The church of Alexander Nevsky


Orthodox services in Viapori were arranged in temporary premises for more than 40 years, until an impressive five-dome church, dedicated to Alexander Nevsky, was completed in 1854 after many phases. It was considered the most beautiful Orthodox church of its time in Finland. The churches of Russian garrisons in Finland were ideologically charged. Their architecture was intended to convey Russian cultural values. Religious life, including the various celebrations, were an important part of the Russian military culture.


Ecclesiastical Orthodox life in the fortress of Viapori began in August 1808, less than four months after the Russians had taken over it. While the fortress was soon granted the right to arrange services, it had no permanent church premises. Suitable premises for a church were found in the east wing of the Crown Castle Ehrensvärd. Built during the Swedish era, this large building had been used as a material store for the Navy. In the western section of the building, a temporary church, dedicated to Alexander Nevsky, was established in 1810. This temporary field church remained in this location until 1854, when a new church was completed.


Konstantin Thon, professor in architecture at St. Petersburg Art Academy, prepared drawings for the Orthodox church in Viapori as early as in 1838, but it was not until the years between 1849 and 1854 that it was finally built under the leadership of architect Ivan Varnek. Ordinarily, churches were oriented in the east–west direction, but the church in Viapori was oriented in the north-easterly–south-westerly direction in order to align it with the Crown Castle Ehrensvärd. Starting from the 1820s, the Command of Engineers repeatedly proposed that wooden buildings be taken down in order to free up space for a new church, but the buildings were still standing when construction work began in spring 1849. The church and the church park required a major portion of the area where the buildings to be demolished, including a tavern owned by merchant Sinebrychoff, were located.

The church of Alexander Nevsky was completed in 1854. Photo credits: MV

The church of Alexander Nevsky was completed in 1854. Photo credits: MV

Byzantine-Orthodox style


While the Russian military architecture in the 1800s normally resembled pan-European architecture, garrison churches had a distinctively Russian character and represented the Orthodox architecture. The church in Viapori represented the Byzantine-Orthodox style. In addition to onion-shaped domes, the style was characterised by a wealth of semicircular arches and decorations. In keeping with the Russian church architecture, the church was built on a high stone foundation, with the central tower being surrounded by four smaller towers built on the roof and equipped with imposing onion-shape domes.


In accordance with the symbolism of the Orthodox church and the liturgical demands, the Viapori church had a vestibule, a temple and an altar. The cubic temple section had a square layout, with an altar section protruding in the north-east and a vestibule in the south-west. The interior was dominated by four large pillars which supported the central dome. The model for churches of this kind can be found in medieval Russia. Their architecture was modified in the 19th century Russo–Byzantine churches.


Vitali de Gronckel, an artist born in Belgium, was commissioned to paint 23 paintings for the iconostasis. The rest of the icons were painted by students at the St. Petersburg Art Academy. The interior of the church was painted in light shades, with the exterior being originally light grey and, later, tan. The roof was made of copper. The gold-plated crosses on the domes were made in St. Petersburg. Army appropriation was used to procure sacral artefacts such as icon lamps, floor candelabra, icons and ecclesiastical textiles. Army officers and wealthy merchants made significant donations to the church, such as a large chandelier and church bells, not forgetting objects donated by the parishioners. The most significant donation was the relics of holy metropolitans Peter, John and Philip, received from Moscow in 1885.


The fence surrounding the church was constructed in 1872 using cannon barrels and old chains which were used to block the straits between the islands of Viapori, dating back to the Swedish era. The construction was based on donated means. While gold-plated eagles were attached to the cannon barrels located at the gates next to the entrances to the church, other cannon barrels were decorated with gold-plated crosses. An integral part of the fence was a belfry with a onion-shaped dome, built between 1888 and 1889. The church of the Alexander Nevsky was exalted to the status of a cathedral on 18 May 1891.

The iconostasis in the church of Alexander Nevsky. Photo credits: MV

A 360° panoramic view of the church

Text: Netta Böök and Maija-Liisa Tuomi

The Russian Viapori online exhibition

is part of the jubilee programme for

Finland’s 100 years of independence.

Church is converted to a Lutheran church


The church dominated the barren landscape of Suomenlinna, similar to the St Nicholas' Church, the current Helsinki Cathedral, which was completed at around the same time on the mainland.


In the anti-Russian sentiment prevalent in Finland that had just gained its independence, many wanted to blot out some of the Russian image of Viapori, a legacy of the Russian era. The church in Viapori was consecrated as a Lutheran garrison church, and the onion-shaped domes of the side towers were taken down. After this, on the basis of an architectural competition, the onion-shaped dome of the main central tower was replaced with a low tarp cover, and the exterior of the tower was built to form a square shape. Orthodox ornaments were removed, and the walls were plastered to form an even surface. A gaslight lighthouse was installed in the tower. The new image of the church was finished in 1928.