A window into Russia’s past: The Imperial Chapel at the Winter Palace

Truly the church is heaven upon earth; for where the throne of God is, where the awful mysteries are celebrated, where the angels serve together with men, ceaselessly glorifying the Almighty, there is truly heaven. And so let us enter into the house of God with the fear of God, with a pure heart, laying aside all vices and every worldly care, and let us stand in it with faith and reverence, with understanding attention, with love and peace in our hearts, so that we may come away renewed, as though made heavenly; so that we may live in the holiness natural to heaven, not binding ourselves by worldly desires and pleasures.
-St John of Kronstadt (1829-1908), spiritual adviser and confessor to Russian Emperors Alexander III and Nicholas II.

The Imperial Chapel at the Winter Palace (Baroque), consecrated for use in 1763 under Empress Catherine II (r. 1762-96). Executed on Empress Elizabeth Petrovna's order (r. 1741-62) by Francesco Rastrelli.

The Imperial Chapel at the Winter Palace (Rococo), consecrated for use in 1763 under Empress Catherine II (r. 1762-96). Executed on Empress Elizabeth Petrovna’s order (r. 1741-62) by Francesco Rastrelli.

The Imperial Chapel or “Grand Church” at the Winter Palace was completed in the Rococo style then immensely popular across Europe. Its Russian name is Cобор Спаса Нерукотворного Образа в Зимнем дворце. It is where Emperor Nicholas II Alexandrovich and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna (Alix of Hesse) were married on 14/26 November 1894, on his mother the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna (Dagmar of Denmark)’s birthday.

Portrait by Laurits Tuxen of the wedding of Tsar Nicholas II and the Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt, which took place at the Chapel of the Winter Palace, St. Petersburg, on 14/26 November 1894.

Portrait by Laurits Tuxen of the wedding of Tsar Nicholas II and the Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt, which took place at the Chapel of the Winter Palace, St. Petersburg, on 14/26 November 1894.

The chapel was designed by the Italian maestro Francesco Rastrelli, who was personally in charge of the three-tier iconostasis, whose magnificent icons were painted by Ivan Ivanovich Belsky and Ivan Vishnyakov. The Italian Francesco Fontebasso painted the evangelists in the church’s spandrels and the “Resurrection of Christ” plafond in the vestibule.

It was constructed during the reign of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, Peter I’s daughter, from October 1753-June 1763, and dedicated in Empress Catherine II’s presence by Archbishop Gabriel (Gavril) Kremenetsky on 12 July 1763. The church is located on the piano nobile in the eastern wing of the Winter Palace, and is the larger, and principal, of two churches within the Palace. A smaller, more private church for the use of the Imperial Family was constructed in 1768, near the private apartment in the northwest part of the wing.

The gilded pulpit of the chapel from which sermons were delivered and the Gospel read.

The gilded pulpit of the chapel from which sermons were delivered and the Gospel read.

Western-style icon of the Lord's Ascension into heaven on the chapel ceiling.

Western-style icon of the Lord’s Ascension into heaven on the chapel ceiling.

The western wall. As is tradition in all Orthodox churches, the entrance is at the west and the iconostasis and altar to the east.

The western wall. As is tradition in all Orthodox churches, the entrance is at the west and the iconostasis and altar to the east.

As the ‘chapel royal’ of the Russian Imperial Family, the chapel was designated as a nominal cathedral, dedicated to the icon of the Lord ‘Not-Made-by-Hands’ (see here). This eponymous icon, painted by Feodor Ukhtomsky in 1693, lavishly decorated with gold and diamonds, was placed near the sanctuary by Archbishop Gabriel in 1763.

The Cathedral of the Not-Made-by-Hand Image of Our Saviour in the Winter Palace, by Eduard Hau (1866).

The Cathedral of the Not-Made-by-Hand Image of Our Saviour in the Winter Palace, by Eduard Hau (1866). Painted during the reign of Alexander II.

Russian copy, undated, of the Icon of Christ 'Not Made by Hands'.

Russian copy, undated, of the Icon of Christ ‘Not Made by Hands’.

The Imperial Chapel was targeted early on in the Russian Revolution by the atheist Bolsheviks, who ordered it closed for worship in May 1918 just two months after Emperor Nicholas II’s abdication. It is now used as an unconsecrated exhibition hall of the Hermitage Museum. Between 2012 and 2014 a comprehensive restoration project resulted in the recreation of the original design of the Court Cathedral. The icons, the candelabra, the standard lamps and pieces of the iconostasis, the pulpit, the lantern and the altar canopy were returned to their original place.

May divine services one day again be held in this beautiful church!

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