St. Alexander Nevski cathedral – the popular and the unknown side of the story
St. Alexander Nevski Cathedral is undoubtedly one of the most impressive and beloved symbols of the capital city. There is hardly any Bulgarian and even foreigner that, glancing at Sophia from a bird’s eye view, would fail to first focus the cathedral’s imposing golden domes that have become and integral part and even a reference point of the city’s landscape.
The cathedral’s full name is “Patriarch Cathedral and Memorial Church St. Alexander Nevski”. It is named after the great Russian national hero and saint Alexander Nevski who inspired the Russian king’s men during the Russian-Turk War of liberation in 1877-1878.
In a long and interesting talk with manciple Stanoy Andonov, the cathedral’s “living history”, I learned curious details from St. Alexander Nevski’s history. But before that, a few words about Stanoy Andonov himself. He has been serving at the memorial church for 38 years and is the only ordained as a deacon person already back in 1969 by the late Bulgarian Patriarch Kiril. He had been a deacon for three years and since 1972 till now a priest. In 1997 he was sent to Pretoria, South Africa, where he served as a missionary at the Bulgarian diaspore.
Let’s go back to the cathedral now… Its founding stone was laid on February 19, 1882 during the reign of Grand Prince Alexander Batemberg. The construction works began in 1904 under the direction of Chief architect Alexander Pomerantzev and ended eight years later. For 12 years, during the wars, the cathedral remained closed. It opened doors on September 12, 1942 during the reign of King Boris III when its three altars were consecrated.
The St. Alexander Nevski Memorial Church represents a magnificent 5-aisle basilica with underlying Byzantine stylistic elements, influenced to a certain extent by eastern models. The cathedral spreads on 3170 square meters and its cubic capacity is 86 000 cubic meters. Its height is 50, 52 meters and its central dome rises up to 46 meters. The church tower is located in the western part from the main entrance and is accessible through a 215-step spiral staircase. The church bells are 12, with a total weight of 22 tons, made of lead, silver and copper in the Moscow firm “Abrosimov”. A curious fact is that in good and calm weather the ring of the biggest church bell can be heard in a perimeter of 30 kilometers.
For more than 20 years the church bell has been rung by Maria Zabova. The central dome and that of the church tower are gold-plated. The gilt was renewed in 2003 with funds from the Ministry of Culture.
Inside the cathedral impresses with its measurements, its harmonious architectural lines, its spaciousness and rich decoration. The inner space forms three naves and two galleries, the central nave being much bigger than the side ones. In the art decoration frescoes and icons play a leading role. They are the work of 36 prominent Russian and Bulgarian painters, with the participation of the famous Czech painter Prof. Ivan Markvichka, too. The iconostasis, bishop and tsar stalls, the pulpit and the whole flooring are made of onyx and marble in Byzantine style and using Old Bulgarian patterns. The mosaic images are designed by Prof. Anton Mitov and made in Italy by the company “Paolo Triscornia di Fredo” – Carara.
The cathedrals’ chandeliers, icon lamps and candlesticks are made of copper alloy with double galvanic gilt. The central chandelier is three-crowned, hangs down from 47 meters height and weighs two tons. It has 136 electric candles.
It is to be found in the basement and is currently a subsidiary of the National Art Gallery for Old Bulgarian arts. The crypt spans under the full cathedral inner space and its height is 3, 75 meters. Here you will find the cathedral’s “foundation stone”, marked as a big rectangle, covered by a pyramidal roof.
St. Alexander Nevski Memorial Church is the biggest east orthodox cathedral on the Balkan Peninsula. In 1956 it was declared ‘an architectural and cultural monument of national significance’. With its magnificent works of art, done by Russian and Bulgarian master icon-painters / more than 400/, the cathedral has been a unique repository of Christian religion and art in the past and shall continue to be so for the future generations.