Saint Isaac’s Cathedral is one of the most outstanding monuments of Russian art and architecture of the 19thcentury. It was created by the French architect August Montferrand, and was under the construction for 40 years – from 1818 to 1858. From the very beginning it was considered to be the main and the greatest cathedral in St. Petersburg and in Russia. The golden dome of St. Isaac’s can be seen from any part of the city, and in clear weather – even from the outskirts. Its height is 101.5 m. The capacity of the cathedral is over twelve thousand people.

The history of its construction goes back to the time of Peter I when the first wooden church was put up in honour of St. Isaac of Dalmatia in 1707. It was on St. Isaac’s day, according to the Russian Orthodox calendar, that Peter I was born. Isaac was a monk who lived in Byzantium in the 4th century and was canonized by the Orthodox Church. Soon that church was demolished.

In 1717 Peter I ordered to construct a new church. The building was designed by architect Mattarnovi on the site where the Bronze Horseman stands nowadays. It was built in stone in Peter’s Baroque. The cathedral was situated too close to the water front and gradually the foundation was ruined by water, then two fires broke out. In 1763 it was pulled down.

In 1768 by the order of Catherine II the foundation of the third Saint Isaac’s Church was laid right on the spot. Thus the Empress showed her respect to the memory of Peter the Great. The design was made by architect Rinaldi, who planned to create a marvelous five-dome cathedral with long spire and the walls inside and outside were to be faced with marble. When Catherine’s died the cathedral was ready up to the cornice. Her son Paul I ordered to use all the marble for the decoration of his residence. V.Brenna was entrusted to complete the building, but he was not interested in the work and the result satisfied neither the court nor the church. It was consecrated in 1802.

In the beginning of the 19th century Saint-Petersburg was expanding rapidly and the third Saint Isaac’s Cathedral was clearly not imposing enough for the growing Russian capital. So, in 1816 Alexander I announced a contest for the best design of the reconstruction of the cathedral. Many Russian and foreign architects participated in the competition. Among them was August Montferrand, a young French architect, who made 24 designs of the new cathedral in different architectural styles. One of those, in classical style, was approved by Alexander I and Montferrand was appointed a court architect.

The construction work started in 1818 and till 1822 the previous building was pulled down and the ground was strengthened. The soil is very marshy and eleven thousand wooden piles were driven into the ground in addition to thirteen thousand of the previous foundation. The total weight of the cathedral is three hundred thousand tons.   A lot of complicated engineering problems were to be solved during the construction of such a gigantic structure. In 1828, before the walls were erected, 48 monolithic columns were installed around the cathedral, each weighing about 110 tons. The ideas of a talented Spanish engineer A.Betankur made it possible to do that, as well as to raise the 67-ton granite columns to the height of 40 m and install them around the dome drum.  The model of the original 19th century scaffolding is exhibited in the cathedral. The creation of the central dome was another engineering achievement. The dome is made of metal and consists of three cupolas – two spherical and one cone- placed one over the other. The empty space between the frames is filled in with about 100,000 hollow clay pots. This method provides an excellent acoustic effect in the cathedral. The outside dome is made of metal and faced with brass sheets gilded with the method known as gilding through fire. An alloy of gold and mercury was put on top of the brass sheets. They were heated in open fire, mercury evaporated and gold welded into metal. The process was repeated several times. The dome of the cathedral has never been regilded.

Hundreds of workers participated in the construction of St. Isaac’s cathedral among them was a talented woodcarver Maxim Salin. The wooden copy is 1/166 of the original size was made of neither nails nor glue. It took him eleven years to complete the work.

The cathedral was completed in 1842; however, it took sixteen years more to decorate the interior. Both inside and outside the cathedral is decorated with sculptures and bas-reliefs to the designs of N.Pimenov, P.Klodt, I.Vitali, and others. It was for the first time the galvanoplastics method developed by B.Yakoby was used for making monumental sculpture. There are three big doors in the cathedral. The doors are made of oak-wood panels and faced with bronze bas-reliefs executed by sculptor Vitali. The size of each door is 42 sq m and weight of each fold is ten tons but one can open them easily because they are set on ball bearings.

The cathedral houses a wonderful collection of 150 paintings which are the best samples of Russian monumental art created by well-known Russian masters – K.Bruillov, F.Bruni, P.Basin, P.Shebuyev. Humidity and low temperature inside the cathedral was harmful for frescoes and canvases. It was decided to replace them with their mosaic copies. The work was started in 1853. There are 62 mosaics made of smalt (combination of glass and metal oxides).

The main decoration of the cathedral is the iconostasis. It is a multi-tiered screen which separates the sanctuary from the congregation. It is decorated with the icons arranged in the order prescribed by the Russian Orthodox Church. Here there are three tiers of icons. The first one is made in mosaics representing the patron saints of the Russian emperors in whose reign the four churches of Saint Isaac were built-St. Peter, St. Catherine, St. Paul, St. Alexander Nevsky, and St. Nicholas. The icons on both sides of Tsar’s Gate represent Virgin Mary and Christ. Next to Christ is the icon of Saint Isaac himself with the design of the cathedral in his hand. The mosaics of the second tier show the name saints of the members of the royal family (not crowned). The painted icons of the third tier represent Biblical prophets and patriarchs. The mosaic Last Supper was placed in the centre.

The iconostasis is decorated with ten malachite columns made in so-called Russian mosaic technique. The columns look monolithic; in fact they were veneered with thin plates of green semi-precious stone. Two columns from both sides of Tsar’s Gate are made of lapis lazuli. This deep blue stone was brought from Afghanistan. The stained glass Resurrection of Christ behind Tsar’s Gate was made in Munich.

Inside the cathedral is faced with fourteen kinds of marble brought from Russia, Italy, and France. The bust of architect August Montferrand made by sculptor Foletti is made of various kinds of marble which were used in the decoration of the cathedral.

In 1931 the cathedral was turned into the museum.

The Second World War became hard ordeal for the building. The cathedral was not destroyed but seriously damaged by bombardments and shells. The dampness and cold ruined many elements of the interior decoration. During the WWII the museum did not work and the building was used to store the treasures evacuated from the other museums. The restoration was successfully completed in 1962. Nowadays the cathedral is a museum. At present services are held here too.


Text by Ekaterina Chistyakova

Location : St.Petersburg

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