St Isaac Cathedral
A golden spot sparkling in sunshine, a tall and taper spire, shooting like a needle to the sky, and rising apparently from the waters of the gulf, are the first signs of the great city that meet a traveller's eye. The dome of the church of St. Isaak and the tower of the Admiralty are seen from every approach to the town; for whether St. Petersburg has been sought by long journeying through boundless forests, and weary plains; or, by the waters of the Baltic, these giants of the city first appear on the horizon to welcome the stranger to the capital of the north.
Richard Southwell Bourke
History of St. Isaac’s Cathedral
The history of St. Isaac’s Cathedral begins in 1710. A small wooden church of St. Isaac of Dalmatia was built near the Admiralty. Later it was replaced with a stone one, which had become dilapidated by the mid-18th century. Finally, at the beginning of the 19th century it was decided to build a cathedral. Many eminent architects of the time took part in the competition; the victor, however, was a talented draughtsman but little experienced architect, Auguste Montferrand. He submitted to Alexander I twenty-four projects for the cathedral bound in a fine album. The next day an order was signed to the effect that Montferrand was to be appointed the court architect.
Lack of experience and knowledge undoubtedly left its mark on Montferrand’s work. Several times the construction work had to be halted owing to errors in the project. Vasily Stasov and other famous Russian architects had to correct them.
It took 40 years (from 1818 to 1858) to build this magnificent edifice with its fine colonnades, splendid bronze sculptures and golden dome, which can be seen dozens of kilometers from Saint Petersburg.
The construction of the cathedral since 1818 until 1839 had cost more than 28 million francs, since 1840 until 1864 more than 93 million francs. These are all government data based on official documents.St Petersburg Guide, Jean Bastin, 1874
When the building was completed, repair work, which lasted many years, was immediately started on the cathedral. Possibly, it was intentionally prolonged, for there was a superstition in court circles that the Romanov dynasty would fall as soon as the repairs of the cathedral were finished.
Forty-three types of stone and marble were used in the ornamentation of St. Isaac’s Cathedral. The socle was faced with granite, while the walls, five meters thick in places, were revetted with gray marble. The inside walls and floor of the cathedral were lined with slabs of Russian, Italian, and French marbles, and the columns of the iconostasis were faced with malachite and lapis lazuli. Approximately 100 kg of pure gold were used to gold the grand dome, 21.8 meters in diameter. The cathedral is embellished with 382 sculptures, paintings, and mosaics. Many sculptures, for example those on the huge bronze doors, were created with the help of galvanoplastic work. The giant (40 m x 6.5 m) bronze high reliefs on the pediments are bound to attract your attention.
Few if any religious monuments of such proportions have been erected with such prodigious and uninterrupted celerity, with such complete unity of style, and with such absolute finish both inside and outside. Over the peristyles and at twice their height rises the chief and central cupola, of elegant Byzantine proportions, higher than it is wide. The diameter of this cupola, constructed of cast and wrought iron, is 66 feet, and its height 296 feet, and it is supported by a colonnade of twenty-four Corinthian pillars of smoothly polished Finland granite, about thirty feet high, and weighing each sixty-four tons. From the center of the cupola, the copper covering of which is thickly gilt with sheet gold, there rises an elegant lantern surmounted by a golden cross, the summit of which is 336 feet from the ground. Four smaller cupolas, miniature reproductions of the greater one, are placed at the corners of the cross, and complete the simple harmony of the whole, which is in a way a happy synthesis of the church of St. Peter's at Rome, the Pantheon and the Invalides at Paris, and St. Paul's at London. The edifice rests on a basement composed of three courses of granite laid stepwise, the topmost of which serves as stylobate or substructure for the columns, prodigious monoliths of red polished Finland granite, each sixty feet high and seven feet in diameter. Supporting the four peristyles of the cathedral there are no less than forty-eight of these monoliths, each with a base and a rich Corinthian capital of bronze, the whole perfectly pure in line, elegant in proportion, and polished like a mirror.
Tour of St Isaac's
Let us take a look at the cathedral, beginning with the southern façade (bear in mind that in Orthodox churches the upper tip of the slanting corss-piece of the cross points northwards). On the southern pediment there is a high relief (sculptor Ivan Vitali) on the biblical subject The Adoration of the Magi. In the center of the composition, Mary sits with the Child surrounded by the wise men who are paying tribute to the baby. Figures of the kings of Mesopotamia and Ethiopia can be identified. On the right, near Mary, stands Joseph, his head inclined; in the left part of the high relief an old man embracing a child steps forward towards the central group. The child is holding a small casket containing offerings.
There are three altars in the cathedral; the principal one is dedicated to St. Isaac, the one on the right to Ste. Catherine and the left one to St. Alexander Nevsky. The iconostasis of the three chapels are white marble from Italy, and are decorated with colored marble, malachite and lapis Iuzuli. The main iconostasis occupies the entire width of the cathedral and has three rows. The lower part is made of black slate; cornices are red porphyry and marble surround a dark red. Between frames and wall are copper plates covered with malachite; the pedestal of each statue is also malachite and lapis - lazuli, surrounded by golden thumbnails.
St Petersburg Guide, Jean Bastin, 1874
The high relief above the western portico, The Meeting of St. Isaac of Dalmatia with the Emperor Theodosius, is the work of the same sculptor. This composition is called upon to depict the idea of the union of the power of state and church. In the center of the high relief St. Isaac of Dalmatia is blessing the empreror. Behind St. Isaac warriors are kneeling in worship. Next to Theodosius is his wife Flaxilla (the sculptor imparted to them the features of Alexander I and his wife). In the left corner of the high relief you can see a partially naked man holding a model of St. Isaac’s Cathedral. This is the creator of the Cathedral, Auguste Montferrand. The high relief above the northern portico depicts the Resurrection of Christ. On the eastern pediment the meeting of St. Isaac with the Emperor Valens is shown.
If the outside of Isaac is of beautiful appearance, the interior is no less remarkable. The semi-darkness, which almost always prevails in a huge ship, doubles the effect of these gigantic proportions. As in mosques, which this church recalls as well by the darkness, by the solemn silence that nothing disturbs, by the large numbers of massive pillars that populate its solitude and the complete absence of benches, chairs and of all kinds of seats, the most rebellious imagination is deeply impressed, and the spirit rises itself to the roof of the huge dome…Saint-Pétersbourg et Moscou, Adolphe Badin, 1884
August Montferrand lived to see the grand opening of the cathedral (May 29, 1858), though he died a month later. Before his death, Montferrand asked Alexander II for permission to be buried in one of St. Isaac’s crypts. The tsar refused his request. The architect’s widow, Eliza, took her late husband’s remains back to Paris.