St. Isaac’s Cathedral

Dominating the skyline of St. Petersburg, St. Isaac’s Cathedral (Isaakievskii sobor) is an unmistakable landmark: its gold dome and proximity to the Neva River and Nevskii Prospekt make it hard to miss. The interior of the second largest Russian Orthodox church is richly decorated with exotic marbles and designs from both Europe and Russia. The main sanctuary is cavernous, with the capacity to hold many thousands of standing parishioners. While no regular services are held any more, major holidays are celebrated and those seeking to worship can do so in a small chapel immediately adjacent to the great hall. The colonnade offers breath-taking views of the city, with the Neva and the Bronze Horseman statue directly to the north, the Mariinsky Palace to the south, and many other landmarks dotting the horizon. Even when approaching the outside of the cathedral, its 48 granite columns give a sense of gravity and prominence in the city. While each of these elements is impressive on its own, the total sum of St. Isaac’s Cathedral offers conflicting messages as to what it is intended to represent. There does not seem to be a fundamental basis or concept that the architect, Frenchman Auguste de Montferrand, was trying to build from, instead creating a mish-mash of European and Russian influences that only seem to be constantly at odds with each other.

The current St. Isaac’s Cathedral is the third reincarnation of the original structure opened in 1707. The first was a repurposed wooden barn located near the Admiralty. Ten years later in 1717, work began on a second church, this time made out of stone, on the left side of the Neva. However, the foundation became unstable due to the unfortified bank and the church had to be disassembled in 1763. In 1768, architect A. Rinaldi began construction on a third version, this time located where the current cathedral stands. However, the construction took longer than expected and Paul I ordered architect V. Brenna to finish the project quickly, which he did in 1802. The finished product was vastly different from Rinaldi’s original concept, and as an exhibition inside the cathedral explains, “[t]he hastily built-up church did not correspond with Petersburg [sic] majestic center in respect of [sic] architecture. A decision was taken to rebuild it.”

Emperor Alexander I favored French architect Auguste de Montferrand’s design for the next reincarnation of St. Isaac’s Cathedral. In his design, Montferrand embraced the Empire style with four identical porticos, pediments, and granite columns surrounding the cathedral’s main floor, with a golden dome crowning the largely stone structure. Some on the committee selected to help decide on the next design felt that the structure was not interesting, but Alexander I intervened to ensure that Montferrand’s vision was brought to fruition. Construction began in 1818 and was completed in 1858, the same year in which Montferrand died. Many new engineering technologies were required to execute the design, most notably that which helped erect the 17 meter tall, 114 ton portico columns (a model of which can be seen in the inset). What was remarkable about the columns was how they were each a single piece of granite, taken from a quarry in neighboring Vyborg (in present-day Finland).

Once they had been transported to the site, an enormous wooden structure helped stand the columns upright and then place them laterally along the side of the building. The gold dome of the cathedral is also a product of advanced innovative technology; the dome was covered with a golden solution in a process similar to spray-painting. However, the solution used included mercury vapors, which later killed a number of the workers who had worked on the dome. Once the dome was painted, it has never required any touch ups or refinishing (save for when the Soviets painted the dome grey to hide it from incoming air raids during WWII). The dome currently stands as one of the most recognizable symbols along the Neva.

To enter the Cathedral, all visitors and parishioners must first buy a ticket from one of ticket booths located around the church. For a museum, the tickets are fairly expensive. There is an additional cost for access to the colonnade, which provides the best panoramic view of St. Petersburg in the city. Entering the church, visitors are directed through a side entrance, which is through the gigantic marble and granite pillars and beneath the overarching pediment. The

entrance is quite small, especially compared with the other external doors that appear on each side of the building. Once inside, the overwhelming nature and grandeur of the cathedral is immediately evident, even though the full size of the cathedral is still for the most part hidden. Directly to the left of the entrance is a small exhibit, detailing the engineering feats that were involved in creating St. Isaac’s Cathedral, including a model of the pulley system used to hoist the pillars upright.

Continuing through the exhibit, there is a model of the architecture of the dome, which was also innovative because of its light weight. On the other side from the engineering exhibit is an exhibit on the history and architecture behind St. Isaac’s, printed in Russian and French. Much of the exhibit focuses on Montferrand’s work and inspiration for his design, as well as neoclassicism in general in the 19th century. In addition to this, murals from the ceilings have been replicated and placed in between the two exhibits, showing the craftsmanship and skill of the artists who worked on St. Isaac’s Cathedral.

The interior is perhaps the most notable aspect of the Cathedral’s design and ornamentation.  The primary sanctuary is large enough to accommodate several thousand people. As you walk inside, your eyes are almost immediately led to look at the walls, and then the ceiling. The lower halves of the walls are covered with exotic stones of all colors, columns made of marble and granite, and gold. The vertical nature of this design directs attention to the murals that adorn the higher half of the walls, which depict scenes from the Bible. Adjacent to these murals, a gilded ledge in a sense frames the murals, providing reflected light to showcase the scene. Gazing at these murals, your eyes are once again directed upwards, this time at the ceiling, where detailed murals are prominently displayed. The main sanctuary’s shape, if looked at from above, is roughly in the shape of a cross; this is a traditional design commonly found in Eastern Orthodox architecture.

Because of this cruciform shape, all walls and ceilings point towards and seem to climax at the main dome of the Cathedral, where a mural of heavenly figures covers the inside of the dome. One of the most interesting parts of the dome is the dove that is placed in the skylight in the center of the dome. The stone floors mirror the shape of the dome, with a circular pattern and a center point situated directly underneath the dove.  The dove was removed during the Soviet period and was replaced by a Foucault pendulum, which was said to demonstrate the rotation of the Earth. However, after Perestroika, the dove was reinstalled in the dome and the church was converted back to a place of worship from a Museum of Atheism and Religion.

One of the most notable areas of St. Isaac’s is the main iconostasis; here, the full extravagance of the cathedral is on display. Centered in the background is a stained-glass portrait of Christ, the only instance of stained-glass in the cathedral. 

Jesus is portrayed holding a staff in one hand and gesturing with the other. The entire piece is almost 3 stories tall and is particularly special because of the relative rarity of stained-glass art in Orthodox churches. What is also particularly interesting is that Jesus is depicted as having stigmata on both his hands and his feet, but he does not have a gash on his right side, as is traditionally included in portraits of Jesus Christ. The main altar is situated directly in front of the stained glass, in a section which tourists and other general church-goers are not allowed access to. Two massive golden doors are slightly ajar, giving a peek inside to the altar and stained glass. In the foreground of the sanctuary is one of the most ornate displays in the cathedral. Ten malachite columns and two lazurite columns divide portraits of holy figures lining the wall. Golden chandeliers hang from the ceiling, illuminating the portraits and bringing out the brilliant color in the exotic stones.

Gilded Corinthian-style headers and bases of the columns, as well as backgrounds to the portraits provide an additional gleam to behold when admiring the nave. The portraits are of religious figures, usually dressed in robes and holding an item that holds special significance to that person. For instance, Jesus can be seen seated, dressed in vivid red and blue robes, holding an orb that contains the stars and heavens. This is a clear allusion to the belief in Christianity that Jesus Christ and God created the universe and reign over all things. There are two levels of portraits on the wall, with six smaller portraits directly above the larger ones. Here, the ceiling seems shorter that of the rest of the sanctuary; it might have to do with the lack of natural light, or that the sanctuary is directly adjacent to the massive dome. Either way, the inclination to look up at the roof is lessened because of the artwork present at normal eye-level.

One of the most interesting and most important aspects of St. Isaac’s Cathedral is located directly to the left of the main iconostasis. Here, a small chapel is open to Orthodox parishioners; as opposed to the rest of the cathedral, proper attire must be worn (head scarves for women; there did not seem to be strict requirements for men). Before walking in to the chapel, there is a desk manned by church volunteers who hand out the scarves and ensure that tourists and parishioners do not take pictures or record video in the chapel—the only area in the church in which photography is not permitted. As opposed to the rest of the church, the chapel more completely embodies the Russian Orthodox traditions of worship and decoration. There are murals in the Orthodox style adorning the walls; several icons are positioned around the room for parishioners to pray at. The main iconostasis is covered with gold and Russian inscriptions, along with impressions of religious and historical Russian figures. There are a few small seats around the sides of the chapel, presumably for the elderly or tourists. At the desk in the front, there is also the opportunity to buy prayer candles for a small fee. Parishioners light the candles and place them in stands with candleholders; the candles burn until they reach the end, at which point church volunteers clean up the wax and take the candle out of the holder. This is a tradition in Orthodox churches throughout Russia, even in some of the oldest churches that are centuries old.

A trip to St. Isaac’s Cathedral is incomplete without the climb up to the colonnade. Some of the most spectacular panoramic views of St. Petersburg are here, including the Neva, the Peter and Paul Fortress, and the colorful roof of the Church on the Spilled Blood.

To reach the colonnade, visitors are directed up a spiral staircase, then across a suspended walkway to reach the rotunda. Once at the rotunda, visitors can walk around the entire dome, giving a 360 degree view of St. Petersburg. Massive granite columns frame each view, with cardinal directions labeled at points around the dome in both Russian and English. There are also fantastic views of the statues placed on the roof of the cathedral, as well as the minor golden domes located on the four corners of the cathedral. The colonnade gives another perspective on how massive St. Isaac’s is. The roof of the cathedral is vast, with gutter systems to make sure that precipitation, particularly snow, does not accumulate. The statues and the roof take on a weathered green-gray color, adding another color to the already abundant palette of St. Isaac’s. Looking over the skyline of St. Petersburg, it is also apparent how relatively short St. Petersburg as a city is. Unlike Moscow, St. Petersburg does not have skyscrapers or other abnormally large buildings, allowing visitors at St. Isaac’s Cathedral to see for miles in every direction. The colonnade makes St. Isaac’s Cathedral one of the best places to gain a sense of the beauty of St. Petersburg.

The presence and relevance of St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg is undeniable: a Russian Orthodox church, situated next to the Neva, with a golden dome that can be seen for miles and is considered one of the signature sights of St. Petersburg. However, St. Isaac’s Cathedral is more than just a Russian Orthodox church. It is infused with influences and motivations from many different aspects, specifically concerning who it is supposed to serve, who built it, and how it is supposed to function. It tries to be many different things, incorporating European influences to Russian tradition; a church and a museum; a tourist attraction and a sacred place for parishioners. When appreciated just for its grandeur, it is one of the most extravagant sights in St. Petersburg. Peering deeper, though, it is a church that is more than just a church.

The structure, architecture, and interior decoration of St. Isaac’s Cathedral are some of the most immediately visible conundrums of the church. From the outside, one can see both Russian and European influences on the design. The 56 massive granite and marble pillars on the main level of the church, particularly with their Corinthian headers, draw strongly from the neoclassical style, a style which is largely influenced by early Roman and Greek architecture and culture.

The symmetry and the bland, yet imposing, façade created by the columns create can be seen throughout Europe in 18th and 19th century buildings, when neoclassicism was at its height. The dome in particular stands out as a European touch to the building, using a perfectly-rounded cap instead of the traditional Russian onion-shaped form. The structure of the building is not completely European, though; the church itself contains a cruciform floor-plan, which while used in Greek churches, is also a mainstay in Eastern Orthodox architecture. This, however, is one of the only Russian influences you will see from the outside.

Once through the doors, though, the clash of cultures is much more striking. The lower portions of the walls are covered with marbles and granites, leaving them colorful, but still somewhat empty.

This is in stark contrast to many other Russian churches, whose walls are covered from floor to ceiling with mosaics and portraits of holy figures, creating color, light, and a sense of crowdedness (or perhaps accompaniment) in the sanctuary. However, as your eye trains towards the ceiling, paintings of Biblical figures appear, full of color. The ceilings portray complete scenes, spread out over the massive convex canvas that the church provides. There is abundant use of gold throughout the interior of the church, a feature that is common among Russian Orthodox churches. The iconostasis is perhaps the best example of how Montferrand tried to fuse European and Russian styles. The iconostasis is an essential element to the Russian Orthodox church and is usually decorated with gold and portraits of figures typically drawn in two dimensions. This iconostasis, however, took these ideas and “Westernized” them; the exotic marbles and stones (malachite and lazurite) dominate the gold in the iconostasis, giving each portrait more space than what is traditionally given. The portraits themselves are much more lifelike as well, using perspective to create three dimensions and giving each portrait exquisite detail. The resulting impression is a less crowded, perhaps cleaner feel (because of the space the marbles and columns create) to the iconostasis. At the same time, it neither feels completely like a Russian Orthodox church iconostasis, nor that of a European church—something in between the two, as if it could not make up its mind. The small chapel to the left of the iconostasis is most likely the only thing that fits in with traditional Russian Orthodox decoration. There is a small iconostasis, along with icons and candleholders in the chapel; these have been placed here with the specific purpose of catering to those who wish to worship. The majority of visitors to this section are of the Russian Orthodox faith, giving the room even more of a Russian feel. There isn’t another section in the church with such a native feeling as this chapel.

This brings up another question: who is this church supposed to serve? From its opening until the Soviet period, St. Isaac’s was a place of worship, where parishioners could worship as often as services were held. During the Soviet period, services were stopped and the church was instead converted to a museum of atheism. However, now that the Soviet period has ended, Russia has tried to combine the two previous incarnations (minus the atheist aspect) into how it operates today. Even before entering the cathedral, every visitor must buy a ticket, which can range from $7 to $12, and an additional $3 to $7 to climb the colonnade. Services are only held on special festivals throughout the year. Inside the church, there are museum displays detailing the creation of the church, as well as its founders and history. More than a few tour groups can be seen making their way around the church, staring up at the ceiling, admiring the marble columns, and looking at the device used to stand the columns upright. At the same time, though, many observant of the faith can be seen around the church, either with tours or on their own. The small chapel is almost exclusively for Russian Orthodox visitors, who pray at the icons and light candles from the front desk. In this sense, St. Isaac’s is still a functioning church: it has an area for worship where parishioners can engage in Russian Orthodox rituals. St. Isaac’s Cathedral is something in between a museum and a church: it caters in large part to tourists and a capitalist mindset, but at the same time still offers a place to worship and celebrate major religious holidays.

The skyline of St. Petersburg is incomplete without the golden dome of St. Isaac’s Cathedral. Since 1858, it has been a landmark along the Neva River, a beacon for ships and visitors alike. It embodies the western-influenced style of St. Petersburg, as well as the riches and grandeur of the elite in tsarist Russia. The interior is one of the most ornately decorated rooms in St. Petersburg, using generous amounts of gold, granite, marble, and other exotic stones to highlight the portraits adorning the walls and the ceilings. Somewhere in the grandeur, though, the church loses its vision, seeking to incorporate too many different influences and purposes into its massive area. Montferrand’s European-inspired design does not incorporate enough of western Christian traditions to deem the church as being completely western, but also does not keep enough Eastern Orthodox tradition to fit in with other Orthodox churches in St. Petersburg or Russia. The current purpose of St. Isaac’s is somewhat in flux, as well: it is in large part a tourist hotspot, but still tries to maintain its image as a place of worship. In whole, while a grand monument to the riches of tsarist Russia, St. Isaac’s Cathedral is a structure with a many differing influences and appearances.

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