The Smolny Cathedral’s stunning blue-and-white building is undoubtedly one of the architectural masterpieces of the Italian architect Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli, who also created the Winter Palace, the Grand Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo, the Grand Palace in Peterhof and many other major St. Petersburg landmarks.
The cathedral was built between 1748 and 1762 and served as the centerpiece of a convent, built to house the daughter of Peter the Great, Elizabeth, after she was disallowed to take the throne and opted instead to become a nun. However, as soon as her Imperial predecessor was overthrown during a coup, carried out by the royal guards, Elizabeth abandoned the idea of a stern monastic life and happily accepted the offer of the Russian throne.
When Catherine II assumed the throne, it was found that the new Empress strongly disapproved of the baroque style, and funding that had supported the construction of the convent rapidly ran out. Rastrelli was unable to build the huge bell-tower he had planned and unable to finish the interior of the cathedral.
On the orders of Emperor Nicholas I in 1832, work began on the final completion of the cathedral. The building was only finished in 1835 by Vasily Stasov with the addition of a neo-classical interior to suit the changed architectural tastes of the time. The Cathedral was consecrated by Metropolitan Seraphim of Novgorod and St Petersburg on 20 July 1835; its main altar was dedicated to the Resurrection and the two side altars were dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene and Righteous Elizabeth.
In contrast to the light and vibrant exterior, the Smolny Cathedral’s interior strikes one with its unexpected austerity and cold solemnity. It has none of the lavish gilt carvings, so characteristic of baroque, neither does it have bright and vivid paintings, or abundance of fanciful ornaments. The reason for this lies in the cathedral’s construction that lasted nearly 100 years.
The cathedral's lavish Baroque exteriors give way to simple Neoclassicism interiors
In designing the interior, Stasov faced a number of challenges. It was 80 years since the construction of the cathedral began. The lavish baroque style gave way to neoclassicism. Rastrelli’s design at that time was regarded “old fashioned”, overloaded with decorative details and, on top of all that, costly. Stasov’s adherence to simple forms led him to introduce quite a few alterations in the design in his pursuit for simplicity and austerity. The white colour of the walls and restrained stucco emphasize the perfect proportions of Rastrelli’s architecture. The tall arches seem to carry the sturdy pillars with them, while hoisting the dome drum upward. All along the walls in the hall and in the dome drum are tall windows that make the huge cathedral appear incredibly lightweight and imbued with light.
Unfortunately, the cathedral’s interior has not survived – gone are its carved, white and gilded iconostases, its magnificent balustrades of crystal balusters, glowing in sunshine of a light filled hall, a carved pulpit, and bronze chandeliers. Only images of the Cathedral’s interior dating from the second half of the 19th century came down to us.
The church was looted by the Soviet authorities in 1922, and in 1923, it was closed down for worship by the Petrograd Council. The iconostasis of the cathedral was dismantled much later in 1972.
In the 1970-80s, the Smolny Cathedral became a branch of the State Museum of History of Leningrad. It housed a display celebrating Leningrad’s past and present industrial achievements. In January 1990, a concert and exhibition hall was established in the Smolny Cathedral, affiliated with the Museum of the History of Leningrad. In 2004, the Smolny Cathedral became part of the State Museum St Isaac’s Cathedral.
On April 7th, 2010, for the first time in 90 years, a divine liturgy was celebrated in the Smolny Cathedral.
Divine liturgies are held in the Smolny Cathedral throughout the year
Today the Smolny Cathedral is still used primarily as a concert hall, with performances by the Smolny Cathedral Chamber Choir. The surrounding convent houses various offices and government institutions. On October 2nd, 2013 the St. Petersburg city authorities voted to return full ownership to the Russian Orthodox Church.
© Paul Gilbert @ Royal Russia. 27 October, 2013