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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mayor Visits Vatican to Reclaim Lost Altar

In their quest for the altarpiece of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, city planners tired quickly of prayer, and have resorted to mayoral intervention.

When Yury Luzhkov flew to the Vatican on business Saturday evening, he was carrying blueprints of the controversial construction project he has stewarded for two years. According to mayoral spokesmen, he hopes to come back with an altar.

The mayor's journey is dogged by uncertainty -- among other questions is whether the iconostasis is actually in Rome -- but one thing is for sure: If Luzhkov manages to reclaim the enormous, gold-encrusted altar, he will come back to Moscow a happy man.

Historians believe that the cathedral's iconostasis passed through the hands of Josef Stalin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and is now located in the Vatican. Along with the cathedral's chandelier, which was located last fall in an unknown Moscow building, the altar is the sole surviving piece of art from the cathedral.

The cathedral was razed in 1931, in the heat of Stalin's anti-religious campaign, with orders to "give [the iconostasis] to the Tretyakov Gallery, or exchange it for hard currency." According to the prevailing account, Stalin sold the gilded altarpiece to U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt's wife in 1931, when the communists destroyed the cathedral. Hoping to preserve the artwork, Mrs. Roosevelt then donated the altar to the Vatican.

During his week-long visit to Rome, the mayor hopes to meet with high-level Vatican representatives, if not the Pope himself, in an effort to locate the altarpiece, said Luzhkov spokesman Konstantin Cherkassky.

But the Vatican's representative in Moscow said historians have never established the iconostasis's presence in Rome, and that Luzhkov has made no official request for it. Although "Luzhkov is at such a level that no doubt he could get a meeting with a highly-placed representative, or even with the Holy Father," the Moscow government has made no overtures through the consulate, he said.

"There is no evidence that the iconostasis is in the Vatican," said Monsignor Ivan Jurkovic, consulate general from the Holy See. "They are taking about an iconostasis 10 meters high. It would certainly be easy to find."

The altar's size and richness inspired awe from the time it was constructed. According to "The Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow," a history published by the Patriarchate, the fully-constructed iconostasis was 26.6 meters high -- three meters higher than the altar in the Kremlin's Uspensky Cathedral -- and builders were forced to enlarge the cathedral's doors in order to install it.

According to the book, when the Metropolitan Filaret first glimpsed the unfinished iconostasis in 1813, he described it this way: "I have never seen a single iconostasis that in its hugeness so united propriety and beauty, that explained and justified my thoughts."

On the construction site, and in the Moscow Orthodox Patriarchate, news of Luzhkov's crusade came as a surprise. Father Iosef Pustovtov, who oversees relations between the Vatican and the Patriarchate, said his department "had received no official document" and assumed Luzhkov had decided to resolve the question "on a governmental level."

One patriarch employee, who refused to give his name, said he appreciated -- but was not updated on -- the high-level intervention.

"Big people deal with big things," he said. "Our business is to pray."