Exhibition: Far from Russia. The Church-tomb of Grand Duchess Elizabeth Mikhailovna in Wiesbaden

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A unique exhibition dedicated to one of the most beautiful churches of the Russian diaspora – the Orthodox Church of the Holy Righteous Elizabeth in Wiesbaden – the tomb of Grand Duchess Elizabeth Mikhailovna, the wife of the Duke Adolf of Nassau, opened on 10th April, in the Grand Ducal Mausoloeum of the SS Peter and Paul Cathedral in St Petersburg.

The exhibition is a joint project between the State Museum of the History of St. Petersburg and the Public Organization HERUS (Wiesbaden, Germany), whose activities are aimed at developing cultural ties and humanitarian cooperation between Germany and Russia.

This particular project continues a series of exhibitions of the State Museum of the History of St. Petersburg, dedicated to European shrine-churches. In 2016, the Grand Ducal Mausoleum hosted an exhibition about the necropolis of French kings – Basilica Saint-Denis in the suburbs of Paris in France.

The Church of the Holy Righteous Elizabeth was built on Mount Neroberg in Wiesbaden in 1855 as the tomb of Grand Duchess Elizabeth Mikhailovna, the Duchess of Nassau.

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Elizabeth Mikhailovna (1826-1845) nicknamed “Lili”, was born in the Kremlin in Moscow and she was named after her aunt who had died earlier that month, the Empress Elizabeth Alexeievna (1779-1826), the consort of Emperor Alexander I (1777-1825) and a close friend of her mother. “Lili” was the second of five daughters born to Grand Duke Mikhail Pavlovich (1798-1849) and Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna (nee Princess Charlotte of Württemberg, 1807-1873). The granddaughter of Emperor Paul I, the niece of Emperor Nicholas I – married the Duke of Adolf-Wilhelm of Nassau in 1844. 

At the age of 18, she died in childbirth with her newborn daughter. Over their grave, by the decision of the Duke of Nassau,  who grieved so profoundly over the loss of both his wife and daughter, decided to build a church around their grave. An Orthodox church was built between 1847 to 1855, paid for with money from her dowry, with the blessing of Emperor Nicholas I.

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The Church of the Holy Righteous Elizabeth became one of the first monuments of Orthodox architecture in Western Europe: the domes of the Russian church shone on Neroberg before the Russian style churches were built in Paris, Nice, Weimar, Dresden, and Berlin.  

For the design of the church, the famous Nassau architect Philip Hoffman traveled to Russia to get acquainted with Russian church architecture. The finest German masters took part in the design of the interiors. Images for the iconostasis were ordered from St. Petersburg by Timothy Neff.

The church, which towers over the Neroberg mountain, occupies a prominent place among the city’s sights and is a symbol of “Russian” Wiesbaden.

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Wiesbaden, the capital of the Federal State of Hesse, is rightly called the “most Russian” city of Germany. Since the beginning of the 19th century, during the holiday season, many Russian guests gathered here, on the water, including nobles, high-ranking officials and military men, writers, and artists. Even Emperor Nicholas II worshiped in the church during his stay in Germany, together with his newly wedded-wife, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. This event is noted on a gold panel attached to the church.

A lasting community formed around the church only in the 1920s, when many White Emigres fled in the wake of the Russian Revolution, the Russian Civil War and the Bolshevik takeover of their country and came to Germany.

The Wiesbaden St. Elizabeth Church, which is under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, and the Russian cemetery, located next to it on the slope of the Neroberg mountain, preserve the memory of the “Russian” past of German Wiesbaden. More than a century and a half later, it remains the center of spiritual life for several generations of Russian emigration.

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The exhibition in the Grand Ducal Mausoleum in the Peter and Paul Fortress presents art photos of the Church of Saint Elizabeth of Righteousness in Wiesbaden, by photographer Mikhail Lebed. These photos were taken for the album Die Russische Kirche in Wiesbaden. Wahrzeichen der Verbundenheit, published in Russian and German.

In addition to the exposition are photographs, which captured the last restoration of the church, provided by the director of restoration architect Wilhelm Wurz. Note: during the 1990s, the interior of the church, particularly its marble and frescoes, was renovated and restored. The crypt was renovated in 2002–2005.

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Portrait of Grand Duchess Elizabeth Mikhailovna, 1840s by Moritz Michael Daffinger (1790-1849)

The exhibition Far from Russia. The Church-tomb of Grand Duchess Elizabeth Mikhailovna in Wiesbaden runs from 10th April to 1st July 2018, in the Grand Ducal Mausoleum of the SS Peter and Paul Cathedral in St Petersburg