Among the architects who designed the interior decoration of the cathedral for funerals
are such figures as Trezzini, Zemtsov, Wist, Kokorinov, Brenna, Quarenghi, Montferrand and
Charlemagne. The creator of St. Isaac's Cathedral, Auguste Montferrand, was commissioned
to do this work four times for the funerals of Alexander I, Nicholas I and the Empresses
Elizaveta Alexeyevna and Maria Fedorovna. All these architects not only decorated the
interior and designed the catafalque and canopy but also prepared the grave for the
Unfortunately, almost no depictions of the cathedral during eighteenth-century funeral
ceremonies have survived. The extant descriptions, nevertheless, provide an idea of what
the cathedral looked like in those days. Here is how a contemporary described the
cathedral during the funeral of Empress Anna Ioannovna in 1740. (The interior decoration
was carried out to designs by the architects Mikhail Zemtsov and Johann Schumacher and the
painter Louis Caravaque.)
"... A cloud was set in the lantern of the dome and the Beam of Glory radiated
from it down upon the golden canopy which was spread over the coffin. Four female statues
stood by the catafalque. The cathedral walls were decorated with medallions, death masks,
inscriptions, provincial coats of arms and crape festoons sparkling with 'tear-drops'.
There were also 'teardrops' on the black curtains of the doors and windows. Lamps and urns
... and jars with tears, as it was the custom in Ancient Greece and Rome, were placed on
the main cornice of the cathedral. Eight statues stood along the walls. They embodied the
virtues of Her Majesty's subjects who were overwhelmed with grief. One of the statues
represented a woman holding a baby to her breast with her left hand and leading a boy with
her right. At her feet was a hen protecting its chickens under its wings. On the whole
this statue was intended to symbolize the sincere love of Her Majesty's subjects. Another
statue, just opposite the Royal Doors, depicted a woman who wore a heart on her brow
instead of a diadem. A young crane at her feet was taking on to its wings an old and
feeble one. This statue showed the true loyalty of the Russians to the deceased
Design of the catafalque and canopy for the funeral of
Alexander I in the Peter and Paul Cathedral. By Carlo Rossi. 1826
designs of the funereal decoration of the cathedral, one by Carlo Rossi and the other by
Auguste Montferrand, were submitted to the Mourning Committee for approval. Montferrand's
design was chosen for the Peter and Paul Cathedral, and Rossi was entrusted with the
decoration of the Kazan Cathedral where the coffin lay in state before the burial. A
contemporary description reads: "The catafalque took the form of a Temple of Glory,
shining as a bright star amid the night skies." On the pillars, hung with black
cloth, are the coats of arms of Russian cities. The canopy is surmounted by a gilt
imperial crown supported by two flying angels.
According to an eye-witness account, during the funeral of Maria Fedorovna in 1828 the
catafalque "consisted of two silver-plated pyramids bearing Her Majesty's monogram
made of immortelle leaves on the front side and supported by cypress garlands and funerary
urns. The pyramids were topped by a sparkling star surrounded with rays and an emblem of
immortality. Twelve pedestals of white marble, shaped like ancient tombs, stood beside the
catafalque; placed on them were huge tripods with burning incense and a host of candles.
Winged cherubs were painted on the dome. Near the catafalque stood eight statues of
angels, each holding a lowered torch in one hand and a cypress branch in the other. The
canopy of crimson velvet was decorated with golden eagles. Two rows of gold candelabra
decorated the steps covered with black silver-laced cloth".
The magnificence of the cathedral's decoration produced an unforgettable impression on
contemporaries. Sometimes the burial service was not performed until several days after
the decease. In this case the coffin remained in the cathedral and people were allowed to
come and pay their last respects according to a special timetable. Thus, when Nicholas I
died the timetable was as follows: troops were admitted to the cathedral from 4 a.m. to 8
a.m., educational establishments from 8 a.m. to midday, the royal family attended the
requiem from midday to 2 p.m. The people of the six highest ranks who received special
invitation cards issued by the Mourning Committee were admitted from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and
all the people regardless of their rank and status from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Then for two
hours the cathedral was closed to the public: the royal family attended a requiem. From 9
p.m. entrance was unrestricted and from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. the cathedral was closed.
Design of the catafalque for the funeral of Emperor Peter
III and Empress Catherine II. By Vincenzo Brenna. Engraving. 1796
Paul I ascended the throne he decided to formally crown the remains of his father who had
not received this honour during his lifetime and, therefore, could not be buried in the
fortress. Four chamberlains stood on guard at the bodies of Peter III and Catherine II,
Paul's mother, as if they had died a few days before. The imperial couple were placed side
by side and reconciled only in the realm of death.
Sometimes admission to the cathedral was free even after the burial, so that everybody
could view the funereal decoration. Thus, in 1826, after the funeral of Alexander I,
Emperor Nicholas I ordered that for fifteen days admission to the cathedral be granted to
everybody "both to pay their respects at the tomb and to see the interior. On expiry
of this period entrance should be prohibited ... until the cathedral has been restored to
its original condition". But more often the cathedral was closed immediately after
the funeral. The mourning decoration was taken down: the fabrics were used to make
sacerdotal robes, other items were sent to monasteries or given to the poor. For example,
after the burial of Alexander I it was decided to "use the posts of the catafalque as
supports for the shroud of Christ ... to sell timber and other items and to give the money
to the poor." In 1796 the sale of the articles left after the funeral of Catherine
the Great yielded 6,943 roubles, and in 1801, after the funeral of Paul I, 5,828
A catafalque was usually constructed in the nave of the cathedral and the canopy over
it rose up to the ceiling. The floor was carpeted all over. The catafalque was put on
a dais with five or more steps leading to it. Displayed in two rows on stools in front of
the catafalque with the coffin were the imperial regalia: in the centre the shield, the
sword, the banner, the sceptre, the grand imperial crown, the orb and, sometimes, the Cap
of Monomakh. On the side stools were the crowns of the tsardoms of Astrakhan, Siberia,
Kazan and Taurida, to which the Polish, Georgian and Finnish crowns were added in the
nineteenth century. Decorations from Russia and other countries were pinned on cushions.
During the burial service the imperial family stood to the right of the catafalque.
Next to them were the members of foreign royal families and the diplomatic corps. In the
centre stood dignitaries of the court, senators, ministers, high-ranking civil and
military officers. As the cathedral was not large enough to hold all the people who wished
to come, only the two highest ranks of society, diplomats and those directly involved in
the ceremony, were allowed to attend the burial service and the interment.
The funeral of Emperor Alexander III.
Preparation of the grave. 1894. From a drawing by M. Amato
"Under the supervision of the architect Botta the
workers dug a grave three arshins four vershoks deep, the walls are lined with plinth
slabs and the bottom is paved with Putilov slabs."
The burial service was performed by bishops after the liturgy. Then the emperor,
empress, grand dukes and duchesses, foreign royalty and diplomats ascended the catafalque
and, one by one, came up to the body to pay their last respects.
When this ceremony was over, chamberlains took the pall off the coffin and carried it
away to the altar. Then the imperial purple was put into the coffin, and gentlemen of the
bedchamber closed the coffin with a lid. Sometimes the coffin was not opened at all as was
the case, for example, at the funerals of Alexander I, his wife Elizaveta Alexeyevna and
Tsesarevich Konstantin Pavlovich.
The coffin itself was made of oak and upholstered with red velvet; a monogram and the
imperial double-headed eagle were sewn on to the sides. A metal plaque was fixed on to the
lid bearing the name, dates of birth and death, year of the accession to the throne and
title. If an emperor died outside the capital his body was put into a coffin suitable for
transportation, which was later broken into small pieces and buried in the imperial grave.
If, for some reason, a lead coffin was used, then before the funeral it was put into
another, richly decorated one.
Plan and section drawings of the grave of
Emperor Alexander III. By G. Botta. 1894
A report on the preparation for the interment reads: "Locksmith
Reinhardt made a coffin casing of red copper with an oval lid and cover straps, hinges and
locks. On delivery, the casing was lowered into the grave already prepared for it
(the gap between the brickwork and the casing is quite small). The lid was placed
near the grave together with the materials for closing it, and all this was covered with a
A grave in the cathedral was prepared after the death of an emperor, though according
to documentary evidence the sovereign usually designated the place of his burial during
his lifetime. The grave was dug out in the presence of the architect in charge and the
Minister of the Imperial Court. It took the form of a shaft 2.5 m deep, 2.4 m long and 1.2
m wide. Its walls were faced with plinth slabs and the bottom was paved with so-called
Putilov slabs. A hollow was made at the bottom of the grave to bury the heart and other
internal organs taken out during the embalming. They were buried late at night the day
before the body was brought into the cathedral. This done, the hollow was bricked up. Then
the coffin casing was lowered into the grave.
The casing was made of bronze or copper and coated with lead inside. It had an oval lid
with locks, their number varying from two to four. The gap between the casing and the
shaft was rather small. Before the burial the lid was laid beside the grave together with
the materials prepared for closing the latter and all was covered with a carpet. The grave
itself was covered with a wooden shield which was removed on the day of the burial.
The graves in the cathedral are all different. Thus, Peter I and Catherine I were
buried together in one large burial chamber. In 1828, during the funeral of Empress Maria
Fedorovna, Paul I's wife, the architect Auguste Montferrand proposed that one chamber be
made for the coffins of Paul I, Alexander I and Maria Fedorovna. He explained that the
graves of Paul I and Alexander I were too close to each other which made it impossible to
build a new grave for Maria Fedorovna without damaging the old ones. The "imperial
assent" was granted, but whether or not this scheme was carried out is unknown.
In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the imperial coffin was carried from
the catafalque to the grave by adjutant generals preceded by the clergy. From the
mid-nineteenth century onwards this was done by the emperor and grand dukes.
When the coffin was lowered, 51 cannon shots were fired from the fortress walls, troops
fired a brief salute and a funeral knell tolled. The Metropolitan of St. Petersburg and
Ladoga came up to the royal family and offered them some sand on a silver dish to throw on
the coffin. After this solemn act was performed the emperor and his family left the
cathedral. And only then did the closing of the grave begin...
First the architect locked the casing and handed the keys over to the Minister of the
Imperial Court, who then delivered them to the commandant of the fortress. Before 1826 all
the keys were in the custody of the dean of the cathedral. During the funeral of Alexander
I the keys to Catherine II's and Paul I's coffin casings were found to be missing due to
the custodian's neglect. Annoyed by this, Nicholas I ordered that all the keys should be
kept by the commandant, who was in charge of them till the end of the nineteenth century.
Later, they were probably transferred to the Ministry of the Imperial Court, after which
they were lost without trace.
The catafalque and canopy for the funeral of Emperor
Alexander III, east view. By Nikolai Ivanov. 1895
over the catafalque was surmounted by a large Cap of Monomakh, symbolizing the line of
succession from the Byzantine emperors to the Russian monarchs. The Cap consisted of four
parts bolted together and suspended on three ropes draped with gold brocade. The upper
part contained ten iron hoops upholstered with gold brocade and trimmed with silver braid
along the hoops; a gilt crown was fixed to the top. Its fringe was made of imitation
ermine, and above it ten coats of arms were placed with ostrich feathers in-between.
The guard of honour stood at the grave all the time while it was being closed. This was
done in the following way: two stone Putilov slabs were placed along the sides of the
grave to make up the walls. Curved pieces were put on them and a vault was built; it was a
brick or half a brick thick. Then more bricks were added to make the surface flat and it
was cemented all over, then came a layer of sand and finally the grave was covered with a
gravestone. After the pit was closed up the tomb was erected. If it was not ready by the
time of the burial a temporary wooden one was installed and a white slip-cover was put on.
Then the wreaths were laid on the tomb.
In the eighteenth century it sometimes happened that the day of the burial service and
the day of the actual burial did not fall together. Thus the coffin containing Peter I's
body was committed to the earth only six years after his death, Catherine I was buried
four years after her death and Elizaveta Petrovna 22 days after she died.
According to the rules of the Russian Orthodox Church the day of the burial service should
also be the day of the burial. Therefore when the burial occurred later a handful of earth
would be thrown on the coffin lid as a symbolic act of interment.
From 1831 on, grand dukes, their wives and children were buried in the Peter and Paul
Cathedral. On such occasions the interior decoration differed from that of imperial
funerals. The walls were not upholstered with black cloth. The catafalque was made
two steps lower, the pedestal for the coffin was a little lower, too. The designs of the
catafalque and canopy were not made anew but provided by previous funerals.
There were no crowns of tsardoms in front of the catafalque, only decorations. The
coffin was covered with a ducal pall. The funeral ceremony was identical to that of an
emperor except that the number of cannon shots at the moment of lowering the coffin was 21
instead of 51.
Sometimes there was no funeral ceremony at all. This was the case in 1843 when
Alexandra Leuchtenberg, aged 3, died. Nicholas I wanted to conceal the fact of the girl's
death from her mother, Grand Duchess Maria Nikolayevna, who had given birth to another
baby six days previously. The coffin with Alexandra's body was brought by boat to the Neva
Gate of the Peter and Paul Fortress. The catafalque was set up in the side-chapel of St.
Catherine and not in the cathedral, and was not decorated as it was required for the
funeral. Only the emperor and the commandant of the fortress attended the burial.
When the Grand-Ducal Vault was built in 1908, a burial service was still held in the
cathedral and then the coffin was conveyed to the vault to be interred there. A short
litia was performed and the coffin was put into the grave.
Unlike the cathedral, the Grand-Ducal Vault had sixty graves already built into it.
Each of them consisted of two concrete chambers 2.2 m deep, 1.3 m wide, 2.4 m long. Each
chamber was tightly closed with three stone slabs. The graves were made in rows along the
walls from east to west.
On April 21, 1992, Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich, the head of the Imperial House of
Romanov and a great-grandson of Alexander II, died in Miami. The coffin with his body
was brought to St. Petersburg where, on April 29, Alexis II, the Patriarch of Moscow and
All Russia, performed a burial service in St. Isaac's Cathedral. Following this, the
coffin with the Duke's body was installed in the Church of St. Lazarus in the Alexander
Nevsky Lavra and remained there until the end of repair work in the building of the
Grand-Ducal Vault. On 29th May 1992 the Grand Duke was laid to rest in the sepulchre.
of Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich. Present-day view
On March 7, 1995, the relics of Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich and Grand Duchess
Victoria Fedorovna, which have been translated from Coburg (Germany), were re-buried in
the Grand-Ducal Vault.