St. Petersburg Church Smackdown: Church of the Savior on Blood vs. St. Isaac’s Cathedral
In a city like St. Petersburg, Russia, there’s no shortage of incredibly beautiful churches to visit, all with their unique histories. Sadly, during the years of Communist rule, when religion was severely oppressed and churches were actually shuttered, many were desecrated and repurposed, ranging from movie theaters to gyms to storage units for works of art to even swimming pools!
If your time in St. Petersburg is limited, like having just a day there, then the two churches you should consider visiting are the Church of the Savior on Blood and St. Isaac’s Cathedral. But if you only have time to visit one, here’s how you can decide which one.
Church of the Savior on Blood
Best for individuals wanting to experience traditional Russian church architecture, those interested in Czarist history, and photography enthusiasts.
Eastern Orthodox architecture
Ever since I was a little kid, probably around the time I learned that I was part Ukrainian, I’ve been obsessed with the onion domes so prevalent on Eastern Orthodox churches. And the Church of the Savior on Blood has beautiful onion domes galore that I couldn’t stop photographing. It was the equivalent of being in a place like La Mezquita in Córdoba, Spain where I couldn’t stop photographing the horseshoe arches in that striking Islamic-style architecture.
As incredible as the outside is, the interior is even more so (even if the mobs of people are insane). The inside contains over 7500 square meters of mosaics, which many believe is more than any other church in the world. (A thing about Eastern Orthodox churches, they love mosaics of their icons.) It was one of those churches where, were it not for the throngs at every turn (or slight pivot) , I would have just whirled around in amazement craning my neck to see all that was before and above me.
The church was modeled after the very famous St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square.
If you’re wondering about the extremely macabre name of the Church of the Savior on Blood, well, there’s no sugarcoating it. This church was literally built on a place where blood was spilled, that of Czar Alexander II, grandfather to Nicholas II, last czar of Russia. He was being driven in his carriage along the picturesque Griboedov Canal and as it passed along the embankment, a grenade thrown by an anarchist exploded. The czar was unhurt, but as he got out of his carriage was then mortally wounded after a second conspirator threw a second bomb. Alexander died a few hours later after he was rushed back to the nearby Winter Palace.
The Church of the Savior on Blood was built in his memory. However, it always functioned strictly as a memorial, never a house of worship. Upon stepping inside, you’ll notice an area where people are clustering. It is here that stands a permanent shrine on the exact spot where the assassination of the czar took place. In order to mark the exact spot, the Griboedov Canal was actually narrowed so that the section of road on which the czar had been traveling could be included within the walls of the church. A very elaborate shrine (naturally befitting a czar) was constructed at the end of the church opposite the altar and is embellished with topaz, lazurite, and other semi-precious stones. Look closely at the ground and you’ll be able to see the plain cobblestones of the old road which are exposed in the floor of the shrine.
It may not be Red Square, but one can’t dispute the picturesque location of the church. Located right on Griboedov Canal, you can’t get a more stunning locale. Hopefully there is no scaffolding on the one dome and the skies are a bit brighter when you visit.
During Communist years the church suffered extensive damage, from being desecrated and pillaged to serving as a morgue during the infamous and horrific Leningrad Siege and post-war, as a vegetable warehouse, which led to its being nicknamed the Savior on Potatoes.
St. Isaac’s Cathedral
Best for individuals wanting the grandiose church touring experience, art & architecture lovers, and those interested in World War II history.
The grandiose church-going experience
When I first saw St. Isaac’s Cathedral, I immediately thought how much it resembled St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, whose golden dome looks almost identical. Where the Church of the Savior on Blood is your standard Eastern Orthodox style church, St. Isaac’s looks straight out of a Western European city. But that shouldn’t be too big of a surprise since the founding of St. Petersburg was by Peter the Great, who wanted it to rival any Western European city in terms of look. The present day St. Isaac’s Cathedral was completed in the mid-19th century.
St. Isaac’s is the largest Orthodox basilica and the fourth largest cathedral in the world. When you step inside, you’ll feel as if you’re walking the galleys of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.
Art & architecture lovers
There is a bevy of delights to be had by those whose passions are art and architecture. There’s the cathedral’s bronze doors that are covered in reliefs and patterned after the doors of the Florence Baptistery. The paintings you see inside the cathedral are actually mosaics, reproduced as these after the original paintings began to deteriorate due to the cold, damp conditions found inside. To the naked eye one would never know they’re mosaics.
The neoclassical exterior features gray and pink stone and features 112 red granite columns. It’s the cathedral’s main dome (rising 333 feet up) that draws most people. It’s plated with pure gold and is decorated with 12 statues of angels. Visitors can actually climb the cuppola where they are rewarded with spectacular views of both St. Isaac’s Square and the city.
World War II history buffs
Although the Nazis were never able to take St. Petersburg, that didn’t mean they didn’t try. The residents of St. Petersburg endured a brutal siege (the siege of Leningrad, as St. Petersburg was known then) for 900 days, which resulted in the deaths of over 600,000 civilians and 400,000 more during the evacuations. On some of the granite columns out front, you can see remnants of Nazi artillery damage.
The Hotel Astoria, a five star luxury hotel right in St. Isaac’s Square, is where Adolf Hitler planned to host his victory dinner celebration following the fall of Leningrad. He was so convinced the city would fall quickly and effortlessly, he actually had invitations printed in advance. Needless to say he never thought a 900 day siege would ensue.
And during the war, the famous gold-plated dome was painted over in gray to avoid attracting attention from enemy aircraft.
During Communist years the cathedral served as an anti-religion museum dedicated to promoting atheism, and a Foucault pendulum was placed there, doing away with a white dove that had represented the Holy Spirit.
My final thoughts? Both churches are simply incredible. If you’re like me, try to allocate time to visit both. But if you’re arriving in St. Petersburg via cruise ship and aren’t getting a visa or doing a private tour and you can only do one port excursion, I’d suggest the Church of the Savior on Blood. It’s so quintissentially Russian and truly memorable.
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