New Delhi, India
July 6, 2009
In a city that’s in any case short on major sights to see, the Eglise Russe has the added disadvantage of being tucked away in a forgotten corner, far from the hectic busyness of the Old Town. We’d read that the most distinctive feature of the church was its set of gilded onion domes, and sure enough: walking past the Musée d’art et d’histoire, we suddenly caught a glimpse of loads of gilt, and there it was, off to our left.
With those onion domes (one large one surrounded by half a dozen or so smaller ones) gleaming like a beacon, we were hardly likely to lose our way, and a brisk walk brought us to the church a few minutes later. And here we came to a standstill. Not just because the church, all sloping roofs, arches, ornate façade and golden domes is eye-catching, but because the list of do’s and don’ts outside the church was so formidable. We’d barely scrunched our way up the neatly gravelled driveway, past a row of flowering bushes, when there it was: a large sign forbidding us from bringing pets and eatables into the church; forbidding photography or noise; forbidding shorts; forbidding tank tops; etc. By the time we’d gone through the list and given ourselves a once-over to check that we passed muster, we were really nervous.
Back in the late 19th century, when Geneva was the ‘playground of Europe’ (and what a lot of playing they did!), this city was home to the Grand Duchess Anna Feodorovna. Though a German (her given name and title was Princess Juliane Henriette Ulrike of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld—an aunt of Queen Victoria’s, by the way), Anna was married at the age of fifteen to Grand Duke Constantine of Russia. Their marriage was by all accounts a disaster, further proven by the fact that she left him after only three years, and ended up in Switzerland, giving birth to two illegitimate children and generally creating a bit of a scandal.
Considering Anna Feodorovna’s somewhat free thinking, it seems a little incongruous that this straitlaced and very orthodox church in Geneva was funded by her. She provided the finances for its construction, which was completed in 1869, nine years after Anna’s death. Geneva’s large population of resident Russians obviously appreciated the idea, and more than hundred years later, it’s still very much in use.
We visited on a weekday afternoon, so found ourselves pretty much alone except for a hawk-eyed caretaker kneeling in one corner. Too timid to do any wandering about the church, we sat down and tried to see what we could from our seats. It’s not difficult to do this, because the church is fairly small. It’s built on the pattern of a Greek cross (with all four arms of equal length) and the interior is therefore just a largish square room, the walls and ceiling covered over with extensive religious paintings and the floor tiled in intricate patterns of dull blues, red, black and yellow. The inside is dim, all the colours dark and gloomy—in sharp contrast with the bright and almost gaudy exterior.
We emerged from the church after about five minutes; even a quick prayer didn’t help me get over my fear of the caretaker, who looked like she’d pounce on us and boot us out for breathing inside the church!
But seriously, this is a lovely little place, and if you’re visiting the museum, do take ten minutes to come here too. And make sure you’re well clad, aren’t eating or drinking anything, and are not accompanied by pets! There is no charge for visiting the Eglise Russe, though you may of course leave a donation.
From journal A Few Hours in Geneva