St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral

St. Petersburg, Russia | C.1762

Photo Credit: Teresa Freitas

Associated with the Russian Navy for over 250 years, the gorgeous gold and blue Baroque St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral has both military and royal history. Empress Elizabeth and Catherine the Great were both closely involved in this church, and the regal and impressive building honors centuries of naval history.

The area where the cathedral stands was originally settled by sailors during the reign of Peter the Great. A small, wooden chapel was built here for them in 1743, and was called, “St. Nicholas the Miracle Worker.” But as the population of the area grew, so did the need for a bigger chapel. Accordingly, Empress Elizabeth issued a decree to build a stone church for the naval regiments living nearby. Savva Chevakinsky, the Russian Navy’s chief architect, was commissioned to design the new church and he wisely raised the site by two meters (6.5 ft) to protect it from floods. Construction lasted from 1753-1762, though the main altar was consecrated in 1760 in the presence of Empress Elizabeth. Catherine the Great declared the church an official naval cathedral upon its completion.

The cathedral actually consists of two churches: the lower church on the ground floor, and the upper church on the second floor. The lower church is dedicated to St. Nicholas, patron saint of travelers and sailors, and the upper church is dedicated to the Epiphany, or the revelation of God incarnated as Jesus Christ.   

Several memorials decorate the walls of the upper church, honoring sailors fallen in battles. The walls of the chapel are also decorated with scenes from Russian Naval history. Ten spectacularly ornate, gold-framed icons in the main cathedral were a gift from Catherine the Great. The most revered of these is the icon of Nicholas the Miracle Worker, given to the church by Greek sailors, stolen by the French in 1812, and returned to Nicholas I by Prussians in 1835. 

With its five gold domes, baby blue facade, ornate columns, and stand-alone bell tower, the St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral remains a symbol of the city of St. Petersburg and an active center for Orthodox Christianity. Interestingly, it is also one of the few churches in the city that has never been closed, even serving as the bishop’s seat from 1941 to 1999.

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