Petrikirche in St. Petersburg is considered to be the largest Lutheran church in Europe. It stands on Nevsky Prospect, in the very centre of the city. All tourist itineraries pass nearby. But I’m sure 100% that tourists rarely visit Petrikirche (they usually head to the must-see attractions). Because they just don’t know what secrets are living behind its modest yellow-pale facades.
I passed by many times and never entered Petrikirche. But once I read its incredibly sad story. One more St. Petersburg hidden gem was revealed for me.
The more you know, the more you see. In St. Petersburg this rule works 100%. Especially in the historical centre of the city, full of mysteries and enigmas.
The Story of Petrikirche
The official name of Petrikirche is Lutheran Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. The current building was designed by Alexander Brullov, professor of the architecture of the Imperial Academy of Arts. The church was consecrated in 1838.
According to remaining descriptions, the inner decoration of Petrikirche was fascinating. There was a large pipe organ by Walker, a famous German pipe organ builder. It was the real pride of the church.
Unfortunately, after the Revolution of 1917, Lutheran Church of St. Peter and St. Paul was looted. Fine paintings were stolen or given to museums. Stained-glass windows disappeared. The pipe organ disappeared too…
But pillage wasn’t enough! Under the Soviet Union, they decided to transform the poor church into… a swimming pool! The pool basin was built right inside the church, in the main hall.
It was a sophisticated murder. Wet pool atmosphere was devastating. The church was slowly dying.
Current Condition of Petrikirche
The pool existed during decades. The city government returned the church building to the Lutheran community only in 1993. During the reconstruction, the pool basin was hidden under the floor of the church hall. Petrikirche renewed worships and organ concerts.
I couldn’t understand how it was feasible (technically) to build a pool inside a church. And then to hide this pool! I knew that it was not possible to remove completely the thick concrete basin. I came to the church and saw nothing architecturally special. Very clean light interior, white walls, no decorations. No signs of the pool either.
I was wandering in the photo exhibition on the ground floor when I suddenly saw a door with an inscription “Catacombs” on it. What can be more interesting for a city explorer than going down to catacombs? Nothing! And I came down the stairs…
The catacombs are in fact the basement of Petrikirche. In 2007 the catacombs attracted the attention of American businessman and artist Matt Lamb. Later Matt Lamb decorated the walls of the basement with paintings of biblical stories.
Painter Adam Smidt decorated the walls of the chapels (see the main photo at the beginning of the post: people are taking off the crucifix from the belfry). He re-created the lugubrious church’s destiny. Thus, nowadays the catacombs look like an art centre.
And the pool basin is there too! Blue tiles, sloped floor (the pool bottom), concrete shards… The upper border of the remains of the pool is higher than human size. Drawings by contemporary artists on the walls… Apparently, they are supposed to brighten up a little bit the strange feeling of standing on a crime place.
I tried to figure out who could swim in this pool. Was it a popular place? Did people avoid this bizarre sports centre? Or they strongly believed it was fine to swim in a former church?
I have no answers to these questions. Though there are photos of the pool-times, I keep getting the feeling that all those photos are a bit staged…
Unfortunately, the story of the ruining of Petrikirche isn’t unique.
Update 2020: at present, the catacombs can be visited within a guided tour. Tours take place ~1-2 times a week. You can ask the tours schedule at the entrance of the church.
Other Russian Churches With Similar Destiny
— Annenkirche in St. Petersburg. A Lutheran church which destiny in the XXth century was sorrowful too. It was a warehouse, a cinema and then… a rock club (!!!) Nowadays Annenkirche is given back to the Lutheran community and is slowly coming back to normal life.
Condition: under restoration. Open for visiting.
— Church of Our Lady the Merciful in St. Petersburg. During Soviet times this Orthodox church was used as a training centre for naval rescue divers. There was a pool too.
Condition: no restoration. Closed for visiting.
— Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. Same cynic pool story. The cathedral was first consecrated in 1883. Demolished in 1931 during the Soviet Union era. Later an immense open-air swimming pool was constructed on this very spot. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, it was decided to demolish the swimming pool and to rebuild the cathedral. Construction was finished by 2000.
Condition: restored. Open for visiting.
The address of Petrikirche: 22-24, Nevsky Prospect, St. Petersburg. Open every day. Catacombs are free for visiting but could be closed (I haven’t noticed any opening time schedule). The church often hosts music events, including pipe organ concerts.
Would I recommend to visit Petrikirche? I would! At least you will see by your own eyes how to build a swimming pool inside a church. And to explore the hidden gems of St. Petersburg.
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