September 09: Swan Song

2016/09/09 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1744 the construction of St Andrew’s Church Kiev was begun.

The church was planned for a striking site, the top of a hill overlooking the capital city.  The spot was made more impressive by the tradition that the apostle himself had planted a cross there when preaching in the lands that would become Ukraine.  This significance was not missed by the patron who directed construction of the church, the Empress Elizabeth, who is given credit for laying the first three foundation stones with her own regal hands.

The church was designed to shoot up from the hilltop in a brilliant show of Russian Baroque, the speciality of its architect, Italian-born Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli (1700-71).  Rastrelli emigrated to Russia with his sculptor-father around the age of fifteen.  Within a decade he was established as an architect and in 1730 appointed official court architect, serving the architectural needs of both Elizabeth and her predecessor, Empress Anna with a series of frothy confections.  For St. Andrew’s, he designated a boxy mass with diagonal projections at the corners, surmounted by exceptionally elongated multi-columned plinths topped with dainty onion domes.  They surround the central dome that rises over the main worship space and on a round drum.  Light enters through round-arched windows that appear to force a ripple effect in the wiggly architrave above.  The dome itself is opened with super-fancy round windows and topped by yet another elegant onion.  The whole thing is glittery with gold, its edges marked with white trim and pilasters like ribbons on a candy box.  By any account, Rastrelli threw everything he had at this design which is indeed a killer example of Russian Baroque which was always a lighter version than its earlier iterations in Italy (with all its dramatic light, deep vaults and swooning saints) and France (where it is overbearing at best and downright scary at worst).

Unfortunately for Rastrelli, the construction of St. Andrew’s took place during the last gasp of Baroque’s favor in the few places it lingered, having been long dead in his homeland.  Having learned from Bernini and Borromini in his youth, he was well-positioned to design in dramatic Baroque forms modified by the more delicate Rococo that swept Europe in the seventeenth century.  But by mid-century, that ship had sailed.  Russia sort of missed the initial rage for Palladianism, which scrubbed Baroque and Rococo practice of its light and shade, mystery, excessive decoration and general whoopiness in England and elsewhere.  Neo-Classicism was then the thing by mid-century, a serious matter fueled by archaeologists who measured ancient monuments with scientific care and architects who pored over their published folios that inspired their exacting interpretations of the Classical world.

Among its fans was the next Empress, Catherine the Great.  Upon ascending to the throne in 1762 she embraced Neo-Classicism completely, having nothing good to say about the styles that preceded it (indeed having some very not-nice things to say about Baroque-Rococo in particular).  Her taste dealt the death-blow to Rastrelli’s career, and he retired in St. Petersburg.  He never returned to the city of his birth, Florence, and that is very sad too.

Image: St. Andrew’s Church (from this source)

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