Christ the Saviour Church in Moscow, Russia

Moscow's Church of Christ the Saviour is the world's highest Orthodox church. Torn down by Stalin, it now shines again in its old splendour and exceeds all expectations of the splendour of an Eastern European cathedral.

The massive Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in the Russian capital Moscow is the main cathedral of the Russian Orthodox Church. The world's tallest Orthodox church (if you disregard the bell tower of St. Petersburg's Peter and Paul Church) is one of our top 10 sights of Russia. The monumental church holds up to 10,000 people and is decorated inside and out with ornate sculptures and paintings.


PICTURES: Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow

Photo gallery: Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow

Difficult birth of the Moscow Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was to be built in thanksgiving for the Russian victory over Napoleon in the Patriotic War. The construction of churches to commemorate military successes was a tradition in Russia, and St Basil 's Cathedral and Kazan Cathedral on Red Square were also built for this reason. The tsar of the time, Alexander I, had the vision of building a church whose dimensions would surpass anything that had been seen before, in order to demonstrate the power and greatness of the Russian Empire.

The architectural competition for the design of the church was won by the Swedish-born Alexander Witberg, whose original plans envisaged a 250-metre-high complex with enormous columns, domes and portals, reminiscent of St Peter's Basilica in Rome. All victims of the Patriotic War were to be buried in this monstrous church.

But the subsoil on the Sperlingsberge mountains turned out to be too unstable for such a huge structure and the construction work stalled. When the architect was also banned for stealing building materials, construction was halted at the end of the 1820s.

The large dome of Christ the Saviour Church in Moscow, Russia, has a diameter of around 30 metres and is almost 80 metres high - © vladimir salman / Shutterstock
© vladimir salman / Shutterstock

A few years later, the Russian-German architect Konstantin Thon produced a new design that fitted into the traditional Byzantine architecture of Moscow's city centre and envisaged the location of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour on the banks of the Moskva. Tsar Nicholas I approved the proposal and construction work could begin in 1839. The construction was financed by the state and by numerous donations from the faithful.

Russia's best master painters were commissioned to decorate the interior. In 1881, the assassination of Tsar Alexander II intervened, but in 1883, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour could finally be solemnly consecrated under Tsar Alexander III. From then on, it was the centre of Russian Orthodox life in Moscow. In addition to church services, it also hosted festive ceremonies and, for example, the premiere of Tchaikovsky's successful 1812 Overture.

From the Palace of the Soviets via a bathhouse back to the Cathedral

The massive Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow is the world's tallest Orthodox house of worship, Russia - © Chamille White / Shutterstock
© Chamille White / Shutterstock

After the revolution, the church increasingly lost its importance. After Josef Stalin wanted to build the "Palace of the Soviets" on its site, which at 415 metres was unimaginably high at the time, the days of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour were numbered. In 1931 it was blown up.


However, the Second World War interfered with the construction of Stalin's monstrosity and after his death no one was interested in the Soviets' sinfully expensive palace. Instead, a bathhouse was built from the existing foundations.

Atthe end of the 1980s, the awareness of Orthodox culture in Russia took on a stronger form again and in 1990 a citizens' initiative campaigned for the reconstruction of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. This wish was granted two years later by the then Russian President Boris Yeltsin. This time, the financing of the 170 million US dollars was provided entirely by organisations and private individuals.

In order to build the cathedral as true to the original as possible, the old plans, photos from the archives and the memories of contemporary witnesses were used. This time, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was made of reinforced concrete instead of bricks and the construction took only 7 years instead of 44. Thus, the new cathedral could be opened to the public on 31 December 1999, symbolically on the 2,000th birthday of Christ and to welcome the new millennium.

Christ the Saviour Cathedral today

Tsar Alexander I wanted to demonstrate Russia's power and greatness by building the Church of Christ the Saviour in Moscow - © Natalia Pushchina / Shutterstock
© Natalia Pushchina / Shutterstock

The arched windows and gates of Christ the Saviour Cathedral and its four pointed bell towers still bear witness to the "pseudo-Russian architectural style" popular at the time. The five Byzantine domes were covered with a total of 12 kilogrammes of gold leaf (at that time, due to the less sophisticated technology, it was 400 kilogrammes), the largest of which has a diameter of 30 metres. The large dome in the centre and the four small ones around it are supposed to symbolise Jesus Christ and the four evangelists.

The enormous interior of the church is almost 80 metres high and is dominated by a nearly 30-metre high main altar in the form of a chapel, which is decorated with countless elaborate paintings of saints. The fantastic paintings continue on the walls of the entire cathedral and mainly depict figures from the Old and New Testaments and Orthodox saints. The largest fresco, 16 metres in diameter, is located directly under the dome and depicts the Holy Trinity.

The Church of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, Russia, is decorated inside and out with ornate sculptures and paintings - © Ekaterina Bykova / Shutterstock
© Ekaterina Bykova / Shutterstock

There is, however, one difference to the original cathedral: in the basement of Christ the Saviour Cathedral there is on the one hand the new Christ the Redeemer Church and on the other hand a museum about the eventful past of the magnificent place of worship with original fragments from the original cathedral. An event hall, festival halls and a meeting room for the Russian Orthodox Synod can also be found there.

Related links:

Official website of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour