St. Isaac's Cathedral
The birthday of Peter the Great (May 30) is marked by the Orthodox Church as the day of Saint Isaac, who was considered to be the tsar’s patron saint. According to legend, St. Isaac lived in the 4th century A.D. He protected Christians from the Roman Emperor and heretic Valens, for which he was subjected to punishment. The Emperor Theodosius set St. Isaac free from the dungeon. These subjects are depicted in the high reliefs on the eastern and western pediments.
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.
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.
Ornamentation of St. Isaac’s Cathedral.
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.
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.
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.
The grand opening
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.
Other masterpieces by August Montferrand
Besides this magnificent cathedral, August Montferrand designed the following buildings and monuments: