The Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul: The guardian of St. Petersburg

This symbol of Russia’s northern capital began life as a barrier against a Swedish invasion.

Photographs by William Brumfield

St. Petersburg is one of the world’s youngest great cities. Tsar Peter I (the Great) first had the idea to start construction on the marshy delta of the Neva River in Spring 1703 during the third year of a conflict with Sweden known as the Great Northern War.

After a series of skirmishes between the Swedes and Russian troops commanded by Prince Boris Petrovich Sheremetev, Russian ships could finally sail from Lake Ladoga down the short length of the Neva to the Gulf of Finland. To control access to this new channel, Peter needed a fortress at the river’s mouth.

A reconnaissance of the Neva estuary revealed a small, well-protected site known as Hare's Island. Its size and situation suggested a natural fortification, and work began on May 16, 1703 (May 27 according to today’s calendar).

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Some 20,000 conscripted laborers raised earthen walls and bastions under the most primitive conditions, but the work proceeded briskly under the supervision of Alexander Menshikov. By November the fortress of Sankt Piter Burkh –"Saint Peter's Burg" – had its basic structure.

It was named in honor of the Russian Orthodox festival of Saints Peter and Paul (June 29) but rendered in Dutch, the language of a culture much admired by Peter.             

When Peter won an epochal victory over the Swedes at the Battle of Poltava in 1709, the purpose of the fortress changed. It would no longer be a military installation securing Russia’s holdings in the region, but a symbol of a new capital of Russia.

How to get there

The Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul is located in the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg.

Swiss-Italian engineer Domenico Trezzini was charged with implementing the tsar’s vision for a new style of Russian architecture, including the replacement of the earthen walls of the original fortress with masonry works.

Within the fortress, Trezzini's design of the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul represented a sharp departure from traditional Russian church architecture. Trezzini created an elongated rectangular structure whose modest baroque dome, on the eastern end, is subordinate to the tower and spire placed over the west entrance.

Indeed, the tower was the main focus of Peter's interest and had priority over the rest of the structure, which was not completed until 1732. Rapid construction of the tower created a platform from which Peter could survey the progress of the construction going on over the entire area, and it also provided a frame for a carillon with chiming clock that the tsar had commissioned in Holland.

By 1717, Trezzini had completed the basic structure of the tower. The spire was assembled in 1720 and the carillon was installed that same year. By 1723 the spire, gilded and topped with an angel holding a cross, reached a height of 367 feet, which exceeded the belltower of Ivan the Great in the Moscow Kremlin by 104 feet. The spire resembles the 17-century Baroque architecture of northern Europe, with its large volutes bracing the lower tiers of the tower and classical elements in the ascending levels.           

The large windows that mark the length of the cathedral are unprecedented in Russian church architecture and provide ample illumination for the banners and other imperial regalia that adorn the interior.

It is not clear whether this great hall was originally intended to serve as a burial place for the Romanov tsars, but beginning with the death of Peter the Great (whose funeral was held in a temporary wooden church erected within the walls of the uncompleted cathedral), the church assumed this function from the Archangel Cathedral in the Kremlin.

The interior of the cathedral is divided into three aisles by faux marble piers with gilded Corinthian capitals. The ceilings are decorated with colorful trompe l'oeil paintings that seem to extend the space of the vaulting. On the upper levels, the walls display panels on religious themes, painted in the Western manner by a collective of Russian artists.           

The centerpiece of the interior, however, is the gilded icon screen beneath the dome in the eastern end of the church. Russian craftsmen had long excelled in wood carving, and these skills were readily adapted to the new Baroque style, of which this icon screen is the most accomplished example. Its design, by Ivan Zarudnyi, bears a close resemblance to the triumphal arches erected to celebrate events of state, and particularly Peter's victories.

The frame was carved between 1722 and 1726 in Moscow and assembled at the cathedral in 1727. Its exuberant display includes allegorical figures, trumpeting angels and cherubim, twisted columns and broken pediments – all surrounding a central icon of the ascension.

Some of the more elaborate ornamentation of the cathedral was lost after a lightning strike and fire in 1756, although a prompt response by the garrison preserved the icon screen and much of the interior work. The rebuilding of the roof, cupola, and spire by Bartolomeo Rastrelli and Savva Chevakinsky, known for their lavish baroque churches, preserved the essential features of the original structure.           

During the 18th century many other administrative and garrison buildings were constructed within the fortress, including an enclosed pavilion for Peter's small boat and the state Mint. But the center of the fortress – and, indeed, of the city itself – will forever remain the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, crowned by a golden spire and a guardian angel.

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