When we walked outside our apartment to the edge of the Griboyedov Canal in central St. Petersburg and saw the onion domes of the Church on Spilled Blood about a kilometer in the distance, we knew we were in Russia. It is a stunning sight in a lovely old city. We were about 2 blocks off Nevsky Prospect on the Griboyedov and the church is about 3 or 4 blocks on the opposite side of this main street. Our visit was at the end of September and we had lovely cool but often sunny weather.
The church was built on the site of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. Because of the need to preserve the precise spot where Alexander fell and situate the church exactly, the canal was narrowed at this point and the platform of the church extends over the canal which can be seen in the picture at the head of this post.
Americans know Alexander II as the Russian Tsar who sold Alaska to the US. Alexander II was probably the most significant reformer of Russia during the period of the Tsars, his most notable accomplishment being the freeing of the serfs. He also created more democratic institutions, abolished capital punishment and reformed the judiciary. Apparently too little too late however and throughout his reign he was threatened by assassins. In 1881 they succeeded and he was assassinated with bombs on the streets of St. Petersburg. This led to a backlash that may have aided the revolution that was to overthrow his grandson and the imperial house a few decades later.
The church was built by Alexander III to memorialize his father. The exterior is stunning with a variety of finishes, icons of saints and interesting crosses and domes. The style is classic medieval Russian architecture; it harkens back to the image of St. Basils in Red Square in Moscow completed 300 years beforehand.
The canal is on one side of the church and there is a large park next to it on the opposite side which is a good place in summer for a stroll and a picnic. The wonderful Russian Museum is nearby so a nice day would combine a visit to the Church on Spilled Blood, with a stroll in the park and a visit to the museum.
Near the door where we entered the church, there is a jeweled canopy that marks the exact spot where the Tsar fell; the canopy is covered in precious and semi-precious stones, but the floor below it is the original cobblestones on which Alexander fell mortally wounded. The first bomb missed injuring him, but he got out of his carriage to confront the assailant allowing a second assailant to succeed with another bomb.
The church has never been a regular parish church but was used for memorial services; after the revolution it was used for vegetable storage, as a morgue during the Siege of Leningrad and generally abused. Over the last 30 years the mosaics have been restored and it now serves as a museum. There are 7500 square meters of mosaics. When you walk through the doors you are stunned by the ornate grandeur.
The mosaics cover nearly every inch of ceiling and walls.
There are charming little ‘Easter Eggs’ everywhere you look, like the faces of Christ and of a saint looking down at us from side domes.
The bejeweled holy gate which provides entrance to the altar beyond was heavily damaged during the Soviet period and all the enameled icons were lost; they have been recreated and replaced and were re-consecrated in 2012.
Here is a closer look at the gate set with jewels and carvings from semi-precious stones.
These screens to the left and right of the Holy Gate were also heavily damaged during the Soviet Period and the enameled saint portraits lost. There are facsimiles as placeholders now while new panels are being created.