The Sts Peter and Paul Cathedral is one of the most interesting monuments of Baroque architecture. Its general shape is that of an elongated rectangle stretching from west to east; its eastern portion is topped by a drum crowned by a cupola, its western portion is surmounted by a bell-tower with a tall spire.

If one looks closely at the exterior of the cathedral, one immediately notices that the two pairs of volutes of the western facade are less expressive and contrast sharply with the two fine volutes of the eastern facade. One can also see that several large metal spikes extrude on the attic of the eastern facade, and that the drum awkwardly cuts into the two-gabled roof. All of these are a result of the not completely successful restoration of the cathedral after the terrible fire which occurred there on April 29, 1756, when a bolt of lightning struck the spire of the cathedral bell-tower. Twice lightning had struck the Sts Peter and Paul Cathedral prior to 1756, but without such catastrophic results.

The building of the stone Sts Peter and Paul Cathedral began in 1712. The unknown author of a small book about St Petersburg published in 1718 in Frankfurt and Leipzig wrote: “I can’t leave unmentioned the large church and tall tower which has begun to be built in the fortress. Judging by the models I have seen, this will be something marvellous, the likes of which cannot yet be found elsewhere in Russia. The tower is finished up to the rafters, it is of extraordinary height and good stone masonry… and good proportions… It was built by the Italian architect Trezzini. Since the wooden upper portion of the tower should be as high as the stone part, the tower will probably surpass in height all the towers of Germany. About the church one can say that it will have everything that can possibly be desired in a place where materials are difficult to acquire.”

The cathedral, consecrated on June 29, 1733, was, prior to the fire of 1756, a building consisting of three basic parts, compositionally connected to one another but nevertheless clearly distinguishable. The first part comprised the church building itself, in the form of an elongated rectangle with a slightly narrower altar, likewise rectangular. It was covered by a roof with a complex profile. The eastern facade of the building was topped by an attic with a curved pediment and two large volutes, decorated with wooden sculptures and vases which were supported by metal spikes. The western facade was topped by an attic with a triangular pediment and two other large volutes; this facade was also decorated by a portico which contemporaries termed “splendid”. As in all typical Baroque cathedrals the side facades – northern and southern – were considerably less elaborate. The second main part of the cathedral in 1733-56 was the drum, extending above the roof near the attic of the eastern facade and surmounted by a cupola which was crowned with a lantern and helmet-shaped dome. The third part of the cathedral was the square bell-tower with a complex top consisting of two octagonal cupolas with lanterns, a tall octagonal spire, a ball atop the spire and a cross with a flying angel crowning the ball (all these upper structures rested on a wooden base). Although the western facade of the bell-tower was projected as the continuation of the western facade of the cathedral, visually, before the fire of 1756, the bell-tower was perceived as “sprouting” from behind the attic with the triangular pediment.

Conceived by a Swiss-Italian architect for whom Russia became a second homeland and executed by skilled Russian stone- and woodworkers, the Sts Peter and Paul Cathedral, in terms of its exterior composition, was thoroughly original and had no analogues anywhere else in the world. At the same time as regards separate parts of the pre-fire cathedral, it is not difficult to find very interesting parallels in famous European churches of the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, outstanding as monuments of Baroque architecture. Thus, the design of the western facade of the cathedral was very similar to that of the main facades of the famous Roman Baroque churches of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – II Gesu and St Ignazio (neither of these two churches has a bell-tower). The Heilig-Geistkirche in Bern, built in 1722-29, with its bell-tower rising above its main facade square in plan and crowned by an eight-sided cupola, lantern and spire, immediately calls to mind the Sts Peter and Paul Cathedral the way it looked originally. Interesting partial parallels with the original Sts Peter and Paul Cathedral are further revealed in the London churches of St Bride, St Mary-le-Strand and St Martin-in-the-Fields.

The first was built by the famous English architect Sir Christopher Wren in the years 1670-1703; the second and third were built by the Scotsman James Gibbs in 1714-17 and in 1722-26, respectively. Just as the above-mentioned church in Bern, above each of these three London churches there rises a square-shaped bell-tower, and in the churches of St Bride and St Martin-in-the-Fields the bell-tower is crowned by an octagonal lantern and spire. It is interesting to note that since the Church of St Martin-in-the-Fields (considered to be the most outstanding of James Gibbs’ works) served as a model for many churches built in the eighteenth century in the United States of America, similarities may be found between the original Sts Peter and Paul Cathedral and a whole array of architectural monuments in that country, for instance the small St Paul’s Chapel in New York, built from the 1760s to the 1790s according to the plans of Thomas McBean. It should be added that in the original Sts Peter and Paul Cathedral the plan of the church building itself, as in all the above-mentioned foreign churches, is basilical, that is in the shape of an elongated rectangle, and that the spire as a decorative element was used widely in medieval architecture in Northern Europe. But one must not forget to mention a St Petersburg forerunner and partial analogue to the Sts Peter and Paul Cathedral, the Church of the Resurrection, built on Vasilyevsky Island when it belonged to Alexander Men-shikov, the first governor of the new Russian province, the centre of which became St Petersburg. The Church of the Resurrection, consecrated on November 23, 1713, and disassembled in 1730, was noted, in the words of its viewers, for its “handsome architecture” and “lovely tower” bearing a striking resemblance to the cathedral’s bell-tower.

During the 1756 fire the wooden roof of the Sts Peter and Paul Cathedral burned completely, as well as the cupola above the drum, the sculptures on the eastern facade and the entire complex structure surmounting the bell-tower. The portico of the western facade was also destroyed. In the years 1756-79 the cathedral was restored, but not to its exact former appearance. Above the church building proper a low gable roof now appeared, and the drum seems to cut crudely into it from above. The lantern above this drum became crowned with an ancient Russian onion-shaped cupola, fashionable in the mid-eighteenth century. The sculptures and vases of the eastern facade were not reconstructed, though, and the spikes supporting them before the fire were not removed. The Empress Catherine II personally saw to it in 1766 that the cathedral bell-tower be rebuilt “exactly as it was before”. Indeed, in terms of general silhouette, proportions and architectural decorations, the restored bell-tower is very close to the original. However, the western attic with a triangular pediment was not restored – it was replaced by two pairs of crude flat volutes. As a result, the western facade of the bell-tower began to be visually perceived as a continuation of the cathedral’s western facade, and the effect was lost of the bell-tower “sprouting” out from behind the attic with the triangular pediment. Now the cathedral ceased to be as clearly divided into three main parts as it was prior to the fire.

The restoration work on the cathedral bell-tower carried out in 1769-79 attracted widespread attention. One interesting account of this can be found in Zhivopisets (The Painter) – the satirical magazine which was published in 1772-73 by the famous Russian social figure and writer Nikolai Novikov. The hero of one of his satires, a provincial landowner, asks his son: “Write, dear Fala-leyushka, what’s going on there in Piter: they say, great endeavours are undertaken. They’re building a bell-tower and want it to be higher than Ivan the Great’s (the famous bell-tower in the Moscow Kremlin).” Speaking of the cathedral’s bell-tower, one is always reminded of the story of how in 1830 the roofer Piotr Telushkin carried out repairs on the cross and the angel atop it. Famed for his great physical strength, Telushkin climbed out onto the exterior of the spire through a small window in one of its eight sides, and holding on with only his hands and toes to the grooves between the squares of gold leaf on the spire’s ribs, he succeeded in encircling the entire spire, drawing a light rope behind him, and thus creating a rope loop. Now, by moving the loop upward and using hooks driven into some of the metal sheets, he was able to climb to the foot of the cross, from which he fastened a rope ladder extending back down to the window. With the help of the ladder he was able to climb easily to his “workplace” under the clouds and carry out the repair work. In the middle of the nineteenth century restoration work was once again carried out on the Sts Peter and Paul Cathedral. But this time its outer appearance remained unchanged. The badly weathered spire, lantern, and the cupola of the bell-tower, whose frameworks were of wood, were replaced in 1857-58 with replicas identical in form, but made of brick, dolomite and steel. At the same time and of the same long-lasting materials, the wooden lantern and dome of the cathedral’s cupola were rebuilt preserving their previous form, and the roof was partially replaced as well.

Little has survived of the cathedral’s original exterior architectural decorations. These include the pilasters supporting the mighty entablature, running around the entire building, the simple platbands of the large rectangular windows with moulded cherubs at the tops, and the moulded frame of the oval window in the eastern facade depicting clouds and cherubs. After observing the inside of the cathedral one will see that the image of cherubs constitutes one of the most characteristic decorative details of the cathedral interior as well.

As regards the modest porticoes above the western and southern doors of the cathedral, they appeared after the fire of 1756. The large image of Christ and the Apostles Peter and Paul, located in the attic above the eastern facade decorated with two splendid volutes, was created in 1873. Just as in the eighteenth century, the attention of viewers of the cathedral exterior is drawn to the bell-tower with its extraordinarily elegant spire (the overall height of the bell-tower is 122.5 metres). And the clock and chimes mounted in the bell-tower attract no less attention. They were made in Holland, in 1757-60, by the talented craftsman Barend Oort Krass. The clock and chimes have been restored on several occasions, for instance in 1857-58 when the spire, cupola and lantern of the bell-tower were replaced. During the restoration of the clock face, which took place in the same period, the bell-tower clock was provided for the first time with a minute hand. Prior to this, the lack of the minute hand in this main clock of the city was compensated by short chimes, ringing every quarter of an hour. And today, just as earlier, on the fourth ringing of the chimes within an hour a different hour chime rings out. Nowadays, in addition, the clock chimes ring out the Soviet National Anthem four times a day: at 6 a.m., midday, 6 p. m., and midnight. Near the eastern facade of the cathedral a small eighteenth-century graveyard has been preserved. Up to the beginning of the twentieth century the fortress commandants were buried here.

A covered walkway leads from the cathedral and connects it to the Grand Ducal Burial Vault – the Church of St Alexander Nevsky (the patron saint of St Petersburg), consecrated on November 23, 1908, and built specially for burial of members of the Romanov dynasty (by the end of the nineteenth century there was no longer any room to bury family members in the Sts Peter and Paul Cathedral). The overall height of the Burial Vault is approximately sixty meters. Its square-shaped central part, covered overhead with a big vault, is surmounted with a drum, dome, lantern and small onion-shaped cupola. The eastern side of the central part is adjoined by a rectangular altar; next to the western side is a rectangular vestibule. The facades of the Burial Vault are more ornate than those of the cathedral; they are decorated with pilasters, half-columns, vases, volutes, mosaic icons and sculptured images of cherubs; likewise richly ornate are the vaulted ceiling and oval windows in it, as well as the drum, dome and lantern. The Grand Ducal Burial Vault, whose architectural style may be termed eclectic, was built in 1897-1906 according to the design of David Grimm, Anton Tomishko and Leonty Benois. The three architects successfully selected the building site and height of the structure and likewise intentionally made the top of its dome similar to that of the cupola of the Sts Peter aad Paul Cathedral. As a result, the silhouettes of the cathedral and the Burial Vault harmonize with one another and with the entire architectural complex of the fortress.


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4 Dec 2008

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