Armenian merchants and artisans appeared on the banks of the Neva River immediately after Saint Petersburg was founded. First written evidence on the activities of the Armenians in Saint Petersburg is dated to 1708. In 1711, Peter the Great gave the following instructions to the Senate: "The Armenians must be treated nicely as much as possible and facilitated where it is proper, in order to motivate them to arrive in greater numbers."
Gukas Shirvanyan (Luka Shirvanov), the first head of the local Armenian community, requested Empress Anna Ioannovna to allow a construction of a church in the courtyard of this house in the Third Line of the Vasilievsky Island. On 18 January 1740, a permission was given ("This request is granted" was an official resolution); however, the church has never been completed. A new stage in the construction of Armenian churches falls in the reign of Catherine the Great. In July 1763, a manifest was issued; it granted a right to freely practice church rituals to all the peoples that had settled in Russia. In both the capitals, Saint Petersburg and Moscow, lots for constructing foreign churches were allocated.
On 2 May 1770, granting a request made by Ivan Lazarev (1735–1801), the head of the Armenian community and an important statesman and enlightener, Catherine the Great allocated a lot for a construction of an Armenian church, on the north side of Nevsky Avenue. The community immediately started fund raising. The construction of the church and the adjacent parochial buildings was supervised by the author of the design, Saint Petersburg's major architect Georg Friedrich Veldten (1735–1801). After 8 years, in 1779, opposite the then not yet completed Gostiny Dvor, a slender and smart church emerged; later, an ensemble of the Armenian community's buildings formed around it.
The gracious Church of St. Catherine in Nevsky Avenue was constructed to fit the capital's state splendour and in accordance with the traditions of the Early Russian Classicism, becoming one of the marvellous examples of this architectural style. Buildings of an austere architectural style "squeeze" the Church from the side of Nevsky Avenue, emphasizing the Church's festive appearance and its central place in the ensemble. The Church is crowned with a dome based on a slender drum. All the elements of the building have slim features and are well-proportioned. The facade, which faces Nevsky Avenue, features an austere portico, with its pediment containing a sculptural relief. The relief's theme is unusual: "Catholicos Gregory the Enlightener baptises King Tiridates III."
Armenia was the first country to accept Christianity as the state religion. In 301, the Armenian king Tiridates III converted to Christianity and ordered Bishop Gregory the Enlightener to baptise Armenia. The theme was taken from the history of Armenia, and this fact alone made it unique in the monumental sculpture of 18th century Saint Petersburg. The relief was made by an unknown master, in the best traditions of the Classicism.
The spacious and light-flooded interior of the Church is very attractive, with the clean lines of the dome, of arched vaults and columns. The rooms were probably finished according to a design by Veldten. The interior was decorated with superb monumental painting and moulded carnices; its walls, columns and floors sparkle with marble. The painting works on the Church obviously involved the painter Carl Ludwig Christinek.
On 18 February 1780, Archbishop Ovsep Argutyants (Iosif Argutinsky), the spiritual leader of Russia's Armenians, consecrated the Church, giving it the name of St. Catherine. The ceremony was attended by Duke Grigory Potemkin. The people present were handed the text of the sermon entitled "The Speech for Consecrating the Armenian Church in Saint Petersburg, Delivered by Archbishop Iosif." The text contained gratitude towards "the glorious Russian country, where our people dwell", towards Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, saying that the latter had "opened the gates of deliverance into Russia" and that "this church is named in her honour". The empress did not attend the consecration, but in the following years visited the Church many times and commissioned prayers. For a long time, the Church had no bells, and it was as late as in 1865 that Khristofor Lazarev received a permission to install bells in the bell tower of the Church. Soon after, bells were acquired and, as it was recorded, "used during a service". In 1906–1909, the architect Aleksandr Tamanyan performed a minor redesign of the Church.
In the late 1920s, the Church was shut down, and it then hosted warehouses, offices and workshops, which resulted in desolation and significant destruction. In August 1992, the Church was handed over back to the Armenian community. A most complex restoration of the building started. Waterproofing works on the Church's foundation were done and the beams of the ceiling, which divided the interior into two storeys in an ugly way, were removed.
On the huge dome and the altar vault and on the pendentives under the dome, the preserved oil painting was cleaned and then restored.
The finishing of wall and column surfaces, out of coloured artificial marble, was completely reconstructed. The floor was repaved with natural marble. The dome's cross and the altar were restored. During the restoration works, two marble baptismal fonts, featuring sculptural relieves, were discovered. Their surfaces contain carved dates, "1782" and "1784". The church's contemporaries preserved by miracle, they have also experienced all the vagaries of its 220 year long history.
On 12 July 2000, the restored Church was consecrated jointly by the heads of the two related and allied churches (Alexius II, the patriarch of Russia, and Garegin II, the supreme patriarch-catholicos of Armenia).
The Armenian Church of St. Catherine is now again open to church-goers, and the harmony of the church's restored appearance reminds us of the remote times when the relations between Russia and Armenia were being formed.
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