Turkish Defeats

The inspiration here was not things Turkish but a Russian victory over the Turks on July 7, 1770.  The destruction of the Turkish fleet at Chesma was the final victory in a battle that had begun on  June 24, 1770, the Nativity of St John the Forerunner (the Baptist) and it led to the construction of one of the most delightful churches in all of St Petersburg. Even amongst the bonbon colours and decorations of so many of the buildings in the city and surrounding countryside the Church of St John the Forerunner at Chemenskaya stands out as one of the most elegant confections imaginable.

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.

An early lithograph of the complex at Chesmenskaya – the place where Catherine the Great heard of the defeat of the Turks at the hands of Count Orlov and Admiral Spiridov. It was originally known as the Kikerikeksen or Frogs Marsh Palace but with the consecration of the church in 1780 the entire neighbourhood became known as Chesma.

Catherine had her favourite architect 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.

The Kikerieksen Palace was triangular in shape with three turrets and a central tower. The plan appears to derive from the elevations of Longford Castle which had been published in 1771. Its hard to imagine from this floor plan what the room set up was. However often rooms of the period were multipurpose with the furniture defining what their function was to be.

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 palaces 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 fasciaslook 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 (above 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.

Converted to an almshouse for veterans of the War of 1812 by Nicholas I, the addition of two wings made it suitable home for the war heroes of that conflict. Sadly its 20th century history was to be less honourable and it had the distinction of being the first Soviet labour camp.

With changing modes of transportation and improved roads the need for a stopover between the summer and winter residences became unnecessary and in 1830 Nicolas I had the Palace converted into an almshouse for veterans of the War of 1812.   To house the 400 soldiers and 16 officers, many wearing the Cross of St George, Russia’s greatest honour, three wings were added to the structure and the care of the grounds and adjacent military cemetery given to the new occupants.  The tradition of Holy Liturgy and banquets on the feast day of St John was to continue until 1919 when the military almshouse was disbanded and the building became Chesmenka, the first forced labour camp under the Soviet regime.

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 it 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.

On my original post in June of 2012 I was unable to provide a picture of the interior as the church closed when we visited it during our three days in St Petersburg. However I’ve come across a few photos which suggest that it as much a jewel on the inside as out and I’ve added them for this up date.

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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Author: Willym

A senior with the heart of a young'un

7 thoughts on “Turkish Defeats”

  1. How would you like to be the one who painted the spots on the frog on every one of those plates? That's a lot of spots.


  2. Reblogged this on Willy Or Won't He and commented:

    A posting of a photo of the Cathedral of the Savour on Spilled Blood in St Petersburg by my friend Vicki had be looking through the files on my old Mac for photos from the three days we spent there back in June of 2012. One of my favourites sites was the little Church of St John the Forebearer at Chesma which I wrote about on June 28th of that year.

    The day we were there the church was closed in preparation for a wedding so we was unable to see the interior. I thought I would revisit that post and having found a few pictures of the beautiful iconostasis I updated the post and have reposted it as a bit of a Thursday Throwback as well as Armchair travel.

  3. LOVE the church! When I think of the modern houses being built these days with BLACK or DARK BROWN siding , not to mention beige, grey, concrete…, I wonder why Canadians have this deep-seated fear of colour. Catherine II obviously has something to teach us.

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