Cathedral Heralds Rebirth of a Nation

The Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer revives national pride

by Sean Sprague

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For Russians, the Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer is more than an enormous landmark. For some it symbolizes the rebirth of a nation, for others it marks a people’s return to the faith of their fathers and, for others still, it is a crass folly.

Whatever view is taken, the cathedral, opened in 1997 and consecrated in August 2000, stands out as the latest chapter in an extraordinary real estate saga. Few plots of land have been subject to such dramatic turnarounds as the cathedral’s site on the banks of the Moscow River near the Kremlin.

For centuries, the Alexeyevsky Convent stood on the site until it was disassembled and moved to make way for a much grander project. That project, born of a vow made to God by Tsar Alexander I, would be a glorious cathedral to commemorate Russia’s victory over Napoleon in 1812.

No finer symbol of Russia’s triumph could have been built, the Tsar reasoned, than a cathedral to glorify God, the Orthodox Church and the Russian Empire.

The Tsar chose Moscow, not the then-capital city of St. Petersburg, as the site for this tangible sign of Russia’s spirit: Rather than let Moscow – the very heart of Russian civilization – fall into the hands of Napoleon intact, Muscovites fled, burning the city. It has been reported that the French Emperor, whose forces eventually occupied Moscow, watched helplessly as the ancient city smoldered, saying, “What a people, what a people, what a people.”

The victorious Alexander, however, did not live to see his vow materialized. The Tsar’s brother, Nicholas I, revived the idea, taking an active role in the design of the cathedral. Nicholas utilized the construction of the cathedral to further his own desire for Russia to return to her past, traditions that his predecessor, Tsar Peter the Great, had abolished in his campaign to modernize Russia a century earlier.

To Nicholas, Russia’s strength had been undermined by Western secular ideals, countering his belief in God, Orthodoxy and Empire. Ultimately, Nicholas approved the construction of the cathedral in the Russo-Byzantine style, which in a stroke ended the seemingly irreversible trend toward neoclassical architecture first imposed by Peter.

Konstantin Ton, who had come to the Tsar’s attention after designing the Church of St. Catherine in St. Petersburg in the style of old Russian architecture, was appointed architect. Work began in 1839 and, 44 years later, during the coronation year of Nicholas’s grandson, Alexander III, the Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer was completed.

The edifice had walls 13 feet thick and stood over 300 feet tall. The cathedral was lined with granite, faced with precious marbles and semiprecious stones, decorated with frescoes and lighted by more than 3,000 candles.

Until the collapse of the monarchy in March 1917, the cathedral stood as an official symbol of Russia’s return to its Orthodox roots. Christ the Redeemer was to become the site of important civic and religious events, including the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the death of the beloved St. Sergius of Radonezh, liturgies celebrating the 300th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty and the 100th anniversary of the defeat of Napoleon.

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Tags: Russia Russian Orthodox Church Architecture Frescoes