The Russian Orthodox Church of Saint Elizabeth located on the Neroberg in Wiesbaden is one of the least known buildings in the history of the Nassau family. It was built between 1847 and 1855 in memory of Duchess Elisabeth of Nassau (*1826; † 1845), the first wife of (Grand) Duke Adolph and their unnamed daughter (*; † 1845).
Duchess Elisabeth was born as Grand Duchess Elisabeth Mikhailovna of Russia to Grand Duke Mikhail Pavlovich and Princess Charlotte of Württemberg, who became Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna upon her marriage. She was also the grand-daughter of Tsar Paul I of Russia and the niece of tsars Alexander I and Nicholas I, her maternal aunt was Pauline of Württemberg, her husband's step-mother.
Elisabeth, who was called "Lili" by her family, grew up in St. Petersburg with her two surviving sisters, Maria and Ekaterina; two other sisters, Alexandra and Anna died as infants. Many of her contemporaries named her the most beautiful, well-mannered and best-educated of the three sisters. Elisabeth's outer appearance was described as healthy with a round face and a small mouth, dark red hair but blonde eyelashes.
In 1843, Duke Adolph of Nassau visited Russia and met Elisabeth. Contemporaries described their first meeting as love at first sight, and on September 3rd, 1843 the couple got privately engaged; two days later the Tsar officially announced the engagement in Russia and on September 8th the announcement was published in Biebrich, Nassau. In December 1843 their pre-nup was negotiated. (You can find the details of it in our post about Grand Duke Adolph.)
The wedding took place on January 31st, 1844 in St. Petersburg, the bride's hometown. Nothing is known about the her dress itself though it's clear that Elisabeth wore a tiara and a red velour coat with ermine lining and a long veil which was carried by four chamberlains and the crown equerry.
The couple left Russia on March 2nd, 1844 and the journey to the Duchy of Nassau took about three weeks. Elisabeth was warmly welcomed in the Duchy but she lived very secluded. She only did little charity work by herself though she supported many organizations financially, for example a school for underprivileged girls called Elisabethenschule. Another project was realized after her death by Adolph when he opened a hospital for underprivileged children, called Elisabethen-Heilanstalt, in 1846.
Sadly, the Duchess died at the age of 19 after giving birth to a stillborn daughter on January 28th, 1845, almost exactly one year after her marriage. Her husband was deeply shocked and devasted. After two years in mourning, he disposed that a Russian Orthodox Church was to be build in memory of Elisabeth and their daughter, and to bury them there. Adolph decided that the right place for the building would be the Neroberg (Mount Nero) in Wiesbaden because that way he could see the church from his castle in Wiesbaden city. The dowry paid by the Tsar at the wedding was used to finance the church.
|The chapel shortly after |
The Russian Orthodox Church of the Holy Elizabeth is the only Russian Orthodox Church in Wiesbaden. The term “Greek Chapel” is also used to describe the Church, though it is not a Greek Orthodox Church. In Germany every Orthodox building, no matter if Russian or Greek, was termed as Greek Church or Greek Chapel in the 19th century. There is also a rectory and a cemetery, which was opened in 1856, next to the church. It is the largest Russian-Orthodox cemetery in Europe outside of Russia.
Even Tsar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra Feodorovna, the former Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt, visited the church once and took part in a worship. A golden badge inside the church remembers this occasion.
The church was built between 1847 and 1855 by the famous architect Philipp Hoffmann. He was known for his knowledge about sacral buildings and also built the Synagogue on the Michaelsberg and the Church of Saint Boniface, both in Wiesbaden. Hoffmann used the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, which was destroyed in the 1930s and rebuilt in the 1990s, as the inspiration for the Russian-Orthodox Church in Wiesbaden. He had visited Russia after he was invited by Grand Duchess Elena, Elisabeth’s mother, and got his knowledge about Russian sacral buildings and peculiarities during his stay.
The religious opening of the Church took place on May 25th, 1855 and the coffins of Elisabeth as well as her daughter were brought into the church under big support of the people of Wiesbaden, but without Adolph, during the following night.
The church is made of beige sandstone and is a so called cross-on-square church which means it is built in the traditional Russian Orthodox building canon. The ground plan is a square with an apse, a semicircular recess covered with a hemispherical vault, on the northern side of the church.
Five golden onion-shaped cupolas - four small ones and a big central one - with five golden Orthodox crosses on them build the roof of the church. Each of these cupolas has four - the small ones - or five - the big one - windows in it tower to let daylight inside the church. In advance to the visit of Russian president Vladimir Putin in 2007, the five golden domes were cleansed and newly gilded for about half a million euros.
The building has two entrances, the southern entrance and the western entrance. The south entrance was only to be used for the Tsar of Russia, and after Tsar Nicolai II was killed in 1917 it was closed forever. Today, the west entrance is used as the main entrance.
Above the entrances you can find the sculptures of Saint Helena (patron saint of Elisabeth's mother), Archangel Michael (patron saint of Elisabeth's father) and Saint Elizabeth, to whom the church is dedicated. Elisabeth’s tomb was created by Emil Alexander Hopfgarten and is made of Carrara-marble. It shows a life-sized idealisation of Elisabeth.
The iconostasis of the curch was created by Carl Timoleon von Neff, a master of his art. He combined the tradition of Tsar Peter the Great with Western influences. He did not only create the iconostasis of St. Elizabeth in Wiesbaden but also of the Isaac Cathedral in St. Petersburg.
Inside the church you can find iconostases of Jesus Christ, Archangel Michael, Saint Elizabeth, Saint Nicholas, Mother Mary with a child, Archangel Gabriel, Saint Helena and Saint Catherine. There are also iconostases of the last supper, Saint John, Saint Chryostomos, Saint Mary Magdalene, Saint Vladimir, Saint Alexandra, Saint Basilius, Saint Anna, Saint Constantin and Saint George as well as of the apostles Peter and Paul and the evangelists John, Mark, Luke and Matthew.
The interiors of the church were renovated and restored during the 1990's, the crypt in the early 2000's.
There is also a Russian Orthodox cemetery next to the church. It is one of the oldest in Western Europe and was created in 1864, until 1977 it was extended for several times. On the cemetery there are many graves of Russian nobliliy who visited Wiesbaden, Bad Ems and other German areas in the 19th century to take a cure. In 2009 and 2010 the cemetery was partly restored.
Today the church is used for regular worhips of the parish of St. Elizabeth in Wiesbaden and the surrounding area. The parish is part of the diocese of Berlin in the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia. You can also visit the church and the cemetery when there is no worship. On Saturday it will be one of the places visited by the Hereditary Grand Duke and the Hereditary Grand Duchess during their stay in Wiesbaden.