In 1774 Catherine the Great ordered a palace be built as a rest stop on the route from the Winter Palace in St Petersburg to the Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo. Geographically it is almost at the half way point between the two but it held more significance than that for the Tsarina. She was en route to her summer home and stopped at the 7th verst (an old measurement which is not quite a mile but longer than a kilometre) from St Petersburg when she received news of the Russian victory at Chesma.
Yuri Felton design a two story structure in the "Medieval" style - a triangular building with turrets at each corner and a central tower. It is said that Felton took his inspiration from Longford Castle in Wiltshire. Created in the neo-Gothic style to give the impression of the age of chivalry its walls were covered with family portraits of Catherine's ancestors and royal relatives. Catherine often lodged foreign ambassadors there, giving them a "visual reminder" of her impressive lineage. It was opened to the court in 1777 and was first called, not very appealingly, the Kikerieksen Palace or The Frog Swamp Palace, taking its name from the Finnish name for the area. Catherine often referred to it as La Grenouille however in 1780 the complex was renamed Chemenskaya after the famous battle.
But as well as the Palace Catherine commanded that a church be built as thanksgiving for the first Russian naval victory since the time of Peter the Great. In 1777 the corner stone of what is arguably the most beautiful church in St Petersburg was laid in the presence of King Gustav III of Sweden. On June 24, 1780 the marzipan church, in the pseudo-gothic manner, was consecrated and dedicated to the Saint John the Forerunner. It is interesting to note that Felten's creation has a certain Turkish exoticism mixed in with the Anglo influences that were favoured in the design of many of Catherine's places and parks. Gothic revival and neo-gothic architecture were to become all the rage throughout Russia, it is said as a symbol of a "triumph for ancient northern virtues in the spirit of the crusaders."
|Construction was begun on Chesmenskaya in 1777 in the presence of royalty and with great ceremony and celebration. At its consecration three years later Joseph II, the Holy Roman Emperor joined Catherine for the solemnities and festivities.|
|The long vertical white stripes and horizontal fascias|
look like they were applied with a gigantic cake decorator.
|The pink brick and white stone decorations give the church the appearance of|
a delicious candy confection. Even the Stalinist landscape that
currently surrounds it has difficult keeping it earth bound.
The Empress loved Chesma and always spent the Saint's feast day and Shrovetide at the palace. Celebrations included the Holy Liturgy, fireworks, country fairs and a grand feast with friends and foreign dignitaries. Shrovetide brought sleigh rides and skating while the June feast meant sailing and concerts on the water. Catherine entertained there on a grand scale and in 1773 had a special dinner service commissioned for the Palace which once again reflected her love of things English. Josiah Wedgewood created a dinner service for 50 at the astronomical cost of £3000. It has been reported that it cost him almost £4000 to paint and fire the set but the loss was justified by the fame the set brought to his factory.
|The 952 pieces of the Wedgewood Frog Service were painted with scenes of English castles, parks and gardens and can be valued as much for its historical look at venues long forgotten or destroyed as for its unique place in the world of ceramics.|
At Catherine's "suggestion" each of the 952 pieces was to have unique views of British castles, palaces, churches, ancient monuments, landscapes and parks - 1,224 in all. Catherine had also requested that the buildings be in the Gothic style. At one point Wedgewood had begun to despair of having enough vistas to complete the set but hit upon the idea of making it the "fashion" to have your home - humble or palatial - painted for the Royal dinner service. He soon found that anyone with a property with the least pretensions of being in the Gothic mode was clambering to be included and he had more than sufficient subjects for his team of three painters. Each piece bore the crest of a small frog (left) marking it as the service meant for use at Chesma. Court records show it was used for great occasions such as Gustav III's visit for the corner stone laying of the church in 1777. The entire set is now in the Hermitage though odd pieces - pieces that were flawed and not suitable for presentation to the Tsarina - have found places in other collections around the world.
The church was closed and its icons expropriated as property of the people and taken to the Hermitage. The building was used as a warehouse and in 1930 a fire destroyed the unique iconostasis that Felton had designed in the Italian style. Situated so close to the front line both the Palace and Church were badly damaged during the 900 day Siege of Leningrad. The Palace was indifferently restored in 1946 and served as the headquarters of the Leningrad Institute of Aviation Instrument Making.
The church building was renovated in the 1970s and served as a museum to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Victory of Chesma. In 1990 was returned to the Diocese of St Petersburg and in 1998 the iconostasis was rebuilt according to Felton's original designs. As well as being one of the historic glories of St Petersburg - though strangely not always on tour itineraries - it is now an active parish church seeing to the needs of its community as well as looking after the traditions of the past.
26 June - 1718: Tsarevich Alexei Petrovich of Russia, Peter the Great's son, mysteriously dies after being sentenced to death by his father for plotting against him.
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