Domes of grandeur

Published : Apr 20, 2007 00:00 IST

Russia's churches are some of the finest examples of religious architecture.


THE very mention of Russia evokes that single unmistakable imagery - of the strikingly coloured and stunningly patterned `onion' domes of St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow's Red Square. Virtually every news report from Moscow is telecast against the backdrop of this brilliant edifice, making it the unique symbol of Russia and all things Russian. It is immortalised in a million paintings, photographs, souvenirs and movies, including American cartoons where the domes have often been portrayed as the symbol of the `evil empire'.

No wonder then you expect to be overcome by a feeling of deja vu when you arrive at the Red Square. But then, nothing prepares you for your real-life glimpse of St. Basil's, the richness of its hues, the brilliance of its patterns, the shapes of its domes and steeples - wavy, twisting, swirling, geometric, striped and embossed. It is far more vivid and captivating than anything that cadcam software can conjure up. And the scale of the setting - the Red Square - is breathtaking. In the setting evening sun, the domes glow with ethereal beauty to which no picture can do full justice.

The quintessentially Russian onion-dome or tented dome first made its appearance in Moscow in the 16th century. Since then it has undergone many variations and embellishments, but the basic shape has remained more or less unchanged. And it originated here, in St. Basil's Cathedral built in 1561 to commemorate the fall of Kazan, the Islamic Tatar capital, to Tsar Ivan the Terrible of Russia. Located at the southeast end of the Red Square, the cathedral consists of nine chapels one of which was built over the grave of Blessed Vassily, often hailed as the `holy fool'. This cathedral is unique for other reasons too. It marked the beginning of multiple-dome churches in Russia. The present structure has nine domes with the central steeple towering above an assortment of onion domes with a multitude of designs and colours. Legend has it that Ivan the Terrible blinded the architect Posnik Yakovlev to prevent him from building another church as grand as this, although this is not confirmed by historians.

St. Basil's is officially known as "The Cathedral of the Intercession of the Virgin by the Moat". So beautiful a monument naturally attracted the covetous attention of invaders. Legend has it that Emperor Napoleon of France was so captivated by the charm of St. Basil's that he decided to blow it up since he could not dismantle and carry it away to his homeland. But a providential downpour put paid to the attempt, drenching the powder keg that was to have smashed the edifice to smithereens.

The appeal of St. Basil's is enhanced by the stunning statuary of the Prince and the Butcher, just outside the church. Dmitry Posharsky was a Prince while Kuzma Minin was a butcher from Nizhny Novgorod. The two together organised a volunteer army to drive out the invading Polish forces in the early 19th century. The statue was designed by the artist I. Martos and erected in 1818 as the city's first monumental sculpture. It originally stood in the centre of the Red Square in front of what is now the GUM Department Store, but the Soviet authorities felt that the statue had become an obstacle during parades and was eventually moved to the garden in front of St. Basil's in 1936. A smaller replica of this statue has been installed outside the Kremlin in Nizhny Novgorod.

Much of Russian church architecture, however, predates St. Basil's and the fall of the Kazan Khanate. After the hegemony of Orthodox Christianity shifted to Muscovite Russia and Moscow was hailed the new city of Constantine, "third Rome" as it were. The city had acquired a reputation to live up to and hence had to launch an extensive church-building programme commensurate with its growing ecclesiastical stature. The Kremlin and two of its important churches - the Assumption or Uspensky Cathedral and the Cathedral of St. Michael, the Archangel, both originally modelled on churches in Vladimir, the ancient Russian capital, were rebuilt by Italian architects between 1475 and 1510. The interior of Uspensky is elaborately decorated with golden murals of Mother Mary and biblical scenes that are among the finest in Russian church art, while the Archangel cathedral houses the tombs of Russian royalty.

Another delightfully different church in the Kremlin complex is the Church of the Twelve Apostles, with its dozen golden domes forming a dazzling parade. It was built by the Russian Patriarch Nikon and is inspired by the Vladimir-Suzdal school of architecture.

The massive but cracked Tsar Bell, also in the Kremlin complex, has an interesting history. This 202-tonne monster bell, which never rang, was cast by Empress Anna Ivanova to replace an earlier smaller bell which had broken. The bell was cooling in the foundry when workers trying to put out a fire in a nearby structure inadvertently splashed water on hot metal, causing the bell to crack. A chunk came off and the bell had to be abandoned. Today it serves as a backdrop for numerous tourists who like to have their photographs taken in front of it.

The Kremlin churches are testimony to the waning Byzantine influence in Russia. The squat domes were replaced by pointed ones. From then on, church domes began to assume increasingly complex shapes of swirls and curves, until they came to acquire a dynamic character altogether Russian. The most important change in Russian church design of the 16th century was the introduction of the tiered tower and the tent-shaped roof. This was followed by the substitution of the bulb-shaped spire for the traditional Byzantine cupola.

There is much less evidence of the tented dome structure in St. Petersburg, which is home to some stunning churches and cathedrals. My first glimpse of the gorgeous Smolny Cathedral on the banks of the Neva is around midnight. The dazzling cupolas and the bleach-blue facade are covered in a carpet of snow. The crystal blue designs enhance the sense of tranquility. The scene is sublime, solemn and almost surreal. Even snow seems to fall silently and deferentially so as not to break the spell.

Designed and executed by the Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli, Smolny was commissioned by Peter the Great. Perhaps it was the emperor's way of rewarding Rastrelli for the splendid Winter Palace that the latter had built in Tsarskoe Selo, 25 kilometres from St. Petersburg. Smolny suffered neglect after the Russian Revolution. In 1922, all of its valuables were looted, and in 1923 the cathedral was closed. For many years, the building was not even heated, had no electricity or water, and it slowly decayed. In 1972, the cathedral's iconostasis was taken out. Soon after, the cathedral became a museum for the city, and hosted exhibitions. It was later converted into a concert hall.

I am disappointed when I enter the cathedral. Through the darkness, I could make out the outlines of a welter of scaffolding that covers every inch of the interiors. Satish, an Indian resident in St. Petersburg and our unofficial guide to this beautiful city, whisks me inside and speaks in Russian to the caretaker, persuading him to let me climb to the top of the belfry. I almost give up midway, but eventually reach the top to be rewarded with the most stunning view of Neva and the jewel-like lights of St. Petersburg shimmering through a haze of snow.

Not far from Smolny is a fairytale church which looks more like the gingerbread house that Hansel and Gretel (of Grimms fairy tales fame) stumbled upon in the forest. This is the Church of Saviour on the Spilt Blood. It marks the spot where Tsar Alexander II was fatally wounded in an assassination on March 1, 1881. His son and heir, Alexander III, built this church in his father's memory.

The church's final composition drew heavily from St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow and Vladimir Cathedral in Kiev. Construction began in 1883, and Ignaty, one of the two architects, died shortly afterwards, leaving Parland, the other architect, to complete the job. For years afterwards, weekly requiems for the departed king were held in the church. This church has stunning mosaics - extending over 7,500 square metres and depicting scenes from Russian history.

The soaring golden steeples of St. Peter and Paul Church beckon from across the Neva. This church is intimately linked to the Romanovs, the Russian royals whose tombs are located within its premises. Designed by Domenico Trezzini, this structure took 20 years to build. Peter & Paul, completed in 1733, is considered a radical departure from traditional Russian-style churches. With a rectangular bell tower and landmark needle, the style is more Baroque than Russian. The bell-tower has a tragic history. As the tallest structure for many miles, it was often the victim of lightning, and in fact burned down on the night of April 29-30, 1756, in a particularly severe fire. Although the bells were destroyed, the iconostasis was removed from the cathedral in the nick of time. In 1766, Catherine the Great ordered the bell tower to be rebuilt exactly as it had been, and the new tower was unveiled in 1776.

The impressive gilded dome of St. Isaac's Cathedral, the biggest church in all of Russia, is just a few hundred yards away from the Hermitage and is visible from most parts of the city. Commissioned by Peter the Great, the church was designed by Auguste Montferrand, a French architect, and built over 40 years from 1818. The church is supported by red granite columns, each carved out of a single rock.

The interior is adorned with incredibly detailed mosaic icons, paintings and columns made of semi-precious stones. There are 382 coloured mosaics, statues and painted murals with 43 types of marble and stone arranged in captivating patterns. A large, brightly coloured stained glass window of the "Resurrected Christ" takes pride of place inside the main altar. A huge iconostasis altar screen holds three rows of Byzantine-style icons, supported by columns covered in malachite and lapis lazuli. The four exterior facades look like ancient temples, with 48 massive columns. Built close to the river, the 330,000-tonne building is supported by 11,000 wooden pilings. The church can accommodate 14,000 standing worshippers.

The Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan, often referred to as Kazan Cathedral, is an impressive semi-circular colonnaded monument in Nevsky Prospect, right in the heart of St. Petersburg. The cathedral was inspired by the Basilica of St. Peter's in Rome. After the defeat of Napoleon in the war of 1812, this church became a monument to Russian victory, and houses the remains of the Russian Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov, who won the most important campaign of 1812.

The Bolsheviks closed the cathedral for services in 1929, and in an ironic twist of events, Kazan Cathedral came to house, from 1932, the collections of the Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism. In fact, the cathedral became the centre for anti-religious propaganda, although in the post-Soviet era, it has been restored to its religious status. We were at the church at dusk and had the privilege of witnessing the well-attended evensong prayers and rituals.

Russia's magnificent churches are not confined to Moscow or St. Petersburg. The provinces are home to some outstanding religious architecture many of which dazzle you as you drive along the countryside. In Kazan, the Annunciation Cathedral has the unique distinction of sharing the same compound as a magnificent mosque, the Kul Sharif, whose construction was completed only in 2005. With its four gleaming minarets, the Kul Sharif is an example of the finest in contemporary Islamic architecture.

Legend has it that Ivan the Terrible launched his siege of Kazan because its princess Sayuyumbike refused to marry him. To prevent her city's capture by Ivan, the princess eventually agreed to marry him but only if he got a tower taller than the Kazan mosque built within a week. Thus was built the Sayuyumbike Tower, literally towering over all other buildings in Kazan. But then the princess jumped off the tower and ended her life rather than marry Ivan. Nevertheless, Ivan the Terrible went on to capture Kazan from its Mongol rulers and reintroduced Christianity in the province.

The Annunciation Cathedral, also designed by the same architect who built St. Basil's and completed around the same time as the latter, was to mark the return of Christianity to Kazan. However, to this day, Tataristan (in Turkey) continues to be predominantly Islamic and the Kul Sharif mosque is the pride of Tatars.

During our car journey through Russia starting from St. Petersburg and travelling through Tver, Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, Kazan, Samra, Saratov, Volgograd, Astrakhan, Elista, Kropotkin and Sochi on the Black Sea, we, the members of the Nikitin expedition (a group of car-borne Indians retracing the footsteps of the legendary Russian traveller Afanasy Nikitin, the first European to visit India in the 15th century) came across ample evidence of religious revival in post-Soviet Russia. Many religious institutions that had been converted into museums or administrative offices during Soviet rule, have since been restored to their respective communities.

There is frenetic building activity all over the country and these include not just churches, but also mosques and Buddhist temples known as khuruls. In Elista, the capital of the Buddhist Republic of Kalmykia, our team was privileged to witness Sunday prayers at the newly constructed khurul. After Stalin had destroyed the khuruls and banished the monks, Elista had lacked a place of worship where its majority Buddhist community could congregate.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, the Buddhist community in Russia decided to fill this void, raising donations from the community, especially non-resident Russian Buddhists from all over the world to construct an imposing and impressive khurul in the heart of Elista. The funds for building places of worship comes from various sources. Some old churches and cathedrals have reinvented themselves as part museums. Museums charge a hefty entry fee, especially from foreign tourists, and this goes into the maintenance of existing structures as well as the construction of new ones. Oil companies, for their part, have joined in the effort to revive religious structures. The All Saints Church atop Mamaev Kurgan in Volgograd was built by the Russian oil major Lukoil.

In Astrakhan, on the banks of the Caspian, the impressive White Mosque is undergoing massive restoration while other mosques all over the region are also being revived, with the help of voluntary donations. Virtually every church, mosque or khurul our team visited was teeming with worshippers.

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