July 01, 2011

Russian Orthodox Churches on the Riviera

UNTIL LATE 1859, when the Russian community in Nice secured its own church, the Church of St. Nicholas and St. Alexandra, the Orthodox devout would often attend services conducted on board Russian ships berthed at Villefranche (many Russian vessels had their own Orthodox chaplain). The only alternative was to make the long journey west along the coast to Marseille, where there was a thriving Greek Orthodox community. Following the 1859 church in Nice, others were built along the Riviera at Menton (1892), Cannes (1894) and Sanremo (1913).

The rapidly growing Russian community in Nice quickly outgrew its first church in the city, and in 1899, Empress Maria Fyodorovna provided support for the building of the grand St. Nicholas’ Russian Orthodox Cathedral. Consecrated in 1913, it was the first Russian Orthodox church beyond the boundaries of the Empire to be granted cathedral status. Today, the cathedral is embroiled in a complex, political battle for ownership between the local parish, the Moscow-based Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian government.

Not surprisingly, Russian ecclesiastical architecture on the Riviera attracted some of the finest architects of the day — and Russians were not preferred over other nationalities. Mikha Preobrajensky, principal architect of the Nice cathedral, had already designed opulent churches for Florence and Tallinn. He was Russian. But in Sanremo, it was French architect Eugène Ferrat who secured the contract for the local Russian church. Ferrat’s design for the Sanremo municipal casino, completed in 1906, had been widely acclaimed. Lyonnais architect Louis Nouveau, responsible for the Cannes church, was best known for his elegant hotel architecture. In Menton, the Russian community turned to a little-known Danish architect, Hans-Georg Tersling. His delicate design was a sole foray into religious architecture for a man who went on to design such landmark buildings as the Villa Masséna in Nice and the Palais d’Europe in Menton.

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