St. Petersburg, Russia

St. Isaac's Cathedral, St. Petersburg, Russia

Like almost everything else in St. Petersburg, St. Isaac’s Cathedral starts with Peter the Great. He was born on the feast day of St. Isaac and so, when choosing a dedication for the second of his churches in his new City (see also St. Peter and St. Paul Cathedral) he picked St. Isaac.

Since that time there have been three more churches on this site – the most recent, the massive structure that is today’s St. Isaac’s dating to 1818-1858.

Alexander I decided that a new, larger, grander Cathedral needed to be built here on St. Isaac’s Square, and in the early 1800s he organised a competition to pick a design. The winning design was by French architect Auguste de Montferrand, although the design was not without controversy.

It would take 40 years of hard work to build the Cathedral. The first, and one of the biggest, problem was the notoriously soft and marshy ground of St. Petersburg. Some 25,000 log piles were driven into the swampy ground in order to stabilise the foundations. This was just the first of a number of superlatives that surround the construction. It cost 1 million gold rubles; the dome is the third biggest in the world (after St. Peter’s in the Vatican and St. Paul’s in London); there are 112 massive granite columns which weigh 114 tons each; the dome is coated in pure gold; inside columns around the iconostasis are made of malachite and lapis lazuli.

It took so long for the work to be completed that an expression entered the Finnish language: “Rakentaa kuin Iisakin kirkkoa (to build like St. Isaac's Church). Each of the 112 granite columns were brought to the site whole and then erected using an elaborate wooden scaffolding system, a model of which can be seen inside the Cathedral.

The lavish interior decoration lasted until the Soviets stripped out all the fittings and took them to their Museum of the History of Religion which they installed in Kazan Cathedral. In 1931 St. Isaac’s became the Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism and the dove in the centre of the dome was replaced with a Foucault pendulum. This only lasted six years and then the Museum was transformed into the Museum of the Cathedral and all the religious imagery and structures were moved back from Kazan Cathedral and re-installed in St. Isaac’s.

During World War II the golden dome was painted grey to try to avoid the attentions of enemy aircraft.

With the end of the Soviet Union the Cathedral once more became a place of worship, although only a small chapel is used for regular services with the Cathedral taking on a ceremonial role.

The interior of the Cathedral now is a dazzling and overwhelming display of colour, gilt and precious stones which belies the years of Communist neglect and now, finally, the last parts of the scaffolding outside are being removed after 20 plus years of rennovation.

On the occasion of my visit I was lucky enough to see the Holy Doors of the iconostasis open to reveal the stained glass Christ figure beyond, my visit coincided with Bright Week the only week when the doors are opened.

Photo - Andrew J. Müller

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