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A gift from Imperial Russia?

In the German spa town of Bad Nauheim in Hesse, hangs a present – by tradition – from Imperial Russia. It is to be found within the solemnly beautiful church, the Reinhardskirche, in the old town quarter, built between 1732/33.

Like many baroque churches whose outer exterior is plain and its interior lavish with decorative detail, the simplicity of its sacred architecture from the street is immediately transformed by shimmering Orthodox colour and gilt, once inside. This is, however, no baroque splendour that surprises, for the interior was remodelled in 1907/1908, and the Russian iconostasis only installed, once the original interior – first Lutheran, then Catholic in the late nineteenth century – was removed.

From 1905 onwards, the Reinhardskirche was rented by the Russian Orthodox community. Bad Nauheim purchased the church in 1907 for the sum of 33,519 marks, and the Russian Orthodox community then bought it the following year for 35,000 marks. The need for a Russian Orthodox church became apparent through the rapid surge of Russian visitors coming to the spa town to take a cure. So, what was the present from Imperial Russia?

Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, born Princess Alix of Hesse, gave the church their patronage. During the visit of 1910 to Hesse, the Russian Imperial Family took part in the services at the newly Orthodox church, the Reinhardskirche. A wall tablet on the western wall in the church commemorates this event. The book of the gospels which still serves the church was by tradition, first read during the services attended by the imperial family and the glorious gilt and enamel chandelier in the church was the present of Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna (Monumente, Issue 5/2016, 32). During this time, the Russian imperial party were guests at the Hessian castle of Friedberg and Alexandra’s eldest sister, Victoria, Princess Louis of Battenberg was also there with her children, as was another sister, Irene, Princess Henry of Prussia.

This was, of course, not the first time that an Orthodox church or chapel outside Russia became associated with the Russian Imperial Family. The supreme example of this is the exquisite Russian Chapel in Darmstadt, the Russische Kapelle, in the district known as the Mathildenhöhe, where the Tsarina’s brother, Ernst Ludwig, reigning Grand Duke of Hesse, established his famous Jugendstil artists’ colony. The building of the Darmstadt Russische Kapelle was privately funded by Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna and was, therefore, their own chapel. During one of the Russian imperial couple’s visits to Darmstadt, from September until November 1899, they attended the special service of the Chapel’s consecration on 26 September (9 October) 1899. Thereafter the Russian Imperial Family could attend Orthodox services whenever visiting family in Darmstadt. The Russian imperial couple had also attended the formal ceremony of the laying of its foundation stone two years earlier in Darmstadt on 16 October (29 October) 1897.

The iconostasis, altar-cloth and church flags at the Darmstadt chapel are from the former private Russian Orthodox chapel which the Duchess of Edinburgh, Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna, established at Clarence House in London since dismantled. Also given to the Darmstadt Russian Chapel was a sarcophagus hewn from oak, meant to represent the grave of Christ, today to be seen on the chapel’s right wall.

The marriage of Prince Andrew of Greece and Princess Alice of Battenberg – the parents of HRH The Duke of Edinburgh – was performed in the Russian Chapel in 1903. Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna were among the guests, who constituted another of the great gatherings of European royalty, a smaller version perhaps of the magnificent grouping of royalty that had come to Coburg for the wedding of Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig’s – his first marriage – to Princess Victoria Melita of Edinburgh, during which time, the future Tsar Nicholas II and Princess Alix of Hesse were themselves engaged.

Examples of the Tsarina’s needlework, embroidered especially for the Russian Chapel in Darmstadt, survive in the Chapel. On 19 May 2019, the Russian Chapel will commemorate the 151st birthday of Tsar Nicholas II with an akathistos, a communal lunch and then an escorted tour of the Altes and Neues Mausoleum in Darmstadt, the burial places of the Grand Dukes of Hesse, including the parents and siblings of his wife, Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, who are buried in the latter, in the park known as the Rosenhöhe.

The Tsarina had taken a cure in Bad Nauheim, just as once she had taken treatment in the Yorkshire spa town of Harrogate for sciatica in 1894. This time, however, it was for more general health reasons. The Tsarina’s “enlarged heart” and other medical concerns tally with the constant racking anxiety over the health of the young Tsarevich Alexei, but this does not mean that the symptoms were not genuine in themselves, whatever their root cause. She referred at this time in her private correspondence to being ‘laid up’ and rested much of the day. Tsar Nicholas II wrote to his mother, Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna: ‘Botkin [the imperial physician] has persuaded her to go to Nauheim [Bad Nauheim] for a cure in the early autumn. It is very important for her to get better, for her own sake, and the children’s and mine. I am completely run down mentally by worrying over her health’ (cit., Robert K Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra, 153).

Princess Marie of Battenberg wrote in her diary that the Tsarina had been unwell and came over from Nauheim: ‘After luncheon, I sat a long time with Alix, who did not look altered, but complained very much of her health’ (cit., Marie, Princess of Battenberg, Reminiscences, 358).

The Tsar accompanied his wife for her cure at Bad Nauheim, walking the streets of the spa town in a bowler hat, whilst Alexandra went shopping in Bad Nauheim with her sisters, being pushed around in a bath chair on occasions that she felt stronger. During her cure, she took the waters and drank bottled water, perhaps not dissimilar to the sulphur water that she had swallowed all those years ago in Harrogate, which “did not smell lovely”. Maybe it was during this cure, that the imperial couple discovered the new Orthodox church at Bad Nauheim, on the Reinhardstrasse. With an unconscious nod towards the artists’ colony at Darmstadt, the altar windows were – according to the church’s information – in the Jugendstil style.

According to Alexandra’s biographer, Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden, the Tsarina was greatly tired by the cure in Bad Nauheim and ‘for the most part lay on a couch in her room or in the garden, with one of her sisters or one of her old friends to keep her company’ (cit., Baroness Buxhoeveden, The Life and Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna, 127). Buxhoeveden tells us that the Tsar and the imperial daughters, the four Grand Duchesses ‘motored a great deal with their host [Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig] and were sometimes so badly mobbed both at Homburg and at Frankfurt, when the public recognised them, that they had to escape through back doors to their cars…’ (cit., Ibid, pp. 127-128).

The 1910 visit ended with the Imperial Family spending three weeks at the Hessian hunting lodge at Wolfsgarten, scene of so many happy memories in the Tsarina’s youth. Whilst motoring around, the imperial family made trips to visit cathedrals and castles in the vicinity (Prince Michael of Greece, Nicholas and Alexandra: The Family Albums, 100).

Surely among them must have been then, the first of these visits to the Orthodox church at Bad Nauheim. The chandelier remains then, as a poignant gift in memory of that Russian visit in 1910.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019