The fate of the Tsarskoye Selo Palace Hospital cave church

PHOTO: The cave church at the Palace Hospital, Tsarskoye Selo

In March 1915, the churches at the Palace Hospital at Tsarskoye Selo: the upper one – the Church of Sorrow (in the name of the icon of the Mother of God) and the lower one – Church of Tsar Constantine and Helena – were transferred from the diocesan department to the Court, in which they remained a part of until 1917.

Work on the construction of the unique lower church at the Palace Hospital began in the summer of 1913. Its creation was made possible thanks to a donation of 10,000 rubles by the St. Petersburg Orthodox merchant of French origin Jacob Rode.

According to the decision of the Construction Committee, the church was planned in the style of the ancient “cave” churches of the 5th-6th centuries. The Russian Court architect Silvio Danini (1867-1942) and Sergei Nikolayevich Vilchkovsky (1871-1934) received permission from the director of the Imperial Hermitage, Count Dmitry Ivanovich Tolstoy (1860-1941), to familiarize themselves with the literature, photographs and art samples of early Christian buildings in the imperial library to carry out their work.

The main feature of the cave church was the unusual altar barrier, which replaced the iconostasis. Two marble pillars, which displayed the icons of the Saviour and the Mother of God, had low latticed doors. Behind them, across the entire width of the vault, was a purple curtain with embroidered ornaments of yellow silk in two tones. The sketches of the utensils were ordered from Sergei Vashkov, the icons from Nikolai Emelyanov, both in Moscow.

PHOTO: Architect’s drawing of the Altar barrier (above); and
cross section of the cave church (below). 1913

An altar cross made of gilded metal with multi-coloured stones was inserted into the wall, and the head of Christ was depicted above it. From the northern part of the barrier in front of the apse there was an altar, from the southern – a paralytic (teaching chapel), in which the Byzantine queens listened to the liturgy in ancient times. In the paralytic there was an armchair for the empress; near the apse arch were armchairs for the emperor and the patriarch.

Empress Alexandra Feodorovna wrote on 21st October 1914 to Nicholas II: “We went to inspect the small cave church located under the old palace hospital, there was a church there in the time of Catherine II. It was arranged to commemorate the 300th anniversary [of the Romanov dynasty]. The church is absolutely charming. Everything in it was selected by Vilchkovsky in the purest and most ancient Byzantine style, perfectly sustained. You must see it. The consecration will take place on Sunday at 10 o’clock, and we will take there those of our officers and soldiers who can already move independently. There are tables with the designation of the names of the wounded, who died in all our Tsarskoye Selo hospitals, as well as the officers who received the St. George’s Crosses or the Golden Weapon for Bravery.”

The consecration of the church, however, did not take place until 26th October 1914.

On the eve of this event, before the all-night vigil, Vilchkovsky presented the empress with a report describing the cave church. At the same time, Alexandra Feodorovna “… ordered to turn the lower church into a monument to the heroic deeds of mercy, treatment and charity of those soldiers wounded during the war and to record on the walls with the inscribed names of all the soldiers who passed through the hospitals of the Tsarskoye Selo region and were awarded for military distinctions as well as the wounds of the deceased.”

During the First World War, a pavilion was built in the garden of the hospital according to Danini’s project, for 30 wounded officers of Her Majesty’s Own Infirmary No. 3, paid out of the empress’s personal funds. Until her arrest in February 1917, the empress worked as an operating nurse in the infirmary, assisting the surgeon Vera Giedroyc, with the assistance of her two eldest daughters Grand Duchesses Olga and Tatiana Nikolaevna.

PHOTO: A plaque dedicated to Empress Alexandra and her daughters, Grand
Duchesses Olga and Tatiana Nikolaevna for their contribution from 1914-1917

The church was closed in 1933. Today, practically nothing remains of it, most of its of the interior decoration and contents, have been lost. Only individual elements have survived, in particular, a lamp, an icon lamp and candlesticks, which are today in the collection of the Museum of the History of Religion in St. Petersburg.

During Soviet times, the hospital was renamed the city hospital No. 38 named after N. A. Semashko. In recent years, a plaque honouring Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, Grand Duchesses Olga and Tatiana Nikolaevna was erected on the grounds of the hospital. Sadly, the church has not been restored.

© Paul Gilbert. 3 April 2021

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