As the name suggests, the St Nicholas Naval Cathedral in St Petersburg with its golden Baroque spires and domes shining above the bland residential and commercial buildings in the area and its beautiful bell tower overlooking the Kryukov Canal was dedicated to St Nicholas the Wonderworker, the patron saint of the sailors and the travellers. Simply known as the Sailors' Cathedral among the locals, the St Nicholas Naval Cathedral, built in the shape of a cross and decorated with Corinthian columns, stucco architraves, a wide entablement and crowned with five gilded domes, is a major example of the so-called Elizabethan or Rastrellieqsque Baroque. With its huge accommodation of around 5000 people at a time, it houses several revered 18th century icons and a fine carved wooden iconostasis.
During the reign of Peter the Great, the sailors were settled in the area and the first, wooden chapel bearing the name of St. Nicholas the Miracle-Worker, was built for them. With the gradual growth of the locality, along with the new capital, Empress Elizabeth issued a decree to build a stone church for the regiments settled in the area. Admiralty architect Savva Chevakinsky, the main architect of the Russian Navy, was commissioned to design and build it, but before the beginning of the proposed construction, it was found that the site had to be raised by two meters to protect it from floods.
Finally, the construction began in 1753 and the freestanding bell tower was erected between 1755 and 1758. The cathedral includes two churches, an upper church and a lower church.
The lower church, located on the first floor, was dedicated to Saint Nicolas, a patron saint of the seamen, while the upper Epiphany Church is on the second floor and the altar of the upper church was consecrated in the presence of Catherine the Great. In the main shrine of the cathedral, a Greek icon of St Nicholas made in the 17th century with a portion of his relics, is located in the lower church.
St Nicholas Naval Cathedral in St Petersburg houses 10 spectacular icons in gold frame, gifted by Catherine the Great, which portray the saints that were celebrated at Russian Navy celebrations. One of the most revered places in the cathedral is the image of Nicholas the Miracle-Worker, gifted to the church by the Greek sailors, which was taken from Russia by the French in 1812, and returned to Nicholas I by the Prussians in 1835.
The walls of the cathedral are appropriately decorated with scenes from the history of the Russian Navy. In 1907, two marble plaques were hung on the south wall of the upper church in honour of sailors who died in the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-1905 and in 1989, a memorial plaque was installed to honour the 42 sailors who lost their lives off the coast of Norway on 7th April 1989.
St Nicholas Naval Cathedral in Petersburg is one of a very few cathedrals in Russia that was not closed in Soviet times and in 1941, it became the official residence of Alexey Simanskiy, the Metropolitan Alexei of Leningrad, who served in the cathedral from 1941 to 1944 during the 900-day siege of the city.