consecrated in 1907 in the presence of Emperor Nicholas II. The interior of the church, with mosaic representations on subjects from the Old and New Testament may be compared to a shrine. The church’s four-columned jasper canopy marks where the Emperor Alexander II was mortally wounded in 1881.

St. Petersburg’s magnificent Hermitage Museum means a “place of solitude.” The Hermitage is like a series of churches – awakening the human spirit. It also reflects the grandeur of Russian history. The immense halls of the Hermitage cast images and shadows of tsars and saints, soldiers and diplomats, writers and revolutionaries, princes and martyrs. Like the stained-glass windows of Gothic cathedrals, the Hermitage’s paintings and statues convey spiritual wonder and enrichment, pleasure and pride, love and adoration. Italian masterpieces of the renaissance and baroque eras – paintings of the Madonna and Child, the Trinity, the Nativity of Christ, the Annunciation, the Holy Family, the repentant Mary Magdalene – combine the elegance and sense of awe in God’s creativity.

The more intimate and less spacious Russian Museum – with probably the best collection of icons in the world – houses the long-robed figures of the apostles Peter and Paul. Like Byzantine icons, Russian icons convey spiritual, ethereal and saintly images. An early 12th-century icon depicts the Archangel Gabriel – the Angel with the Golden Hair – his head tilted to the side with large, pensive eyes.

Some observers see the gradual rehabilitation of Russian churches since the late 1980s as a repudiation of four generations of Soviet propaganda. Other observers draw comparisons with the recent rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the Asian republics of the former U.S.S.R. While still other observers suggest that the Russians who declare themselves as Orthodox are probably less inspired by fervent beliefs than by a loyalty to religion as a symbol of national identity.

One of St. Petersburg’s most renowned writers, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, wrote about three brothers representing three worlds: the intellectual, the spiritual and the sensual. An “architectural theology” of churches and museums in St. Petersburg seems to memorialize these three mystical worlds. Another St. Petersburg native, Vladimir Putin has possibly given this great city an invitation to reclaim some of its illustrious past, where churches may function as museums and museums may function as churches.

Jim Westwater serves as a deacon at St. Isaac Jogues, Carney.

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.