St Catherine’s Chapel: the final resting place of Nicholas II and his family
PHOTO: view of St. Catherine’s Chapel, the final resting place for Emperor Nicholas II and his family
The 18th century Chapel of the Holy Great Martyr Catherine (aka St. Catherine’s Chapel or Catherine Chapel) is situated in the southwestern part of the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg. On 17th July 1998, it became the final burial place for Emperor Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, three of their five children and four faithful retainers.
PHOTO: the iconostasis of St. Catherine’s Chapel in 1890
The Chapel of the Holy Great Martyr Catherine was arranged in the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral at the end of the 18th century. During the restoration of the cathedral after the fire of 1756, an additional wall was erected inside the church hall, separating a small space in its western part. As a result, two new rooms were formed to the right and left of the main entrance. An iconostasis was installed, and on 24th November 1779, the altar was consecrated, in honour of the Holy Great Martyr Catherine – the patron saint of Empress Catherine II (1729-1796).
The chapel has a length of 8.1 meters (27 ft.), and a width of 6.3 meters (21 ft.), with one window and two doors facing directly into the cathedral. It was here in St. Catherine Chapel, that officials of the St. Petersburg Mint were sworn in. During Great Lent soldiers and officers of the garrison of the Peter and Paul Fortress and their families went for confession and took communion. On several occasions, funeral services were held here for the deceased minor grand-ducal children. The chapel operated as a church until the closure of the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral by the Bolsheviks in 1919.
PHOTO: the eastern entrance to St. Catherine’s Chapel in 1890
The first burial in the chapel was that of Tsarina Marfa Matveevna (1664-1716), the widow of Tsar Feodor III Alekseevich (1661-1682). The funeral took place on 7th January 1716 in the presence of Tsar Peter I, the royal family, and members of the clergy. During the ceremony of transferring the body, a platform on the ice of the Neva was used for the first time. Since the funeral procession took place in the evening, torchbearers were placed on both sides of the path, adding solemnity to the mourning procession. A completely new element of the mourning ritual was the prohibition of mourners and ritual weeping, which had previously been an indispensable element in Russian funerary culture.
The burial of Marfa Matveevna was one of the first to be held in Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral. Her tomb is located at the western wall under the bell tower in the south-western part of the current St. Catherine Chapel. In 1732 the tombstone over her grave was removed and the grave was partially closed, to make room for the foundations of the furnaces which heated the Catherine Chapel.
In the 1860s a copper plaque with an epitaph was installed on the western wall above the grave, and restored in 1908. During the opening of the floor in the St. Catherine’s Chapel during the restoration in 1993, the crypt of Marfa Matveevna was discovered and examined by scientists, who confirmed that her grave had remained untouched.
PHOTO: the Head of the Russian Imperial House Prince Nicholas Romanovich (1922-2014) throws a handful of earth into the grave
Burial of the remains of Emperor Nicholas II and his family
On 17th July 1998, the remains, according to the conclusion of the state commission, belonging to Emperor Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana and Anastasia Nikolaevna were buried in St. Catherine’s Chapel. Together with them were buried the family-physician Dr. Eugene. Botkin, the footman Alouis Troup, the cook I. M. Kharitonov, and the maid Anna Demidova. These remains were not recognized by the Moscow Patriarchate.
- Please refer to the ‘Exhumation of the remains’ section below for information on the remains of Tsesarevich Alexei Nikolaevich and Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna
Before the burial, a complete reconstruction of the chapel was carried out. In 1997, specialists from the Restorer and Olko firms carried out the work, which included painting the walls and plafond of the chapel. A two-tiered crypt (depth 1 m 66 cm, length 2 m 70 cm, width 1 m 70 cm) was built near the only window in the southern part of the chapel. The seal-tight crypt was waterproofed, thus providing ideal conditions for the preservation of the remains.
On the lower tier are the coffins of the family’s four faithful retainers, and on the upper tier are the coffins of the Emperor, Empress and their three daughters. An openwork lattice divides the crypt into two parts. The coffins were made of Caucasian oak, their surface is covered with a wax-turpentine mixture. Inside, the coffins are upholstered with copper sheet, and on top – a cover of white velour on silk white cords. On the lid of the coffin of Emperor Nicholas II there is a cypress cross (grown in the garden of the Livadia Palace in Crimea) and a model of a sword based on a 1909 model. The rest of the coffins of members of the Imperial Family have lids decorated with bronze, gilded, crosses. The coffins of the servants are decorated with silver-plated eight-point Orthodox crosses. As the valet Aloysius Trupp was a Catholic, a four-point cross decorates his coffin. The side decoration of the coffins consisted of: a brass board engraved (on which the names, title, place of birth and place of death (according to the Julian calendar) and the date of burial are embossed), as well as double-headed eagles for the seven coffins of members of the Imperial Family. Each coffin was secured with brass (non-oxidizing) screws. Lead plates were laid in the lid and in the coffin itself along the perimeter at the place of their connection, making them airtight after closing the coffin.
PHOTO: Russian president Boris Yeltsin (1931-2007) bows his head in front of the grave of the last Russian Emperor
The coffins were made in strict accordance with the historical traditions of the burial rites of Russian monarchs. After burial, the crypt was covered with reinforced concrete slabs, through the rings of which a steel chain closed on the lock was threaded. A temporary wooden tombstone was erected over the grave, and later replaced by a marble one. Memorial plaques with epitaphs were placed on the walls of the chapel. Later, the historical coating of the aisle, Mettlach tiles – was also restored.
At the present time, there are two crypts in the Catherine Chapel holding a total of 10 coffins:
- Tsaritsa Marfa Matveevna (buried on 7th January 1716)
- Emperor Nicholas II Alexandrovich (burial of remains on 17th July 1998)
- Empress Alexandra Feodorovna (burial of the remains on 17th July 1998)
- Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna (burial of the remains on 17th July 1998)
- Grand Duchess Tatiana Nikolaevna (burial of the remains on 17th July 1998)
- Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna (burial of the remains on 17th July 1998)
- family-physician Dr. Eugene Botkin (burial of remains on 17th July 1998)
- maid Anna Demidova (burial of remains on 17th July 1998)
- valet Aloysius Trupp (burial of remains on 17th July 1998)
- cook Ivan Kharitonov (burial of remains on 17th July 1998)
PHOTO: Members of the new ROC investigation inspect the Ekaterinburg remains
Exhumation of remains
In 2015 the Russian Orthodox Church announced that the investigation into the Ekaterinburg remains had been reopened. The investigation would include a new series of genetic studies, and a comprehensive review of the evidence accumulated since 1918 into the murders of the last Russian Imperial family. With the blessing of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill and at his request to the Investigative Committee a new team of experts was formed. A complex examination would be carried out for the first time – a historical, anthropological and genetic one – one in which the ROC would be involved in all aspects of the investigation.
As part of the resumption of the criminal case on the investigation of the death of the Imperial Family, the remains of Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna were exhumed on 23rd September 2015, in the Catherine Chapel at the request of the Russian Orthodox Church. About 20 people were present at the exhumation, which included representatives of the Investigative Committee, the Peter and Paul Fortress, the Russian Orthodox Church, and members of the government commission. Taking into account the position of the church, the investigative bodies allowed geneticists and anthropologists to work. After the removal of two concrete slabs from the crypt, the coffins of Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna were raised for prayer. During the procedure, samples were taken from their skulls and vertebrae. Upon completion, the remains were returned to their coffins, sealed and lowered back into the crypt.
PHOTO: arks containing the remains of Tsesarevich Alexei Nikolaevich and Grand Duchess Maria Feodorovna are carried to the Lower Church of the Transfiguration Cathedral of the Novospassky Monastery in Moscow in December 2015
In February 2016, a second exhumation took place, but this time all the remains. After taking samples, the remains were returned to their coffins, sealed and lowered back into the crypt and re-covered with slabs.
According to media reports at the time, the investigation should have been completed by the summer of 2017, after which the remains of Tsesarevich Alexei Nikolaevich and Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna would be buried with the rest of their family in the Catherine Chapel.
For years, the boxes containing 44 bone fragments of Alexei and Maria remained on dusty shelves in the Russian State Archives. On 24th December 2015, their remains were transferred to the Lower Church of the Transfiguration Cathedral at the Novospassky Monastery in Moscow, where they remain to this day.
In 2021, one unconfirmed report claimed that the remains of the last Imperial Family were no longer entombed in the Catherine Chapel of the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral. According to the report when their remains were exhumed for further testing by the new ROC commission in 2016, they were never returned to the crypt, however, there is no evidence to support this claim.
PHOTO: Queen Sirikit of Thailand’s Wreath
Offerings in St. Catherine’s chapel
In 2005, an icon of the Holy Royal Passion-Bearers was presented to the Catherine Chapel, made by the nuns of the Novo-Tikhvin Monastery in Ekaterinburg. In 2007, Queen Sirikit of Thailand paid an official visit to Russia on the occasion of the 110th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Russia and Thailand. The official offering was a wreath, which can be seen today in the Catherine Chapel. On the tombstone there is also a charoite box with earth taken from the grave of Anna Vyrubova, who buried in the Orthodox cemetery in Helsinki.
© Paul Gilbert. 6 March 2023
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