Sacred Spaces: Smolny Cathedral (St. Petersburg)

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One of St. Petersburg’s most famous sites, the Smolny Cathedral is also one of its most unique, with a history that matches its strange name.  The Cathedral was intended as a sort of gift for Peter the Great’s daughter, Elizabeth.  As Elizabeth had decided to become a nun (a rash decision made after she was disallowed to take the throne after her father), Peter wanted to build her a great monastic complex with a beautiful central cathedral.

Things, however, changed when Elizabeth’s “[…]Imperial predecessor was overthrown during a coup, carried out by the royal guards[.]”  She was offered the throne and, as quickly as she had initially made her monastic plans, promptly forgot them.  While she gave up on the life of a nun, Elizabeth did not give up the idea of building a monastery.

“Smolny Monastery was designed by Italian architect Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli, who is also responsible for several other notable St. Petersburg landmarks such as the Winter Palace.”  The plans for the monastery laid out the buildings in the shape of a cross, with the Smolny Cathedral in the center and four smaller churches at the end of each “arm.”

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The name of “Smolny” is a unique one as the Cathedral is not named for a saint, holy figure, or location (as many other churches and cathedrals are).  The name  comes from the tar used to seal the hulls of the czar’s ships at the nearby docks.  It is unclear who named the Cathedral or why, but the name certainly separates the Smolny Cathedral from other sacred spaces.

Construction began in 1749 and the exterior of the Cathedral was finished in 1764.  The Cathedral was certainly a site to behold:

“Graceful bright blue building of the cathedral is decorated with lush snow-white open-work of stucco cornices, columns, pilasters and a number of other decorative items. The facades of the cathedral are abundantly decorated with gold giving the building rich elegant look. All this makes the Church a true masterpiece of Russian architecture in the style of Russian baroque.”

After Elizabeth had stepped down from the throne, the funding for the monastery dwindled.  Catherine II, who took up the throne after Elizabeth, allowed this to happen as she disliked the Baroque-style architecture.  This left the interior of the Cathedral unfinished.  Thus, neither Elizabeth nor Rastrelli ever saw the beautiful cathedral in its completed glory. 

In 1835, however, “architect Vasily Stasov developed new plans that provided for a more neo-classical interior in line with the architectural tastes of the time period.”  The interior was then completed and the Cathedral was consecrated.

In its time, the complex served as the Institution for Education (a school for the daughters of aristocrats).  “Lenin lived [there] in early 1918 before the complex became the city’s headquarters of the communist party.”  Unfortunately, during the Soviet regime, the Smolny complex fell into disrepair.  It might have been demolished if not for new interest in its history during the 1980s.  The complex was then given a full restoration.  Today, the Smolny Cathedral serves as a concert hall while the other structures of the complex are used for government offices or classrooms for the St. Petersburg State  University.

Tour the Smolny Cathedral

The video below gives a wonderful view of the Smolny Monastery as well as the Cathedral itself.  Click here to view the video directly on YouTube.

Sacred Spaces Blog Series

Want to learn more about the world’s most unique and fascinating sacred spaces? Follow the links below to other pieces from our Sacred Spaces blog series!

Basilica di San Marco (Venice) | St. Issac’s Cathedral (St. Petersburg) | Monastery of the Kiev Caves (Kiev) | St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral (St. Petersburg) | The Duomo (Florence) | The Hagia Sophia (Istanbul) | Cathedral of St. Sophia (Novgorod) | Church of Our Savior on  Spilled Blood (St. Petersburg) | The Church of the Ascension (Kolomenskoye) | St. Basil’s Cathedral (Moscow) |The Churches of Kizhi Pogost | Monastery of Panagia Elona

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