Illustrated Description Of Russia

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ST. PETERSBURG, as previously remarked, is a creation of modern days; and therefore, compared with Moscow, has neither so many nor such remarkable churches as the old capital, though some are built in a pleasing style of architecture. The modern Russian church is a mixture of the Grecian, Byzantine, and Tartar; the Byzantine, which was brought from Constantinople with Christianity, being the most prominent. The plan of the building is a Greek cross, with four equal arms; in the midst, a large dome, painted green or blue ; at the four ends, four narrow-pointed cupolas, their summits surmounted by four crosses; in front, a grand entrance adorned with many columns, and three side-entrances without columns. The difference between the Greek and the Latin cross with aisles is evident. Such is the exterior form of the greater portion of the Russian churches, including the thirty of St. Petersburg, constituting less than a tenth of the number dispersed through " Moscow the Holy." The interiors of those in the new capital are lighter, brighter, and more simple; in the old, darker, more overloaded with ornament, more varied in color, and grotesque.

The Metropolitan church of St. Petersburg, dedicated to " our Lady of Kazan," stands conspicuously on the right of the Nevskoi Prospekt, about half a mile from the Admiralty square, and retired from the street. A semicircular colonnade of Corinthian pillars, the two extremities of which project almost to the front of the houses, forms a screen to the cathedral itself, and the dome rises immediately behind the centre of the colonnade, where the chief entrance is situated. In any other place the effect of this semicircular line of columns would be imposing; but here, where everything around is on so vast a scale, it looks the very reverse: the columns are not so high as the adjoining houses, and even the dome is deficient in elevation. The Russians wish to unite in their capital all that is grand or beautiful in the whole civilized world, and this is intended for a copy of St. Peter's at Rome ; but the puny effort is almost comic in its contrast to the mighty work of Buonarotti: the colonnade of pillars, which in Rome seemed necessary and suitable to circumstances, is here a superfluous and incomprehensible appendage. As an exception to the rule, one transept in the Kazan cathedral is shorter than the others—not, however, as some have alleged, from the peculiar form of the Greek cross, but simply from the want of space on the canal side to continue the building.

The eastern arm of the cross in all Greek churches is looked upon as the " holy of holies," and is shut off from the rest of the edifice by a screen called the ikonostast. This is set apart for the priests. Laymen may enter, but no women; not even the empress can go into that mysterious enclosure. Here stands a throne called the prestol, a kind of altar, beneath a sumptuous canopy, frequently adorned with precious stones. The throne stands on a carpet, which reaches under the closed doors of the screen; and this, on solemn occasions, is spread out to a low square platform, erected immediately beneath the central dome: on this holy carpet no footstep, save that of the priest, dare press. Behind and in front of the screen the ceremonies and service are performed. The formalities are great: robes of costly materials are frequently changed ; the genuflections are numerous and very low; incense is much used; there is no organ or other instrumental music, but the chanting is peculiar and striking. Sermons, so much thought of in other countries, form but a small portion of the Russian church service: a short discourse, a few times in the year, is the only homily which a Greek priest delivers to his flock. At the Imperial chapel, the Nevskoi monastery, and the Donskoi and Seminoff at Moscow, the singing is very fine. The bass voices are superb, and a kind of chant, which they keep up in unison, while the priest is officiating, is not easily to be compared with any other church music. It has somewhat the effect of as many double basses all executing the same short arpeggio passages, and repeating it without any variation in the chord, time, or tone; when frequently heard, it is therefore tedious.

One of the most impressive portions of the service is toward the close. The doors of the ikonostast are then shut, the chanting ceases, the incense-bearers withdraw, and every one seems breathless with attention. At length the folding-doors in the centre are reopened and thrown back, and the priest, carrying on his head an enormous volume, which he steadies with both hands, comes forward and commences a long recitation ; during this every one bends low in an humble attitude of adoration. The large volume contains the gospels ; the prayer is for the emperor. " The sensation on this occasion," observes a recent traveller, " more than equals that usually seen in Roman catholic churches at the elevation of the Host. With this prestige for their sovereign, what might not the Russians do if circumstances should engage them in a national cause ?" Indeed, the spirit of religious zeal which animates them is signally manifested in the struggle of 1854 against the Turks and their powerful allies.

In Roman catholic countries the church-goers are almost exclusively women; and in France, southern Germany, and parts of Italy, a man in the prime of life is rarely seen within the walls of a church, except as a mere spectator. In Russia it is otherwise; and the outward forms of the Greek church seem to have taken as firm and enduring a hold of the men as of the women, all classes alike participating in this strong feeling of external devotion. The first proceeding of a Russian on entering a church is to purchase a wax-candle, a plentiful supply of which is usually kept near the door, and the sale of which must constitute a very lucrative traffic. Bearing this in one hand, he slowly approaches the shrine of the Virgin, before which a silver lamp burns day and night; at a considerable distance from it he sinks on one knee, bowing his head to the pavement, and crossing his breast repeatedly with the thumb and two forefingers of his right hand. Having at length reached the shrine itself, he lights his votivecandle at the holy lamp, sets it up in one of the various holes in a large silver plate provided for the purpose, and, falling low on his bended knees, kisses the pavement before the altar. His prayers are few and short, and he retires slowly with his face to the altar, kneeling and crossing himself at intervals.


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The Russians have so closely adopted the practice of burning tapers, that there is no interment, no baptism, no betrothing, in short, no sacred ceremony, without torch, lamp, or taper, to be thought of: fire is for them the pledge of the presence of the Holy Spirit; and hence illuminations play the most important part in the ceremonies of the Greek church. Although the Greek faith does not permit the introduction of images into their churches, its votaries are scarcely satisfied with mere pictures: they are frequently ornamented with materials of dress and jewelry, and, accordingly, the face of the Virgin is the only part of the painting exposed to view, while the dress is covered with plates of silver or gold, and the head is almost universally adorned with a crown of jewels. The pictures are, generally speaking, mere heads of saints, very indifferently executed. Many of the jewels, however, are of great size and beauty. One of the diamonds in the Virgin's crown of "our Lady of Kazan" is considered second only to the famous diamond of the emperor; the water is questionable, but it is a very large stone.

In the place before the cathedral of Kazan are two well-executed statues — one of Kutuzoff, prince of Smolensko, the other of Barclay de Tolly— two generals who distinguished themselves in the campaign of Moscow. The grand entrance-door in the centre beneath the peristyle is of bronze, divided into ten compartments, each containing a subject in bas-relief from the Old Testament; the intermediate spaces are ornamented with figures of saints in high relief, and heads in circular frames. The workmanship is, however, inferior.

The interior is little suited to the wants of divine service as performed in Russia; and the altar is awkwardly placed at the side instead of opposite the chief entrance. In the niches along the sides of the church are colossal statues of the grand-duke Vladimir and Alexander Nevsky, St. John and St. Andrew. The general effect within is dark and confined, and travellers have expressed a regret that the fifty-six monoliths, the mighty giants which support the little roof, are not employed in a work more worthy of them. Apart from these architectural discords, the church is not wanting in interest. First of all, the eye is attracted by the silver of the ikonostast (the pictorial wall of the sanctuary). The balustrades, doors, and doorways of the ikonostasts, are generally of wood, carved and gilded, but in this church all its beams and posts are of massive silver! The pillars of the balustrade round the holy place, the posts of the three doors, the arches twenty feet in height above the altar, and the frames of the pictures, are also of fine silver. The silver beams are all highly polished, and reflect with dazzling brilliancy the light of the thousand tapers that burn before them. Many hundred weight of silver must have been melted down to furnish the materials. The Cossacks, laden with no inconsiderable booty from the campaigns of 1813 and 1814—plundered alike from friends and foes in Germany and France—made an offering of this mass of silver to the "Holy Mother of Kazan," for the object to which it is now appropriated. Platoff, the Cossack hetman, having also secured some booty in the retreat of the French from Moscow, sent it to the metropolitan, directing that it should be made into statues of the four evangelists, and adorn the church of the " Mother of God of Kazan." The Cossacks seem to have a peculiar veneration for this Madonna, who is half their countrywoman, for Vassili-Ivanovich brought her from Kazan to Moscow, whence Peter the Great transportedher to St. Petersburg. Her picture, set with pearls and precious stones, hangs in this church. It was before this picture that Kutuzoff prayed before he advanced to meet the French in 1812, for which reason she is considered to be closely connected with that campaign. Here, also, is the monument of that distinguished man. Dauntless amid a despairing nation, he nobly sustained the courage of the monarch and the drooping valor of the Russian troops : but for him the sanguinary battle of the Moskva might never have been fought, and Napoleon would have marched without a blow to Moscow, and perhaps to St. Petersburg.

The coup d'eil, on entering this house of prayer, is rather that of an arsenal than of a church, and this may be said' of many other churches in this capital, for they are more or less .adorned with military trophies taken from various nations of Europe and Asia. Here are to be seen the crimson flags of the Persians, which may be easily distinguished by a silver hand, as large as life, fastened to the end; also many Turkish standards, surmounted by the crescent—large, unsoiled pieces of cloth, for the most part red, and so new and spotless, that they might be sold again to the merchant by the ell, and giving the impression that they were surrendered without any very great struggle. Not so the French colors, which hang near them, and which offer a strong contrast: they are rent in pieces, and to several of the seventeen eagles only a single fragment is attached ; these, with their expanded wings, which had soared in triumph over nearly the whole of continental Europe, look strange enough in the place they now roost in. Among these tattered banners is one of white silk, on which the words " Garde Nationale de Paris" are visible., Here, too, may be seen the long streamers of the wild tribes of the Caucasus, and the silver eagles of Poland; and, lastly, the marshal's baton of Davoust (duke of Auerstadt and prince of Eckmuhl), the " Hamburg Robespierre," whose atrocities will be remembered as long as a stone of that city exists under its present name. This trophy, which is kept in a glass case, was taken in the disastrous retreat of 1812 ; it is said to have been lost in the wild confusion that everywhere prevailed, and was afterward picked up by some straggling Cossack. Keys of many German, French, and Netherland towns, before whose gates a Russian trumpet has blown in triumph, also grace the pillars of this cathedral; among them are those of Hamburg, Leipsic, Dresden, Rheims, Breda, and Utrecht—in all twenty-eight pair. To a protestant, these trophies, and the tawdry paintings, gilding, and jewelry, completely destroy all ideas of a devotional character. As the members of the Greek religion pray standing, the interior of their churches is always devoid of pew, bench, or chair; but there is in every church a place set apart for the emperor to stand in, which is raised above the floor, and usually covered with a canopy, or small dome. An exception is, we believe, made in favor of the present empress, on account of ill health.

The Isaac church can not fail to excite the admiration of those who appreciate grand proportions, a simple but lofty style of architecture, and noble porticoes. The situation also is highly suitable, for it stands in one of the largest open squares in the capital, surrounded by its finest buildings and monuments, and furnishes some idea of what Russian quarries, Russian mines and workmen, and a French architect, Monsieur Montfer-rand, can produce. Nothing can exceed the simplicity of the model: no ornament meets the eye; the architect has left all to the impression to be produced by its stupendous proportions. The original design of the cathedral at Cologne is said to be on a much smaller scale; the transept alone is a building of great magnitude.

On the spot where the Isaac church stands, the Russians have been at work upon a place of worship for the last century. The original one was constructed of wood, but this was subsequently destroyed, and the great Catherine commenced another, which she intended to face with marble, and which, like many other of her undertakings, was never finished. The emperor Paul continued the building, but in brick. This half-and-half edifice vanished, however, in its turn; and under Nicholas the present magnificent structure has been erected—such a one as will scarcely find so splendid a successor. To make a firm foundation, a whole forest of piles was sunk in the swampy soil, at a cost of a million of dollars! The present building is, as usual, in the form of a Greek cross, of four equal sides, and each of the four grand entrances is approached from the level of the place by three broad flights of steps, each whole flight being composed of one entire piece of granite, formed out of masses of rock brought from Finland. These steps lead from the four sides of the building to the four chief entrances, each of which has a superb peristyle. The pillars of these peristyles are sixty feet high, and have a diameter of seven feet, all magnificent round and highly-polished granite monoliths, from Finland, buried for centuries in its swamps, till brought to light by the triumphant power of Russia. They are crowned with Corinthian capitals of bronze, and support the enormous beam of a frieze formed of six fire-polished blocks: Over the peristyles, and at twice their height, rises the chief and central cupola, higher than it is wide, in the Byzantine proportion. It is supported also by thirty pillars of smoothly-polished granite, which, although gigantic in themselves, look small compared to those below. The cupola is covered with copper, overlaid with gold, and glitters like the sun over a mountain. Prom its centre rises a small, elegant rotunda, a miniature repetition of the whole, looking like a chapel on the mountain-top. The whole edifice is surrounded by the crowning and far-seen golden cross. Four smaller cupolas, resembling the greater in every particular, stand around, like children round a mother, and complete the harmony visible in every part.

The walls of the church are covered with marble, and no doubt this cathedral is the most remarkable one in St. Petersburg, and will supersede the Kazan " church of the Virgin" for great state festivals. The embellishments of the fagade and windows have been intrusted to various artists. The group of figures on the pediment of one of the former was designed by a Frenchman, named Le Maire: the subject is the Angel at the Tomb, with the Magdalen and other female figures on the one side, and the terrified soldiers in every attitude of consternation on the other; these figures are eight feet in height, and bronze gilt. The great dome is of iron, and, as well as the whole of the bronze-work, was manufactured at the celebrated foundry of Mr. Baird, of St. Petersburg. The interior of the church is far from being finished; but if the present design is carried out, it will be a mass of precious metals and stones. The malachite columns for the ikonostast, or screen, are fifty feet in height, and exceed anything that has yet been done in that beautiful fabric.

The prestol for the inmost shrine is a small circular temple, the dome supported by eight Corinthian pillars of malachite, about eight feet high, with gilt bases and capitals. The exterior of the dome is covered with a profusion of gilding on a ground of malachite, and the interior is of lapis-lazuli. The floor is of polished marbles of various colors, which have been found in the Russian dominions, and the whole is raised on steps of polished porphyry. There is, perhaps, too much gilding about this very beautiful work, but this is in accordance with its position in a Greek church. It was presented to the emperor by Prince Demidoff, who procured the malachite from his mines in Siberia, and sent it to Italy to be worked; its value is said to be as much as a million of roubles.

From the rotunda over the great dome there is a fine view of the capital when the day is bright and clear, which is generally the case in the summer.


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The eye then wanders unobstructed over the whole extent of the imperial city. The broad Neva spreads its "breast of waters" in the warm sunshine for many a mile, hemmed in at first between those massive quays of granite which have not their equal in Europe, and reflecting on its calm surface storehouse and palace; but beyond, no longer subject to man's control, its wide stream expanding forth, flows beneath the wooded shores of Peterhoff and Oranienbaum, where the wearied eye can follow its course no longer.

Next to the churches just described, that of St. Peter and St. Paul, situated in the fortress, is the most interesting. It was built by an Italian architect, under Peter the Great, and stands nearly in the middle of the city, opposite the Winter palace. Its pointed, slender tower, exactly resembling that of the Admiralty, rises like a mast three hundred and forty feet in height. For the last hundred and fifty feet the spire is so small and thin, that it must be climbed like a pine-tree. This spire, though properly represented as fading away almost to a point in the sky, is in reality terminated by a globe of considerable dimensions, on which an angel stands, supporting a large cross. The following incident connected with this spire, as related by Leitch Ritchie, places in a conspicuous point of view that spirit of absurd daring which is one of the peculiarities of the Russian character: —

" The angel which surmounts the spire, less respected by the weather than perhaps his holy character deserved, fell into disrepair; and some suspicions were entertained that he designed revisiting, uninvoked, the surface of the earth. The affair caused some uneasiness, and the government at length became seriously perplexed. To raise a scaffolding to such a height would have cost more money than all the angels out of heaven were worth; and, meditating fruitlessly on these circumstances, without being able to resolve how to act, a considerable time was suffered to elapse.

Spire of St. Peter and St. Paul

Spire of St. Peter and St. Paul
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" Among the crowd of gazers below, who daily turned their eyes and their thoughts toward the angel, was a mujik called Telouchkine. This man was a roofer of houses (a slater, as he would be called in a country where slates are used), and his speculations by degrees assumed a more practical character than the idle wonders and conjectures of the rest of the crowd. The spire was entirely covered with sheets of gilded copper, and presented a surface to the eye as smooth as if it had been one mass of burnished gold. But Telouchkine knew that it was not one mass of anything; that the sheets of copper were not even uniformly closed upon each other; and, above all, that there were large nails used to fasten them, which projected from the sides of the spire.

" Having meditated upon these circumstances till his mind was made upr the mujik went to the government, and offered to repair the angel, without scaffolding, and without assistance, on condition of being reasonably paid for the time expended in the labor. The offer was accepted; for it was made in Russia, and by a Russian.

" On the day fixed for the adventure, Telouchkine, provided with nothing more than a coil of cords, ascended the spire in the interior to the last window. Here he looked down at the concourse of people below, and up at the glittering " needle," as it is called, tapering far away above his head. But his heart did not fail him, and, stepping gravely out upon the ledge of the window, he set about his task.

" He cut a portion of the cord in the form of two long stirrups, with a loop at each end. The upper loops he fastened upon two of the projecting nails above his head, and placed his feet in the others. Then, digging the fingers of one hand into the interstices of the sheets of copper, he raised up one of his stirrups with the other hand, so as to make it catch a nail higher up. The same operation he performed on behalf of the other leg, and so on alternately. And thus he climbed, nail by nail, step by step, stirrup by stirrup, till his starting-post was undistinguishable from the golden surface, and the spire had dwindled, and dwindled, and dwindled in his embrace, until he could clasp it all round. " So far, so well. But he had now reached the ball—a globe of between nine and ten feet in circumference. The angel, the object of his visit, was above this ball, and even concealed from his view by its smooth, round, and glittering expanse. Only fancy the wretch at that moment, turning up his grave eyes, and graver beard, to an obstacle that seemed to defy the daring and ingenuity of man!

" But Telouchkine was not dismayed. He was prepared for the difficulty ; and the means by which he essayed to surmount it exhibited the same prodigious simplicity as the rest of the feat.

" Suspending himself in his stirrups, he girded the needle with a cord, the ends of which he fastened round his waist; and so supported, he leaned gradually back till the soles of his feet were planted against the spire. In this position he threw, by a strong effort, a coil of cord over the ball; and so coolly and accurately was the aim taken, that at the first trial it fell in the required direction, and he saw the end hang down on the opposite side.

" To draw himself up into his original position ; to fasten the cord firmly round the globe; and with the assistance of this auxiliary to climb to the summit—were now an easy part of his task: and, in a few minutes more, Telouchkine stood by the side of the angel, and listened to the shout that burst like sudden thunder from the concourse below, yet came to his ear only like a faint and hollow murmur!

" The cord, which he had now an opportunity of fastening properly, enabled him to descend with comparative facility; and the next day he carried up with him a ladder of ropes, by means of which he found it easy to effect the necessary repairs."


Sears, Robert. An Illustrated Description of the Russian Empire. New York: Robert Sears, 1855