St. Petersburg: The Venice of the North

by Cathy Locke

This month I turn my focus to St. Petersburg, the cultural center of Russia. Referred to as the Venice of the North, this city is an artistic masterpiece unto itself. St. Petersburg’s architecture, predominantly baroque and neoclassical, is packed with beautiful buildings, bridges and sculptures. The very best way to tour the city is via these small boats that wind through its many canals. Local restaurants offer wholesome country food in a setting similar to a grandmother’s house, warm and cozy. Shopping is abundant and includes fine art books and lovely fashion as well as the famous Russian Imperial Porcelain. It is considered a very romantic place and you will see lots of beautiful brides taking advantage of photo opportunities at every corner.

The State Hermitage Museum One of the great gems of St. Petersburg is the State Hermitage Museum, certainly one of the most beautiful museums I have ever had the honor to explore. This is one of the largest and oldest museums in the world. It was founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great and has been open to the public since 1852. The building itself is a work of art, a combination of Baroque and Rococo styles, referred to as Russian Baroque. The entrance alone is so magnificent, you will become overwhelmed upon entering. This museum is a combination of seven buildings, two of which were grand palaces to the czars, with a total of over 1,800 rooms.

The importance of a visit to this museum to an artist or lover of art really cannot be measured. Every major school of art is represented here. There are entire rooms dedicated to many great artists where you can see the evolution of their careers, making this a great teaching museum. On display are paintings that have never traveled to the western world, as well as gems like van Gogh’s last painting. This is the place where great Russian artists have come to study; Ilya Repin copied many of the paintings by Rembrandt. I must admit that it is the only museum in the world that has brought me to tears.

Three Great Cathedrals

Another great gem in St. Petersburg is its many magnificent cathedrals. Throughout the years the czars built a number of absolutely breathtaking cathedrals, which will render you speechless. There are three important cathedrals in St. Petersburg which should not be missed: St. Isaac’s Cathedral, Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood and Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan.

St. Isaac's Cathedral

St. Isaac's Cathedral is the fourth largest cathedral in the world after St. Peter’s in Rome, St. Paul’s in London and St. Maria in Florence. The Neoclassical exterior, which barely hints at the extraordinary rich interior, is faced with gray and pink granite with a total of 112 red granite columns. Inside, the altar wall is made up of a huge iconostasis that is framed in gold with semiprecious stones of malachite and lazurite. Carlo Brullo and other great Russian masters of the day decorated the interior with scores of paintings. This very formal-feeling cathedral is visited by thousands of tourists but never feels crowed or overrun by people.

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood

The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood is one of the main tourist sights of St. Petersburg, Russia. This church was built on the site where Czar Alexander II was assassinated and was dedicated in his memory. The cathedral harks back to medieval Russian architecture making it a unique structure in the St. Petersburg skyline. The church contains over 25,000 square feet of mosaics, more than any other church in the world. The interior was designed by some of the most celebrated Russian artists of the day—including Viktor Vasnetsov, Mikhail Nesterov and Mikhail Vrubel. The sensitivity of these artists have given this cathedral a very human feel, from its beautifully painted angels that embrace the altar, down to a painting of Jesus smiling from inside its highest dome.

Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan

Last July I had the honor of attending Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan and it was a religious experience! This enormous cathedral is located in the center of town on the famous Nevsky Prospect. Its beautiful exterior and uniquely detailed interior make it a worthwhile visit. Constructed from 1801 to 1811, its stunning façade is made up of 96 columns built in a wide semicircle opening onto a stately garden. The cathedral's huge bronze doors are one of three copies of the original doors of the Baptistery in Florence, Italy. The interior is laid out in the shape of a cross, lined with marble and semiprecious stones, and filled with beautiful sculptures and icons created by the best Russian masters. During Mass the huge gold-plated Gates of Heaven open up and a handful of priests emerge and begin singing. Their song is then answered by a choir located on the facing wall, far above our heads. Mass continues with this religious vibration of sound bouncing back and forth between the two. During Mass people move freely around the cathedral from one icon to the next, lighting candles and delivering their prayers. This is truly one of the most beautiful cathedrals you will ever visit.