The History of the Russian Church in Darmstadt, the Homeland of Two Orthodox Saints
In the German city of Darmstadt, there is a rarely-used train station, if you don’t count the rented bicycle store which occupies a part of it. This wastefulness, so uncharacteristic for Germany, has a historical reason. The fact is that the station was built for only one purpose—to accommodate the wide trains from Russia. There were over four hundred such train cars. Granite was shipped here from the Urals, the Caucasus and Siberia. It wasn’t because Germany didn’t have its own granite, but because a Russian Orthodox Church dedicated to St Mary Magdalene, Equal-to-the-Apostles, the patron saint of the mother of Emperor Nicholas II, was being built in Darmstadt. It was decided that the church must be built of imported Russian stone and upon Russian soil. It was being built for Empress Alexandra Feodorovna Romanova, nee Princess of Hesse-Darmstadt. She and Emperor Nicholas wished to have the opportunity to pray in an Orthodox church while visiting Germany. The church was built on the personal funds of the Emperor. The architectural style is called “Early Yaroslavl’.” It was designed by Leonty Benois, who was awarded with the title Architect to the Court for his efforts. The drawings for the liturgical objects were approved by Tsarina Alexandra herself.
The Romanovs visited Darmstadt once every year-and-a-half or two years. Alexandra Feodorovna, who was given her mother’s name at birth, Alix, was the sixth of seven children born to Grand Duke Ludwig IV. One of her older sisters was named Ella, and she was to become Grand Duchess Elizaveta Feodorovna Romanova. The family had endured two great tragedies: one of their brothers died as a child, and a few years later, their mother and youngest sister died of diphtheria. Half-orphaned, Ella and Alix made frequent long visits to their grandmother, Queen Victoria of England.
Next to the Russian church is the Wedding Tower. The locals call it the “five-fingers tower,” or “Crown of the City.” It was built for the second wedding of Grand Duke Ernst-Ludwig, the brother of Ella and Alix. The tower symbolizes the five dynastic marriages of the children of the Darmstadt Ducal House with representatives of five European dynasties.
The interior of the church is unusually decorated: there are few frescoes or icons, and a mosaic of the Mother of God soars above the altar. Her Face is rendered in a manner reminiscent of the artist Viktor Vasnetsov. The sketches were in fact by his hand, and the Frolov brothers crafted the mosaic. The iconostasis was imported from London. It consists of only one row (which reveals the altar mosaic), and was painted in oil, a popular method of the period, by Karl Neff. The walls are adorned by stylized lilies, flowers particularly loved by Alexandra Feodorovna (she also liked carnations and roses). The church’s decorators had in mind the splendor of Eden, and so there are many vines throughout the space.
From the street side of the exterior, the church is adorned by mosaic icons of the heavenly patrons of the Tsar’s family, including St Nicholas, St Alexander Nevsky, the parents of John the Baptist—Elizabeth and Zechariah… Over the entrance is an image of St Olga, Equal-to-the-Apostles, patron saint of the eldest daughter of Emperor Nicholas.
Among the holiest items in the church are fragments of a plashchanitsa (burial shroud) embroidered by Alexandra Feodorovna, and a Kazan Icon of the Mother of God which belonged to Grand Duchess Elizaveta Feodorovna. The church in Darmstadt received it from a priest who brought the relics of SS Elizaveta and Barbara from Russia to the Holy Land. The likeness of the Mother of God reminds many of Elizaveta Feodorovna herself.
A pair of two-sided khorugvi (banners) have survived, made to order for the Empress specifically for this church.
There are several houses belonging to the Ducal family in Darmstadt. The Rosengarten parcel contains the ruins of a palace where the Romanovs often stayed. Another castle is in the center of town but was destroyed by an air raid in 1944. The photo shows one that survived. The Romanovs, however, did not like this house very much. “The Russian Room” with its mementos has been transferred to the ownership of the municipal museum.
The Hesse-Darmstadt Dynasty can be considered tragic. In 1918, Elizaveta Feodorovna, Alexandra Feodorovna and all their children died in 1918. In 1937, not far from Darmstadt, their brother, Ernst-Ludwig, died. By that time he was no longer Grand Duke—he had abdicated as a result of the November Revolution in 1918 in the German Empire. His widow and elder son Georg Donatus and his pregnant wife and two children died in a plane crash as they were traveling to England for the wedding of their youngest son Ludwig. Ludwig’s brother was left childless, and after his death in 1968, there were no male heirs left to the Hesse-Darmstadt Dynasty.
The narthex of the church of St Mary Magdalene in Darmstadt contains two portraits—that of Emperor Nicholas II and his wife, Empress Alexandra, now glorified as Passion-bearers. These portraits were painted long before the canonization of the Royal Family. Right after they were canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in 1981, icons were brought here and hang beneath lampadas that are never extinguished. Every July 17, the anniversary of the execution of the Royal Family, hundreds of people gather here for Divine Liturgy.
The church community here includes Serbs, Romanians, Bulgarians and of course Russians. Two brothers conduct divine services here—Protopriest John and Priest Konstantin Grinchuk. Ekaterina Egenberger, a parishioner, led a fascinating guided tour of this historic church. We were offered a magnificent treat in a small reception area to accompany our conversation. The refectory doesn’t contain many seats but it is open to all. There was a plate of colored eggs there, which are displayed all year round. The shops of Darmstadt sell boiled eggs which are always colored so they are not confused with raw eggs, so we were treated to an everyday reminder of Pascha…
We thank the Pilgrimage Center of Holy Apostle Thomas in Europe and Timothy Kitnis in particular for the materials for this report.
Photos by Nikolai Sheshin.