St Isaac's Cathedral

St Isaac's Cathedral in Saint Petersburg, one the finest cathedrals built in Europe in the 19th century, is a unique phenomenon in Russian architecture. Its golden dome, like the spires of the Peter and Paul Fortress and the Admiralty, is seen from afar. The very size of the dome, raised to a great height, suggests an immense size of the cathedral itself. Indeed, it is much larger than all the other churches in the city and can admit more than twelve thousand people at a time.  


As one approaches the cathedral, one does not know what to look at first: the gleaming dome, the polished granite columns, or the grey marble on the pediments. The sight of all this splendor makes one pause to think of the skill of the artists who decorated the building, and the effort of those thousands of works who built it.   


Many-columned porticoes surround the square building on all four sides. The main, beautifully shaped dome, which is a definite asset to the city’s skyline, is surrounded by four smaller domes. All the other elements of the building are also very good in themselves.   

St Isaac's designed by Auguste Montferrand   

This edifice was designed by Auguste Montferrand who came to Russia in 1816, and shortly afterward entered the competition for the best design of the cathedral. In his anxiety to please all tastes, Montferrand presented his design in 24 different variants, one of which was approved by Alexander I, and construction began in 1818. Montferrand was a gifted designer, but he had no building experience at all, and made several serious technical mistakes in his project. Soon after construction began, work was suspended, and a special commission had to be set up by the Academy of Arts to make the necessary corrections. The commission was headed by the President of the Academy A. Olenin, and among its members were Vasily Stasov, A. Melnikov, A. Mikhailov and other eminent architects. It was only with the help of this commission that Montferrand managed to bring construction to its happy conclusion. Prominent painters Karl Bryullov and F. Bruni, sculptors Pyotr Klodt, I. Vitali and A. Loganovsky, and the best decorators were invited to do the interior.        

The most beautiful monument of St. Petersburg, unquestionably, the first one the traveller sees on arrival, the one that dominates and controls the entire city, is Isaac. Isaac, as they say here, or to restore its true name, the Cathedral of St. Isaac, dedicated to St. Isaac the Dalmatian is a colossal granite church in the style of the Renaissance, whose majestic proportions, the dome covered with gilded copper, flanked by four golden domes also, and the gigantic monolithic pillars of red granite from Finland require first the admiration and respect.       

Saint-Pétersbourg et Moscou, Adolph Badin, 1884   




It took 40 years to build St Isaac's


The cathedral took 40 years to build (1818-1858), with the efforts of hundreds of thousands of people. The following figures will give some idea of the scale of the project. This being a swampy site, about 24,000 piles had to be driven in for foundation, which 11,000 serfs took a year to do, working day and night, winter and summer.    

 The day before yesterday we went to see the almost completed church of St. Isaac, which is being built under the direction of a French architect by the name of August Montferrand. This is a Greek style edifice similar to the temple of St. Sophia in Constantinople, but with richness and beauty of decorations superior to anything I have seen in my entire life. Granite columns, in one piece and in great numbers, decorate and support the exterior of the building. Each of these columns is 30 feet tall. The dome is slender and very elegant, also adorned with rich columns of jasper, which support the top part, all golden like a glowing ember. The interior of the temple is truly a treasure. The rich paintings on the walls, mostly works of Italian and German artists, are only temporary and will be replaced with as many mosaics, which are being manufactured here in Russia, they tell us, as well as in Rome. The variety of moldings and ornaments of bronze, jasper, lapis lazuli, malachite and other expensive stones is amazing. “The iconostasis are ten columns of malachite excessive greatness. The three indoor chapels, where only the priests can enter, and where the most sacred rite is held, are inconceivable delicacy.       

Juan Valera, Obras Completas, 1864   


Each of the 112 columns surrounding the cathedral is a granite monolith. The columns of the lower porticoes are 17 meters high and each one weighs 114 tons. They had to be hewn out of the cliff, transported to St. Petersburg from the quarry near Vyborg, shaped, polished, and installed. The columns surrounding the dome-drum are 3 meters shorter than the ones below, but then they be hoisted up to that great height.   

There are three altars in the cathedral; the principal 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   


Many new technical devices were used for the first time during the building of the cathedral. One of these were the galvano-plastic method of bronze casting, invented by the Russian scientist Academician Yakobi. In the main, however, all the jobs were done by hand, muscle power of the workers being the chief mechanism.   

The government spared neither human effort not money for this gigantic cathedral. The gold-plating took about 400 kg of solid gold and the whole structure cost 23 million roubles – a fabulous sum for that time.

The first impression is most impressive; the immensity of the pile awes the spectator, and the splendor of the materials employed relieves the simplicity of the architectural lines, which otherwise might seem too severe and too coldly classical. It is a colossus of granite, marble, bronze, and gold. The facades of the edifice face, the one toward the Alexander Garden and the Neva, the other toward the Isaac Square, while the lateral facades front on broad streets, so that the whole monument is completely isolated. The facades correspond to the arms of the Greek cross of the plan, and in each one are portals preceded by superb peristyles surmounted by friezes. Over the peristyles and at twice their height rises the chief and central cupola, of elegant Byzantine proportions, higher than it is wide.

St Isaac's Cathedral in Saint Petersburg is one the finest cathedrals in Europe 

Isaacs Cathedral in Saint Petersburg, one the finest cathedrals built in Europe in the 19th century, is a unique phenomenon in Russian architecture. Its golden dome, like the spires of the Peter and Paul Fortress and the Admiralty, is seen from afar. The very size of the dome, raised to a great height, suggests an immense size of the cathedral itself. Indeed, it is much larger than all the other churches in the city and can admit more than twelve thousand people at a time.   

St. Isaac's Cathedral, which stands magnificently free, and offers an impressive spectacle. In the form of a cross, almost as wide as long, the great church is approached by broad steps and four porticoes, composed of huge monolithic pillars. Of polished red Finland granite, they rise from a bronze base to terminate in a capital of the same metal. The figures in two of the four pediments relate scenes in the life of St. Isaac, who is shown in converse with Roman emperors. A mighty and gilded central dome, surrounded by four smaller domes, crowns the structure. The sides, without and within, are of marble.       

Charles Fillingham Coxwell, Through Russia in Wartime, 1917   


Mosaics in St Isaac are widely used in decoration

Alongside with paintings, mosaic pictures were widely used in interior decoration. The necessity to resort to this technique, which has been aptly described as “eternal painting”, arose in connection with quick deterioration of oil paintings caused by an imperfect system of ventilation and heating. It was Montferrand who suggested that some of the pictures should be replaced by their copies in mosaics. The work, started in 1851, was finished in 1917. The artists Vasily Rayev, Yegor Solntsev, Ivan Shapovalov, and Stepan Fiodorov, graduates of the St Petersburg Academy of Sciences, were directed, on Montferrand’s suggestion, to stay there for an additional term to train in the art of mosaic work under the famous mosaicist Michelangelo Barberi. In the middle of the 19th century the Roman mosaic was generally accepted as a technique best suited to making copies of oil paintings and enabling the artist to create a mosaic version closely reproducing the original picture. Among the paintings replaced by mosaics were those in the first and second tiers of the iconstases, and the murals in the central section of the building: The Passion and the Four Evangelists in the pendentives. The first mosaic to be executed was the Savior in the main iconostasis (after the painting by Neif). One of the best mosaics is St Catherine in the south-east chapel, after the painted original by Neif. The inlay work is done with such meticulous accuracy that the icon, even when viewed at close quarters, seems to have been painted. The play of light and shade and the texture of different objects – the cold glint of metal, the sheen of the satin robes, and the living warmth of a human hand – are all captured perfectly. In their efforts to reproduce exactly the wealth of color which distinguished the painted original, the artists made use of smalts of more than twelve thousand different shades.

Among the sculptors of the reigns of Alexander I. and Nicholas I., Stavasseur (1816-1850), and Vitali (1794-1855) were quite cosmopolitan in their respective styles; the former produced a long series of pleasing allegorical and mythological statues; while the latter, in the words of Stassov, " paid brazen compliments " to the Im perial family, whose portraits he reproduced in his bronze bas-relief of the Meeting of the Emperor Theodosius and St. Isaac of Dalmatia in the Cathedral, dedicated to that saint in Petrograd.

The Russian Arts. Rose Newmarch, 1917


The iconostasis

The huge interior of St Isaac’s Cathedral can easily accommodate 15 thousand people. Its lavish stone decoration produces a triumphant and splendid impression. Particularly striking is the iconostasis whose cost amounted to one tenth of the total spent on the cathedral. It was carved of white statuary marble from the quarries La Vinkarella, Falkovaya and Monte Altiesimo in Serravezza. It is decorated with eight columns and two pilasters made of malachite using the so-called technique of Russian mosaics. These columns 9.7 metres high and 0.62 metres in diameter are truly unique. The columns and pilasters are adorned with grooves and decorated with gilded capitals. Roundels and narrow slab panels in the side arches of the apse are also made of malachite. A total of 15 tonnes of top qual-ity Mednorudyansk malachite was used for the interior decoration of St Isaac’s Cathedral. According to an original design by A. Montferrand, eight columns of green Siberian jasper and four columns of purple porphyry were to be placed at the altar. But because in 1836, a huge block of malachite happened to be discovered at the Mednorudyanskaya mine in the Urals, this stone with its extraordinary green colour palette came to use. The two central columns of the iconostasis, 4.9 metres high and 0.43 metres across, were faced with dark-blue Badakhshan lazurite using the same technique of Russian mosaics. It is an interesting fact that originally, those columns had been faced with Baikal lazurite, but Montferrand did not like it and ordered new columns of the Badakhshan stone for the iconostasis; he used the Baikal lazurite ones for decorating his own mansion on Moyka Embankment. The architect did not take into account that Badakhshan lazurite only looks well in very bright light. Even nowadays, the light at the iconostasis is insufficient, so the Badakhshan stone looks rather dull, whereas the Baikal lazurite would not lose its beauty even in artificial light. In the arches of the side chapels of the iconostasis, a famous ancient Greek ornament, a meander, or bordure a la grecque, is also lined with lazurite plates.

Center of city's church celebrations

From the time of its consecration, the cathedral of St. Isaac of Dalmatia became the center for the city’s Church celebrations. Within its walls many divine services accompanied by processions and parades of guards in honor of the name-day saints of the members of the royal family were held. Especially impressive were such traditional for the city holidays like the anniversaries of the Nystad peace, the Chesma and Poltava victories and, of course, in that time still fresh in memory “miraculous salvation of Russia from the invasion of the Galls and with them twenty countries.” Started in 1814, this holiday was celebrated on December 25. The celebration began with a divine service and a procession, which were followed by a march of many church, departmental and military choirs and musicians. Soldiers of the old guard regiments in full dress participating in prayers held on St. Isaac’s Square were a colorful spectacle. The harmonious ranks of the courageous soldiers of the Transfiguration, Semenov, Izmailov and Cavalry guard regiments, cuirassiers and chasseurs came on the square mounted or on foot, accompanied by the sounds of silver trumpets and drums, and enthusiastic exclamations of adoration of one and salutations of another part of the population of the capital were heard. Many military holidays ended with the fantastic fireworks over the Neva, Moika, Fontanka and other rivers.

Saint Petersburg (Russian: Санкт-Петербург) is the second largest city in Russia. It is located on the Neva River at the head of the Gulf of Finland on the Baltic Sea. St Petersburg is often described as the most westernized city of Russia, as well as its cultural capital.It is the northernmost city in the world with a population of over one million.

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