St. Isaac's Cathedral

(Isaakievsky Sobor - Sankt Peterburg)

Front image is looking from the center of the square towards the Cathedral - Hyperlink to a view from the Neva and looking directly over the Bronze Horseman and Decembrists' (Senate) Square towards the glistening dome of St. Isaac's

Ostentatious, extravagant and excessive are words that could and probably should be used in describing features of this massive construction, originally designed as the world's largest Orthodox Cathedral. Long before this lavishly decorated building was opened to the public in 1858, St. Isaacs' already had a most unusual history.

Peter the Great first commissioned a wooden church on the meadow at the side of the Admiralty in St. Petersburg during 1710. Peter named it after a Byzantine monk St. Isaac of Dalmatia, as he was born on St. Isaac's feast day according to the Orthodox calendar. However, this first church was too close to the river bank and was soon destroyed in floods.

Between 1717-27 a second church of this name and having a large multi-tiered baroque bell-tower was built out of stone by Georg Mattarnovi on the spot now occupied by the Bronze Horseman. Mattarnovi was a respected architect, but he failed to design adequate foundations and by the middle of the century, his church walls were heavily cracked and crumbling. A major fire then ended any hope of reconstruction and this church was dismantled, leaving a void for ten years.
In 1768 Catherine II decided to have another church/cathedral built on the same site as a monument to honor her hero Peter and she chose Antonio Rinaldi as the architect. Construction began on the site we see today, but this project was fated never to succeed. Rinaldi had other assignments running simultaneously at Gatchina, then Oranienbaum and his complicated marble designs meant slow progress. The church was without an upper storey when Rinaldi fell to his death from scaffolding in 1794, which was two years before Catherine's demise in '96. The new emperor Paul I commandeered the remaining marble for his new Mikhailovsky Castle and he charged Vincenzo Brenna with completing the remaining work on the cathedral using clay bricks.
Paul only ruled for 5 years before his life was brutally taken inside his fortified home and his eldest son succeeded him as tsar Alexander I, who soon decided that the two-tone St. Isaacs' was too hideous and the butt of too many crude jokes, so it had to go. In 1809 a national competition was announced for the submission of grandiose designs to replace St. Isaacs' with version number 4.

The impressive designs of a virtually unknown young Parisian architect were selected in preference to those tendered by well established architects from several royal courts around western Europe: Auguste Ricard de Montferrand was the chosen one and he was destined to spend the rest of his life creating this gigantic memorial.

Whole forests were decimated to provide 10,762 tarred pinewood piles which were driven into the marshy ground to a depth of 6 metres to provide long-term stability beneath the chosen site. This was allowed to settle for a few years before construction above ground eventually commenced in 1818. However, this was not for technical reasons, other than Russia was disrupted by the Napoleonic War. On top of the treated wood went a compacted layer of stone to a depth of 7 m and over the next three decades 300,000 tons of granite and marble were assembled to complete the exterior of the building up to its final height of 101.5 m (333 feet). Most of the external construction was complete by 1842, then another sixteen years were spent decorating the interior before the grand opening in 1858. St. Isaacs' in scaffolding. An 1845 lithograph from a drawing by its architect, Auguste de Montferrand.

Basically the edifice of this Cathedral is in the form of a cross (95m x 105m), crowned with a magnificent central ribbed dome that is gilded with over 100 kg of pure gold. The structure is almost entirely built from granite and marble, shipped from Vyborg which was then in Finland. On three sides massive granite steps made from single blocks, lead up to the entrances under imposing but elegant porticos. The eastern side, which houses the altar, has three oval windows under its portico. Main entrances are situated in both the northern and southern wings under porticos of double rows of eight highly polished monolithic red granite pillars, almost 18m (60 feet) high and over 2m (7 feet) in diameter. These Corinthian columns weigh 114 tons each and they are set in bronze plinths which are complemented by being topped with similarly bronzed caps. The eastern and western porticos are similar but smaller and have 8 columns apiece. It is recorded that the entire Imperial family and a large party of distinguished guests were present to witness the setting up the first column in March of 1828 and by the end of summer 1830, all the columns had been erected. The building has 112 columns in total.

Each of the porticos are crowned with mighty bronze pediments weighing approximately 80 tons which have bas-reliefs ornately sculptured by Ivan Vitali and Francois Lemaire. The north pediment's bronze relief is ornamented with a scene of the Resurrection created by Lemaire in 1842 and the E wing has another of his reliefs dedicated to a St. Isaac scene. Atop the western portico the bas-relief by Vitali shows St. Isaac blessing the Emperor Theodosius and his wife Flaccilla, but the head of Theodosius was crafted to resemble Alexander I's. Also within this western pediment on the extreme left is an effigy of a toga clad Montferrand kneeling, and holding a model of the building. Vitali also created the southern pediment relief which depicts the Adoration of the Magi. Only after the porticos were completed were the main granite walls erected. These are up to 5 metres thick in most places and faced with Karelian marble.

The Resurrection relief on the northern pediment. Sculptor: Philippe Lemaire, 1842-44

The entire sculptured decorations of St. Isaac's total something like 350 items and the roof area has at least 210 bas-reliefs, busts and statues displaying evangelists, apostles or politicians, and the four attic corners are crowned with pairs of angels (by Vitali) supporting gas torches that were lit at Easter. Without a doubt though, the dominant feature is the huge central dome which can be seen from all over the city, from much of Leningrad district, and from far out into the Gulf of Finland. The 25 m (over 80 feet) diameter dome is made of iron and covered with gold plated copper. The dome actually consists of three hemispherical shells mounted one inside the other, with 100,000 clay pots separating the layers to form a lightweight vault and enhance the acoustics. It rests atop a marble drum which is surrounded by 24 granite Corinthian columns, each 30 feet high and weighing 64 tons. Above the colonnade is a windswept walled walkway that has 24 statues of angels (copies of originals) crafted by Josef Hermann. The dome is elongated and surmounted by a lantern having a gold gilded top, which in turn supports a 6 metre high golden cross. The roof area also has four domed towers symmetrically sitting astride the northern and southern porticos. These towers contain the obligatory Orthodox bells, with the heaviest weighing over three tons. Beneath the NE bell tower is a chapel dedicated to Saint Alexander Nevsky who is arguably Russia's number one hero, after Peter the Great.


The south portico has three enormous double shuttered doors made from electroplated or cast bronze over solid oak. Each panel weighs ten tons and they can only be moved on their hinges with the help of the gearing that is built into the walls. The composition of the doors is multi-levelled and consists of bas-relief panels put into caissons. These multi-figured doors were designed by Montferrand in 1840 and Vitali created them with the assistance of sculptor R. Zaleman. Of particular interest to us on this site are the scenes of Alexander Nevsky having his altercation with the Swedes, which are depicted on two of these South doors. The doors of the West entrance are less ornate but tastefully decorated with images of apostles Peter and Paul. One of the enormous sculptured bronze and oak doors under the South portico.

Through the doors is the colorful interior where the opulence and the sheer vastness of it must stir the emotions of all who enter. Nobody sits inside an Orthodox church, so there is standing room for over 14,000 worshippers on the 4,000 Sq. m of floorspace. Those who have attended functions here will be able to attest to the excellent acoustic qualities of the interior and the author of this page was noticeably moved to hear the near perfect tones of 'followers' singing sacred songs at Christmas in 2000.

Hyperlink - The inside of the domeThe floor, walls, arches and huge pillars of the interior are skillfully decorated with fourteen kinds of marble, as well as jasper, malachite, lazurite, porphyry, gilded stucco, frescoes and 600 sq. metres of mosaics. More than 400 kg of gold, 1000 tons of bronze and 16 tons of malachite went into the interior.

An indelible impression is made on those who have been fortunate to see the huge painting by Karl Briullov inside the cupola; it covers almost 800 sq. m and depicts the Virgin Mary surrounded by saints and angels. In 1931 the Soviets (who ransacked and closed the Cathedral prior to opening it as an Anti-Religious Museum), hung a 93 metre long Foucault pendulum from the underside of the dome center, supposedly to demonstrate the earth's rotation. However, after perestroika this was removed and hanging from the center of the dome now is the restored silver bronze dove, as a symbol of the Holy Spirit and peace. Lower down the walls are murals of the Apostles and evangelists painted by Briullov and Piotr Basin. The walls themselves are faced with marble in many different colors. The painted wall panels and monumental murals around the pillars and arches were created by many gifted artists such as Fedor Bruni, Vasily Shebuev, Timofei Neff, Carlo Mussini, a guy called Zhivago and several others. In total there is over 600 sq. m of wall space dedicated to mosaics and paintings and more than 200 artists took part. The internal gilded sculptures are mainly by Vitali, Piotr Klodt, Alexander Loganovsky or Nikolai Pimenov. The sculptural decoration is the first instance of the use of the galvanoplastic technique (also called electrotyping), invented by the Prussian physicist and engineer Morititz Hermann Jacobi, who changed his name to Boris Semenovich Jakobi shortly after moving to Saint Petersburg in 1837, to work as a leading researcher at the city's Academy of Sciences. Karl Briullov's lungs were damaged from working in the confines of the damp cupola for many consecutive years and he moved to the warmer climes of Italy as soon as his major work was completed in 1852, but soon died from his ailment.

Hyperlink - The main iconostasis and central nave This was an interesting era architecturally and Montferrand drew heavily upon Classicism, embraced historical Romanticism and combined them together whilst also taking advantage of recent archaeological discoveries and new technologies to create this unique project. A perfect example of how different traditions came together is in the nave area at the eastern end of the Cathedral. Ten green malachite and two blue lazurite columns decorate the three tiered Iconostasis which is set in white marble. The two lower tiers are mosaics designed by Neff and F. P. Briullov while the upper tier has paintings by S. A. Zhivago. The gilded bronze Royal doors of the altar weigh five tons and above the archway is a gilded sculpture by Klodt entitled 'Christ in Majesty' (or Christ in Glory). This in turn is surmounted by a mosaic icon entitled The Last Supper which was probably influenced by the similarly named mural by Leonardo da Vinci. Through the arch in the depth of the sanctuary can be seen a stained-glass window that was made by M. E. Ainmiller in Munich in 1843. What is unusual about this window, apart from the rarity of seeing a stained-glass window in an Orthodox church, is that Christ is seen dressed in the Catholic red as opposed to the Orthodox blue.

This is the fourth tallest cathedral in the world after St. Peter's in Rome, St. Paul's in London and the Santa Maria del Flore in Florence and visit to St. Isaac's would not be complete without paying the extra few rubles and climbing the 262 steps of the spiral staircase to the colonnade walkway. This public gallery is about 43 m above ground and offers a magnificent panoramic view of central St. Petersburg.

The Cathedral was consecrated on May 30th 1858 but Nicholas I who played a major role in its construction did not live to see it, having died three years earlier. Montferrand witnessed the consecration and was dead within a month afterwards. His grieving widow tried to carry out the master architect's will by requesting that he be buried in the Cathedral's crypt but Tsar Alexander II refused to sully it with the tomb of a none believer and stated that Montferrand was only a minor employee of the State who did not deserve any honor. His embalmed body was returned to Paris and he was buried in the Montmarte cemetery.

What was the cost of creating this imposing extravagant monster of a building? It is recorded that the financial outlay was 23,256,000 roubles, which was more than six times that of the Winter Palace. But what value should be put on human lives that were painfully lost during the forty years of construction. Hundreds of serfs lost their lives in the quarrying and transportation of the marble. Untold numbers of serfs and laborers who worked for 15 hours a day without holidays were crushed or fell to their deaths from the scaffolding during the main part of construction up to 1842. Then at least 60 and maybe many more indirectly, died from inhaling mercury fumes during the gilding processes that took place under the domes. These hundreds of unnecessary deaths and what some perceived as the obscene gesture of wealth in the Cathedral, must have added to the growing number of calls for a revolution in the city of 500 fabled palaces.

Prior to the Revolution in 1917 it was noted that inside the Cathedral there were approximately 200 unsecured icons and paintings, plus hundreds of other decorative objects and items of religious paraphernalia, comprising several tons of silver or gold embellishment. This fantastic wealth and splendor, enhanced by hundreds of burning candles, colorful vestments of the resident clergy and their sounds of chanting provided a free spectacle that no theater could match. This was open house to all, as the Orthodox church was not discriminative. But the Soviets emptied the building of all valuables and confiscated everything, before opening the building again as a Museum of Atheism. Today the Cathedral is still a museum, but since 1992 it has been holding religious services on special occasions.




Copyright © 2000-15

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