The white marble walls of the cathedral towered above us as we approached the main doors and shuffled inside and made our way across polished marble floors with giant geometric patterns towards the main central altar where people were approaching the icons with appropriate reverence and all the while bowing and praying and no doubt hoping to exchange devotion to the Lord for a favour or two in return.
Around the ornate altar the four giant arches holding aloft the central dome soared high into the cathedral decorated predominantly in gold with paintings of the Saints and various scenes from the Bible and at the very top a gallery running around the base of the brightly coloured dome. Giant candelabra swayed gently above our heads and the air was full of choking incense and candle fumes.
Although we were tourists, apart from the Metro, this seemed to be closest that we had come to sharing the lives of ordinary Russians because the cathedral was full to overflowing with local people going about their daily lives in this extraordinary place and they paid no attention to us as they pursued their personal religious business. In a side chapel there was singing and a service was taking place so we stood discreetly at the back and watched from behind several rows of patterned headscarves while a choir in lavender shirts led the singing in between the chanting and the prayers of the priest.
The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour commemorates the Divine Intercession that led to the Russian victory over Napoleon in 1812 and is therefore both a religious and a historical monument and in the galleries of the side chapels the frescoes and paintings are devoted to the glories of Russian history and in particular the War of 1812. Interestingly it was in the original building (the one that was destroyed on the orders of Stalin) that Tchaikovsky’s ‘1812 overture’, my favourite piece of classical music by the way, was first publically performed.
Next we made our way down a flight of red granite stairs which led to the crypt where various smaller chapels were laid out ready for service and in one there was a well attended wedding that we watched for a few minutes before making our way to a temporary exhibition of precious icons.
Icons have been in use since the earliest days of the Christian Church and remain closely associated with the Russian Orthodox Church which differs dramatically in style and decoration from the western Catholic Church through its use of sacramental objects and these holy icons that are hung on the walls and the murals which cover most of the interior. I was fascinated by these priceless exhibits and in the souvenir shop on the way out I bought a reproduction of my favourite (no particular reason why), the Seven Sorrows of Mary and Kim wondered why and gave me a look that said ‘buy it if you must but when we get home it’s not going up in the house!’
We left the Cathedral now and returned to the streets of Moscow that were now bathed in sunshine and we made our way towards the Kremlin and Red Square. As we walked away from the Cathedral there was a small party of school children each with a packet of coloured chalks and under the instruction of the teacher leaving a personal memento of their visit to the cathedral on the pavement outside.
It wasn’t far to the centre but we had to cross a couple of busy main roads and with the roads congested with vehicles we were glad that the Communist Party conference was finished now which meant that after three days the Alexander Gardens under the western wall of the Kremlin were open again now to the public. We strolled through the flower beds and in between the statues and grottos towards the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the eternal flame which commemorates what we know as the Second-World-War but which Russia calls ‘The Great Patriotic War of 1941-45’. Here after a goose stepping changing of the guard ceremony three members of the Kremlin Guard in immaculate green uniforms and military caps with wide crowns stood impossibly still with impassive faces while children teased them and tourists took endless amounts of photographs.
I was glad that the gardens were open, it would have been a shame to miss them but now we passed through iron gates under the shadow of one of the twenty Kremlin Towers and made our way towards Red Square for the final time.