The Our Lady of Kazan is one of the main sacred icons of the Russians. Its ancient wonder-working copy was a favourite icon of the House of Romanov. The icon's prototype that miraculously appeared in Kazan in 1579 and was protected by Minin and Pozharsky's militia in 1612 was lost (stolen from the Kazan Monastery) in the early 20th century. Its trail was lost somewhere outside Russia. However, legend has it that the Romanovs' copy of the icon, which was made as early as Ivan the Terrible's time, was honoured the same as the prototype. Until 1710, the icon was kept in Moscow, but later Peter I commanded to move it to St. Petersburg. In 1737, after a short stay in a small chapel in the Petrograd Side, it was moved into the Nativity Church in Nevsky Avenue that was recently built by a prominent architect Mikhail Zemtsov. The church was called the Kazan Cathedral after this icon.
Since then, the Kazan Minster or the Nativity Church held not only ordinary, but also pontifical services, as well as officiated at royal weddings. The Minster became a cathedral.
On 3 July 1738, Her Highness Blessed Princess Anna Leopoldovna and His Grace Prince Anthony Ulrich of Brunswick got married in the Kazan Cathedral in accordance with the approved ceremony.
One of the most significant events of the 17th-century Russian history, the Catherine II's advent of power in 1762 is closely connected with the Cathedral. "Her Majesty arrived to the capital city about six o'clock, received fealty from the Guards, and, accompanied by four regiments, she came to the Kazan Cathedral at eight in the morning. Nikita Panin brought Grand Duke Paul in a specially prepared coach. From there, Her Majesty went to a new palace... Then, the Empress ordered Senate and Synod to gather in the wooden palace. She came there together with the Grand Duke. In the palace's church, Senate, Synod, and all noblemen swore allegiance to her."
Many great events were celebrated in the Cathedral, including peace treaties and military victories. After the Russo-Turkish War of 1768–1774, Empress said to the Archbishop, "Your Beatitude, Right Reverend Gabriel! Tomorrow, on Sunday, in the Church of Our Lady of Kazan I am going to say grace to the Most High for peace He granted us 1774. August 2. St. Petersburg."
The Cathedral's sacristy held silver crowns with gilding that were worn by the future emperor Paul I and Princess Wilhelmina Louisa of Hesse-Darmstadt (Grand Duchess Natalia Alexeievna of Russia) during their wedding ceremony in 1773.
By the late 18th century, population of St. Petersburg increased significantly. The Minster, which could seat a relatively small number of parishioners, became cramped. A French traveller abbot Georgel wrote in his notes: "It is not big and spacious enough." At the same time, Georgel underlined the Cathedral's richness and luxury: "The Kazan Cathedral is very richly adorned. Monarchs were lavish with jewellery for it. On solemn days, I saw thousands candles burning there in addition to many golden and silver lamps that were lighted in front of the altar."
As early as 1781, Grand Duke Paul travelled around Europe. He liked Rome the best of the European cities. There, he liked St. Paul's Cathedral. Majesty and decoration of the Cathedral, built in the 16th century by Michelangelo, and magnificence of the Bernini's colonnade enchanted him. He told his travelling companions that he wished "the Archbishop of Moscow would serve in such a church". Being an emperor, he returned to his thoughts. However, the idea of a temple similar to the Roman one assumed a new shape. It had to be built in St. Petersburg.
The Church must be dedicated to the Our Lady of Kazan, located in Nevsky Avenue, and replace the Nativity Church. A church construction commission was established. It was headed by President of the Art Academy Count Alexander Stroganov. Several designs were submitted for the commission's consideration. In 1800, Paul I approved a design by Andrey Voronikhin, who formerly was a Count Stroganov's serf.
The Voronikhin's design really resembled St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome, which was expressed with a colonnade facing Nevsky Avenue. However, it was not a copy of the Bernini's colonnade. The Roman colonnade is an independent construction and was built much later than the Cathedral itself. The Voronikhin's colonnade is an inherent part of the main building. Two massive and widely spread wings form a huge semicircle. It is adjacent to a square that separated the Kazan Cathedral from Nevsky Avenue. A Corinthian gallery is between the wings. It consists of twenty columns and is crowned with a triangle pediment. The same gallery is from the south, where Voronikhin planned to build a colonnade. However, being underfinanced, the project was not fulfilled.
The first foundation stone of the Church was laid on 27 August 1801. Ten years later, construction was finished. On 15 September 1811, it was solemnly consecrated by Metropolitan Ambrose of St. Petersburg.
The Cathedral is cross- and dome-shaped. It is based on a four-point cross extending from west to east. The Cathedral is 72.5 m (237.8 ft) long, 56.7 m (186 ft) wide, and 71.5 m (234.5 ft) high including the dome with a cross. The dome covers the entire building and is much more elegant than many domes designed by other architects. It is based on a high drum that is cut with windows and decorated with pilasters.
Sculpture plays a special role in the exterior. Attics above passages, which complete the Cathedral's colonnade, feature two bas-relieves: "Moses Bringing Forth Water in the Desert" by Ivan Martos from the east and "Worship of the Copper Snake" by Ivan Prokoviev from the west. The relief "Jesus' Entry into Jerusalem" by Jean-Dominique Rachette is above the altar apse on the east side, which overlooks the channel.
Northern doors from the Nevsky Avenue side are a bronze replica of the Florence Baptistry's doors made by famous Italian sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti (1425–1452) and known as the "Gates of Paradise". In niches on both sides of the doors, there are bronze statues. From left to right: "St. Vladimir the Great" by Stepan Pimenov, "Andrew the Apostle" by Ivan Prokoviev and Vasily Demut-Malinovsky, "John the Baptist" by Ivan Martos, and "St. Alexander Nevsky" by Stepan Pimenov. Cast by Vasily Yekimov, the statues are very harmonious with the monumental colonnade. Above the bronze statues, there are bas-relieves "The Annunciation", "The Adoration of the Shepherds", "The Adoration of the Magi", and "The Flight into Egypt" sculpture by Fyodor Gordeyev.
The Cathedral's outer walls, columns, capitals, and bas-relieves are made of Pudost stone, yellowish limestone quarried near St. Petersburg, Gatchina.
The Cathedral's interior is highly impressive too. Its main architectural element is an ensemble of 56 double Corinthian columns, which are massive granite monoliths quarried in rocks of the northern part of the Karelian Isthmus. Each column weights approximately 30 tons and is 10.7 meters (35 ft) high. The Cathedral's floor is tiled with Karelian marble of different kinds. A royal pew made by Samson Sukhanov, a son of an ordinary Vologda peasant, is notable for its fine marble carving.
It is worth noting that it took a fortune and great efforts of many thousand builders, who mainly were peasants on quitrent, to construct the Church. Foreigners, who observed the construction process, were amazed with the workers. "Common guys in torn coats did not need any measuring devices. Taking a searching view of a design or a model, they could replicate it with all elegance and accuracy. Despite winter time and 13–15 degrees of frost (5 F), they worked non-stop, even at night. Tightly holding a lantern's ring between their teeth, these amazing builders climbed the top of scaffolding and did their work with diligence. Ability of ordinary Russian people to be so talented in fine arts is astonishing".
An iconostasis was the most precious adornment of the Cathedral. It was made upon a project by Konstantin Thon and replaced the previous one by Andrey Voronikhin of 1836. Its construction took about 100 poods (1638 kg or 3611 lb) of silver, which was partially donated by Don Cossacks. When Napoleon retreated, they recaptured some silverware that was stolen by the invaders from Moscow churches. Mikhail Kutuzov wrote the following in this connection: "Devastators of temples fell down under a burden of their wickedness. They lost everything they stole from God. The conquerors humbly laid the sacred things on the altar of God... 40 poods (655 kg or 1444 lb) of silver delivered by me is a gift of fearless cossacks to your church".
However, in 1922, despite all previous feats of defenders of Fatherland, the iconostasis was dismantled and melted down into silver bullions that were sold abroad for peanuts. The Bolsheviks needed money.
"The Annunciation" and Evangelists by Vladimir Borovikovsky, "Our Lady" by Orest Kiprensky, and several wonderful works by Grigory Ugryumov are worth noting among the holy door's images.
The main sacred object of the Cathedral, Our Lady of Kazan, has always been to the left of the holy doors. After the Church was shut down in 1929, the icon was moved from one functioning church to another and thus preserved. It was kept in St. Vladimir's Church for the longest. On 3 July 2001, the icon was returned to its historical place in the main iconostasis of the Kazan Cathedral.
Pylons that support the Cathedral's dome are decorated with works by Vasily Shebuyev including "St. Gregory the Theologian", "St. Basil the Great", and "St. John Chrysostom". Today, the last icon is represented by its replica. All three works have splendid gold-plated granite frames.
A vault of the altar apse feature "The Last Supper" by Boris Bessonov. The high altar's pieces: "The Assumption of the Virgin Mary" by Karl Brullov, "The Entrance into the Temple" by Pyotr Basin, and "The Intercession of the Holy Virgin" by Fyodor Bruni. "St. Catherine the Great Martyr" by Vladimir Borovikovsky is also worth noting. Two bas-relieves attract attention too. These are "The Road to the Calvary" by Feodosy Shchedrin and "The Capture of Christ in the Garden" by Jean-Dominique Rachette in the southern and northern parts of the Cathedral correspondigly.
The Cathedral is also famous as a monument to the Russian military glory. It reminds us about two liberation wars of the Russian people who ousted the Polish invaders in 1612 and Napoleon's army in 1812. In the north-eastern part of the Cathedral, in front of SS. Anthony and Theodosius of Kiev's small altar, there lies Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov. The remains of Kutuzov were delivered in June of 1812 from the Prussian town of Bunzlau (Boleslawiec, Poland), where he died while commanding the Russians during their European liberation campaign.
The military leader's name is closely associated with the Kazan Cathedral. It was under its vaults, where ceremonial church service was held, after which Mikhail Kutuzov headed to the field forces near Smolensk during the Patriotic War. Later, the Cathedral became a storing place for numerous trophies of the war including flags and ensigns, and keys from fortresses and towns conquered by the Russians. There were 107 flags and 97 keys in total. In the early 20th century, most of the trophies were sent to Moscow, where they are still kept in the State Historical Museum.
In 1837, two statues of Mikhail Kutuzov and Michael Andreas Barclay de Tolly, heroes of the 1812 Patriotic War, designed by Boris Orlovsky, were fixed up in front of the Kazan Cathedral.
All Russian emperors loved the Kazan Cathedral. Members of the imperial family often visited it. English lady Bloomsfield, who visited Russia in the mid-19th century, remembered: "Emperor always goes to the Kazan Cathedral before leaving to St. Petersburg and after coming back. He goes there without any honours or ceremonies. He simply kneels down and says prayers."
The days after the Kazan Kathedral was closed for church services and transformed into the Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism were the worst in the history of the Cathedral both as a church and an architectural and art monument.
Its icons were confiscated and given to different museums (mainly to the Russian Museum and the State Hermitage Museum). Only things that could not be taken out stayed at their places. The Cathedral's interior was severely damaged. Treasures of the richest sacristy disappeared. The iconostases were destroyed. The Kutuzov's tomb was blasphemously opened up. The cross was dismantled and replaced with a spire.
The Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism was located in the city centre and occupied the great architectural building. Numerous tourists including foreigners did not surprise anybody there. However, some people smiled at the aggressive atheistic exposition of the Museum, while the others were frankly outraged. As a result of recent changes in Russia, the Kazan Cathedral became a functioning church again.
In 1991, the eastern part of it was handed over to the church community. The first Divine Service after a long pause was held by Grigory Krasnotsvetov, a priest of St. Vladimir's Church. On 30 May 1994, the Cathedral's dome was crowned with a cross again.
In the late 1999, the minster was returned its cathedral status by order of Holy Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and All Russia. It is said "returned" because it was a cathedral during most of the 18th century when occupied the Nativity Church.