St Nicholas and St. Martyr Alexandra Church in Nice, the biggest orthodox church outside Russia

CONSIDERED ONE THE MOST IMPORTANT orthodox buildings outside the Russian Federation, this cathedral is the result of the efforts of the Royal Family to satisfy the spiritual needs of the growing Russian population in Nice.

It all started in the mid 1800s when the Russian upper class, as well as the Tsars, started visiting the French Riviera during winter, as their English counterparts had been doing for some decades before. Unfortunately during a visit in 1865, the son of Alexander II, Tsesarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich died of meningitis. Some time later, after buying the land, the Tsar and the Empress ordered a chapel built in the exact spot where Nicholas died.

By then the Russian community in Nice was already growing and the need of a new place to congregate arose. The first attempt to build an Orthodox church in Nice started in 1856 by initiative of Empress Alexandra who was Nicholas’ grandmother, ultimately a church was built on Longchamp Street. By the turn of the century the church was deemed too small and deteriorated so the building of a cathedral started just a few steps from the churrch honoring the deceased Tsesarevich. The cathedral was finished in 1912 according to the designs by M.T. Preobrajensky by an assortment of engineers, under the direction of a certain Golitsyn, appointed by Tsar Nicholas II to oversee the development of the project.

The structure was made in the Old Russian style, however certain modern elements give this Cathedral its own identity; for instance, the disposition of the Greek cross plan with five domes representing Jesus and the four evangelists. The church also contains a rich iconostasis made in Russia by the Khlebnikoff workshops.

From 1923 to 2010 the cathedral, the gardens and the chapel were under management of the Russian Orthodox Cultural Association of Nice but in 2006 the Russian Federation claimed the right to property based on the fact that the Cathedral was on private grounds owned by the Imperial Government at the time of the communist revolution.

The French courts sided with the Russian government and the church management was transferred to them (not before several appeals and refusals from the association) in 2011. Three years later, the church was closed to tourists to undergo renovations funded by the Kremlin. It finally opened its doors once again on December 19, 2015, on the feast of St. Nicholas according to the Julian Calendar.

Architectural style

The cathedral is impressive in size, proportions and sophistication. It is designed in a completely “old Russian” style: rich and exuberant landscapes, contrasting with the formal severity of the plan. But it also proves its modernity. It is built in the shape of a Greek cross with a large central part and five domes, symbolizing Christ and the four evangelists, from where two twin towers with a bell tower in the center rise, creating a balance of architectural forms. The altar does not stand out.

It is surprising that the cathedral is built from various materials with several types of textures and colors: stone, brick, ceramics, etc. The colors should be in harmony with the Nice climate and, therefore, mainly with the azure blue of the Mediterranean sky (pale brick cladding, blue-green majolica, white stones). Originality also lies in the architectural ensemble of the twin towers and the bell tower. Their decorative richness emphasizes the basic forms and enhances them. There is a feeling of strength and stability (columns, arches), but at the same time, the building is directed into the sky (double-headed eagles crowning cone-shaped twin towers, etc.). The bell tower is the central pivot that connects the different volumes.

The main building of the temple is built on a square base, over which two rows of “kokoshniks” hang with drums lying on them. The windows inserted into a narrow rectangular frame “bathe in the light” the interior of the domes. The central space is also decorated with three small windows on each side, richly decorated with majolica. The drums themselves are crowned with domes covered with lacquered tiles (3 shades of green are used), over which high gilded crosses are hoisted.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.