Construction began in 1883 during the reign of Alexander III. The church was dedicated to be a memorial to his father, Alexander II. Estimates suggest that the construction cost 4.5 million rubles.The construction was complete during the reign of Nicholas II in 1907. Funding was provided by the Imperial family with the support of many private donors.
The Church is prominently situated along the Griboedov Canal; paved roads run along both sides of the canal. On March 13, 1881 (Julian date: March 1), as Tsar Alexander’s carriage passed along the embankment, a grenade thrown by an anarchist conspirator exploded. The tsar, shaken but unhurt, got out of the carriage and started to remonstrate with the presumed culprit. A second conspirator took the chance to throw another bomb, killing himself and mortally wounding the tsar. The tsar, bleeding heavily, was taken back to the Winter Palace where he died a few hours later.
A temporary shrine was erected on the site of the attack while plans and fundraising for a more permanent memorial were undertaken. In order to build a permanent shrine on the exact spot where the assassination took place, it was decided to narrow the canal so that the section of road on which the tsar had been driving could be included within the walls of the church. An elaborate shrine was constructed at the end of the church opposite the altar, on the exact place of Alexander’s death. It is embellished with topaz, lazurite and other semi-precious stones, making a striking contrast with the simple cobblestones of the old road, which are exposed in the floor of the shrine.
The Church contains over 7500 square meters of mosaics—according to its restorers, more than any other church in the world. This record may be surpassed by the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, which houses 7700 square meters of mosaics. The interior was designed by some of the most celebrated Russian artists of the day—including Viktor Vasnetsov, Mikhail Nesterov and Mikhail Vrubel — but the church’s chief architect, Alfred Alexandrovich Parland, was relatively little-known (born in St. Petersburg in 1842 in a Baltic-German Lutheran family). Perhaps not surprisingly, the Church’s construction ran well over budget, having been estimated at 3.6 million rubles but ending up costing over 4.6 million. The walls and ceilings inside the Church are completely covered in intricately detailed mosaics — the main pictures being biblical scenes or figures — but with very fine patterned borders setting off each picture.
Architecturally, the Cathedral differs from St. Petersburg’s other structures. The city’s architecture is predominantly Baroque and Neoclassical, but the Savior on Blood harks back to medieval Russian architecture in the spirit of romantic nationalism. It intentionally resembles the 17th-century Yaroslavl churches and the celebrated St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow.
In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, the church was ransacked and looted, badly damaging its interior. The Soviet government closed the church in the early 1930s. During the Second World War when many people were starving due to the Siege of Leningrad by Nazi German military forces, the church was used as a temporary morgue for those who died in combat and from starvation and illness. The church suffered significant damage. After the war, it was used as a warehouse for vegetables, leading to the sardonic name of Saviour on Potatoes.
In July 1970, management of the Church passed to Saint Isaac’s Cathedral and was used as a museum. The proceeds from the Cathedral funded the restoration of the Church. It was reopened in August 1997, after 27 years of restoration, but has not been reconsecrated and does not function as a full-time place of worship. The Church of the Saviour on Blood is a Museum of Mosaics. In the pre-Revolution period it was not used as a public place of worship. The church was dedicated to the memory of the assassinated tsar and only panikhidas (memorial services) took place. The Church is now one of the main tourist attractions in St. Petersburg.
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