My Illlustrated Travel Journal with Essays about Roman and Mediaeval History and some Geology

  Russian Splendour - The Smolny Cathedral in St. Petersburg

Cathedrals are among the architectonic highlights of St.Petersburg and so the bus tours through town try to cover as many of them as they can cram into 3 or 4 hours. One photo stop was at the Smolny Cathedral and Convent, a group of Baroque buildings that's actually not so overdone with gold and marble, but has a pretty white and blue colour scheme.

Smolny Cathedral, St.Petersburg

The convent, placed at a bank of the river Neva, was originally built as retreat for Elizabeth, daughter of Tsar Peter the Great, who had been excluded from succession to the throne. But when Ivan VI was overthrown by his own royal guards, Elizabeth became tzar and had a whole row of palaces to live in.

In former times, the place lay outside the city and was the site where pitch for ship building was processed; the name Smolny derives form the Russian word for pitch - smola.

View of the cathedral and some convent buildings

This one was taken from out of the bus, thus the slightly green tinge. But I like the angle so I included it. You may notice the many cars on some of the photos - yeah, those are a pest in St.Petersburg. Six lane roads get blocked by them and there's always a concert of horn beeps. Though the main problem and bottlenecks are the bridges; not many of them can take major traffic, and Petersburg is criss-crossed by rivers and canals.

(one of the convent buildings; detail)

Work on the convent continued under Elizabeth's patronage, planned as combination of a Russian Orthodox nunnery and a girl's school which would become the first in the Russian Empire.

The convent was built by the Italian architect Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli (1700 - 1771) whose family had come to Russia while he was still a boy. The father had been invited to St.Petersburg by Tsar Peter the Great, and designed the Winter Palace (Eremitage), the Great Palace in Peterhof ouside town and the Yekaterisnky Palace in Tsarskoye Selo (today known as Pushkin), as well as some other Baroque buildings.

The son followed the father's footsteps. The cathedral and convent of Smolny were entirely his own project on which he worked from 1748 to 1764. But the cathedral was not yet finished when Elizabeth died in 1762.

Her daughter-in-law and eventual her successor (after her husband; Peter III, had been deposed and died under somewhat mysterious circumstances) was Catherine I. She did not like the Baroque style and so money for the cathedral project more or less dried up. Rastrelli could never build the bell tower he had planned and which was to be the highest tower in St.Petersburg, and the interior of the catherdral remained unfinished as well. Rastrelli left Russia in October 1763.

One of the convent buildings, seen from the yard side

But the convent buildings were put to good use as the Smolny Institute for Noble Girls and the Alexandra Institute for Burgeois Girls, the first schools for women in Russia. Later, the buildings were also used as fitting residence for rich widows. During the WW1, some of them served as lazarett.

Some convent buildings seen from the outside

The cathedral itself had never been used and fell into disrepair. At the time of Tsar Nicholas I it looked so desolate that he commissioned Vassily Stasov, a Russian architect, to repair and finish the building; a task that was completed in July 1835, when the cathedral was finally consecrated. Stasov added some neo-classical features in the taste of his time, but those are mostly visible in the interior which we didn't get to see due to lack of time.

Another view of the cathedral

After the revolution, the church was deprived of its religious furnishings by the Sovyet authorities. The convent buildings became the city headquarters of the communist party. In 1982, the cathedral was made into a concert hall, a function it keeps until today. The other buildings now house government institutions and some faculties of the St.Petersburg State University, namely the departments for sociology and political sciences. So there's some continuity, in a way.

  Russian Splendour - The Isaac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg

While I'm waiting for a book about the history of Göttingen that should put some light onto Otto of Braunschweig-Göttingen (Otto the Quarrelsome) for a post about him, here's some more Russian shiny stuff for you to enjoy; some photos I took of and inside the Isaac's Cathedral - Isaakievskiy Sobor in St.Petersburg.

St.Petersburg, Isaac's Cathedral

Let's start with some numbers for Constance. *grin* The cathedral is one of the largest sacral buildings with a cupola to be found in the world. It's 111 metres long, 97 metres wide and 101.50 metres high; the diameter of the cupola measures 26 metres. The interior encompasses 10,767 square metres and can hold 14,000 people. When I visited it, it looked like there were almost that many tourists.

Detail of one of the bronze doors

The cathedral, which is officially called Cathedral of the Holy Isaac of Dalmatia, was commissioned by Tsar Alexander I to commemorate the victory over Napoleon. It replaced an earlier church - the fourth in line on the site. The oldest, a timber building from 1707, was built by Peter the Great and dedicated to the saint that shared his birthday.

Isaac's Cathedral, interior

There was a special commission to decide on several designs submitted by architects, but in the end Alexander pulled the tsar, and his favourite, Auguste de Montferrand, won. The cathedral took 40 years to construct, from 1818 - 1858; interrupted several times because of static problems (ok, then there's still hope for the Berlin Airport).

Interior, view towards the iconostasis

It was not easy to take photos while staying close enough to my group not to lose them in the whirl of people and trying to avoid having a clutter of tourists on every pic, but I snatched some decent ones nevertheless. It's the disadvantage of group tours but without that I would not have gotten around in Petersburg in the first place. I visited the other towns on the cruise on my own, though.

Iconostasis, closeup

The splendid interior is dominated by ten huge columns of malachite; the floor, pilasters and other decorative elements are sculpted from various sorts of marble and granite from all over Russia; the walls and cupola are decorated with semi-precious stones, gold, and even gemstones, as well as large frescoes and mosaics by famous Russian artists. The three bronze gates were designed by Lorenzo Ghiberti, the columns of the porticos in front of the doors are granite.

View into one of the side chapels

The main iconostasis is also framed by malachite and lapis lazuli pillars The icons in the iconostasis as well as the other ones spread aroud in the cathedral have darkened over time and I only got few decent photos. It was another disadvantage of the crowds, the lack to really contemplate the paintings. While all that gold and marble stuff is a bit overdone for my taste, some of the icons were beautiful.

The cupola (slighly blurred because I was in a hurry)

During Soviet times, the cathedral became a Museum of Atheism, with a Foucault pendulum hanging from the main cupola. During WW2, it served as storage room for objects of art from the palaces in and around St.Petersburg. The dome of the cupola had been painted grey to prevent detection by German aircrafts; nevertheless, the cathedral suffered some damage but less badly than some other historical buildings. After the war, the cathedral was again reverted into a museum, this time about the History of Religion.

One of the icons

Today, the cupola sparkles golden in the sunshine again, and the interior has been renovated as well. The cathedral is still a museum, but no longer a themed one; it's simply the Isaac's Cathedral. It is still used for services on feast days, though.

  Border Castles and Conflicts - Castle Sichelnstein

Like most other minor castles I've posted about, the beginnings of the Sichelnstein are shrouded in obscurity and some names that may have been local legend rather than historical. To make things worse, the main source about the castle, the village website and guidebook, get some basic things wrong like misdating the Battle of the Lechfeld (it took place 955, not 933) and burying Otto the Quarrelsome in the wrong place, so I take the information it provides with a spoonful of salt.

The Saxon nobles Asic and Billing mentioned in Carolingian chronicles (811, 813), who fled from their own people and established local holds in the Frankian lands between Kassel and Göttingen, can not be connected with the later Sichelnstein family.

Remains of Sichelnstein Castle

The first person we can trace with more surety is one Wittilo who fought bravely at the Battle of Riade (933, also known as Battle of Merseburg, against the Magyars). King Heinrich I rewarded Wittilo by granting him the Sichelnstein as fief, and dubbing him. The ceremony took place during a diet in the palatine castle of Grona near Göttingen (nothing much remains of it, alas). This incident is a bit curious. One possible interpretation is that Wittilo was a ministerialis, a member of the legally unfree but still high ranking men serving in administrative functions at the royal court and as heavy cavalry in war. Heavy cavalry secured the victory at Riade which would have given Wittilo his chance to shine. Many ministeriales held fiefs to pay for their armour, but with less rights than freeborn nobles held their lands. An additional dubbing - if it is a realistic scenario; it's a bit too early for an established ceremony - could have meant that Wittilo gained the status of a freeborn knight. In that case he likely took his name of the castle from that time on.

The castle would not have been the present stone-walled building, but fortified by an earth wall and timber palisade, though the trench may have existed already. The houses were likely half-timbered; perhaps on stone foundations.

Sichelnstein, east wall with door

The feudal relationship was renewed under Otto I after Heinrich's death in 936, which means the fief was not allodial and likely indeed came to Wittilo first, and not to some obscure Carolingian ancestor.

The Sichelnstein family has left a few traces in chartes, several of them issued in Corvey monastery, so there may have been a connection (probably younger sons ending up there a few times) but nothing spectacular. When the empress Kunigunde, wife of Heinrich II, founded the Benedictine abbey in nearby Kaufungen in 1017, one Bardo of Sichelnstein was among the witnesses. Today, Kaufungen lies in Hessia, but at the time Hessia didn't exist as political entity (the landgraviate of Hessia was created in 1292); the land was likely crown land.

Walk along the northern curtain wall

The next fact we can prove is that the last of the Sichelnstein line, one Count Bardo, died in 1239 and was buried in Wahlshausen monastery at the Fulda river; the church still exists today. He may have been the same who killed his wife in 1189 but we can't say for sure. The Bardo who killed his wife had to answer at the diet of Fulda where King Heinrich VI (the son of Friedrich Barbarossa) first had him condemned to death but pardoned him to stay a prisoner at the monastery of Corvey. Bardo may have later returned to Sichelnstein, or the Bardo then living there was a relative. But the questionable website makes a mistake when it says that King Heinrich gave the Sichelnstein fief to Heinrich the Lion. The two men did reconciliate at the diet of Fulda after Heinrich the Lion's return from exile, and he was given back the allodial possessions of the Welfen family, but he was not granted any new fiefs. So if he got the Sichelnstein lands and castle, they must have been part of his allodial possession at that point. Because of the paucity of surviving documents, we can't trace the exact time when the Sichelnstein came into the hands of the Welfen

Sunlight sparks on the curtain wall

The Sichelnstein lands were definitely in possession of the Welfen family in 1372, when Duke Otto I of Braunschweig-Göttingen (our friend Otto 'the Quarrelsome') who had inherited the patchwork of Welfen lands in Lower Saxony, fortified the castle during his war with the landgrave of Hessia. Otto's mother was the daughter of Landgrave Heinrich II of Hessia who left no male heirs in direct line, so Otto claimed the lands. But so did several others, esp another nephew of the late landgrave Heinrich, and war broke out. Otto lost that war.

The Sichelnstein remained in Welfen hands. 1379, it was given to Otto's second wife Margarethe of Berg as dowry and widow seat. Margarethe survived her husband who died in 1394, by almost 50 years and lived most of the time in Castle Hardeg, but she visited the Sichelnstein a few times.

The trench at the western side

Later, the castle came into possession of the landgraves of Hessia. Maybe Otto's successors sold it or pawned it out; money was pretty tight in that branch of the Welfen family. It was probably damaged during the Thirty Years War and then abandoned, like so many other castles. Later it was used as quarry by the surrounding villages where you can hunt the stones in various old buildings.

Today only the lower part of the curtain wall remains, which is still a formidable sight. The interior contains the set up of a wooden stage and can be protected by a canvas roof; the castle is used for concerts in summer.

Seen from the south-west

The castle had once been surrounded by deep trench and only accessible via a drawing bridge that lead to the only gate in the east wall. Parts of the trench can still be seen at the western side of the castle; it still looks difficult to get across.

The groundplan of the castle shows an unusual horseshoe shape with the eastern side being straight and the western front curved. The curtain wall, built of basalt stones from the nearby Staufenberg Hill, still rises to 7-10 metres. Since it has no windows and the first traces of holdings for beams and a fireplace are at 10 metres heigth, the castle must once have been much higher, probably with half-timbered buildings like a palas sitting atop the stone walls like in this example (Falkenstein Castle in the Harz Mountains). Whether or not there had been towers can't be said for sure, but there likely was a battlement at the level of the stone walls since there are remains of arrow slits in some places.

Another view of the walls

The Sichelnstein was not a very large castle, but obviously strong enough to serve Otto the Quarrelsome as basis for his war with Hessia, so it must have looked more forbidding once, and you could cram a garrison inside if the men weren't wild about comfort.

Since the door was locked I could only peek through the grille to get a view of the empty interior. The height may have made up for the limited ground space.

The Lost Fort is a travel journal and history blog based on my travels in Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, and other places. It includes essays on Roman and Mediaeval history, as well as some geology, illustrated with photos of old castles and churches, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.
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Location: Germany

I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History which doesn't pay my bills, so I use it to research blogposts instead. I'm interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who hasn't yet gotten an Instagram account. :-)


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