Savior on Spilled Blood. A Church Where All Icons Are Made in Mosaic Technique 

Anyone who has been to St Petersburg and walked along its central streets will certainly stop at the embankment of the Griboyedov Canal to admire this festively bright Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ, better known as the Savior on Spilled Blood. The splendour of this magnificent church consists of its small details, just like the mosaic that adorns it both in and outside. Today we would like to give you a glimpse of the most interesting historical facts related to this church, as well as the most unusual of the mosaic images decorating its walls.

Interesting Facts

The cathedral was erected on the site where the Russian Emperor Alexander II was mortally wounded by a bomb on March 1, 1881, as a result of another assassination attempt. This is how the temple got its second name – “Savior on the Blood”. It was immediately decided to immortalize the memory of the Tsar-Liberator, and within a month a small wooden chapel appeared in that place. Soon the new emperor Alexander III ordered the construction of a magnificent temple that would remind of the tsar’s death and at the same time give a sense of hope for the resurrection in God. 

According to this plan, the cathedral was consecrated in honor of the Resurrection of Christ and received a colorful and festive decoration of its in- and exterior. A fragment of the actual embankment where the royal blood was shed remained in the right part of the temple as a vivid reminder of the emperor’s painful death.

Work on the construction and decoration of the cathedral lasted 24 years, and Alexander III did not live to see its opening. The cathedral was consecrated in 1907, under the reign of Nicholas II and was never a parish church, i. e. it was used for neither baptisms, nor funeral or wedding services.

During the Soviet years there were plans to dismantle the cathedral, but they were stopped by the war, during which the cathedral was used as a morgue. 

In the 1960s during the reconstruction work that began in the church, a German high-explosive shell weighing 150 kg was discovered in the central dome, where the Pantocrator image of Christ is located. Miraculously it did not explode and remained there unnoticed for over 10 years.

After the extensive restoration works the temple was reopened to the public in 1997 almost in its original form, which is being maintained to this day.

The Mosaics

Today the Church on Spilled Blood is often called a museum of mosaics, since only mosaic compositions and absolutely no painted images are used in its decoration. In terms of mosaic area, the temple ranks first among all Orthodox structures and is considered one of the largest in Europe. The facades of the cathedral are decorated with about 400 sq. m. of mosaics, while the interior mosaic area amounts to more than 7000 sq. meters. 40 mosaicists and 32 Russian artists, including the famous V. Vasnetsov, M. Nesterov, V. Belyaev and the architect of the project A. Parland, worked on the creation of the holy images and compositions.

The exterior mosaic of the cathedral accentuates its main elements, while inside the mosaic compositions fill the entire space:

  • the central walls and vaults are dedicated to the earthly life of Christ;
  • in the western part of the church there are scenes of the Savior’s suffering, and in the eastern part – His appearances after the Resurrection;
  • the arched passages are decorated with Old Testament themes with the twelve feasts;
  • the columns are decorated with images of the apostles, martyrs and other saints;
  • even on the porches there is a floral ornament.

Distinctive Images

Among the variety of mosaics inside the church, I would like to highlight a few particularly rare ones. 

“Christ the Blessed Silence” inside the northeastern dome. The Savior is depicted as an Angel with wings before His coming to earth
The image of the Descent of the Holy Spirit
St. Alexander Nevsky praying in a home chapel

Among the images decorating the facades of the cathedral there are two that appear particularly interesting.

The large mosaic panel “Christ in Glory ” on the corbel arch of the southern facade pediment  was created according to N. Koshelev’s sketch. Its sparkling golden background appears especially powerful in combination with the variegated color of the image. In the center of the composition is the image of Christ surrounded by angels. The golden stream of rays emanating from Him, permeates the entire space of the mosaic. At the base of the throne are the kneeling figures of St. Nicholas of Myra, patron saint of Nicholas II with a book of the New Testament (on the right) and St Alexander Nevsky, patron saint of Alexander II (on the left). The prince is depicted holding in his hand a model of the Church on Spilled Blood. The mosaicist A. Frolov called this image one of his best works.

In the center of the western façade there is an open chapel with a mosaic of the Crucifix sheltered by a canopy. The mosaic was designed personally by the architect A. Parland. The Crucifix is the culmination point of Christ’s suffering and an important element of the entire concept of the church, because of the parallel drawn between the death of Christ on the cross and the martyrdom of the emperor. In the upper part of the mosaic, God the Father is depicted surrounded by six-winged seraphim. The Savior’s image is surrounded on both sides by images of St Zosimas of Solovki (commemoration day coincides with the birthday of Alexander II) and the Holy Martyr Eudokia (commemorated on the day of the tsar’s assassination). Both images appear in marble frames.  

It is impossible to describe the splendor and the great variety of mosaics created for many years in the Church on Spilled Blood. We have only glanced at a few radiant facets of this gem of a temple, but the fullness of its spirit can only be discovered by the fortunate souls that see it for themselves.

About the author

Anastasia Parkhomchik,
Literary editor and Orthodox journalist, member of The Catalog of Good Deeds team.

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