Sunday, 26 July 2009

What to see: St Isaac’s Cathedral, St Petersburg

With its massive golden dome, St Isaac’s Cathedral is not only the largest church in St Petersburg, but also the fourth largest domed church in the world. The cathedral is 101.5 metres high and with its 4,000 square metres it can hold 14,000 people.
There had been three churches on the same spot before, each of them named for St Isaac the Dalmatian, a Byzantine monk whose feast day coincided with the birthday of Emperor Pyotr I. The third one had never really been finished, and it was Alexander I who gave the young and inexperienced French-born architect Auguste Ricard de Montferrand (1786-1858) the task of reconstructing it completely.
The work was carried out between 1817 and 1858. It took four decades and claimed the lives of approximately ¼ out of the 400,000 workers who were driven hard for 13 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week. Montferrand himself died a month after the conclusion of 41 years of work on the cathedral, but his request to be buried in it was refused by Emperor Alexander II because the architect was not Orthodox.
The four porticoes are made of a total of 112 monolithic columns of red Finnish granite. Each weighs 114 tons and is 17 metres high. Work on the interior began in 1841. The malachite columns flanking the iconostasis (seen in the third photo) are just a small part of the 16 tons of malachite used for the cathedral’s decoration, to which can be added 400 kilos of gold and 1,000 tons of bronze.
The decoration of the dome is done by Karl Bryullov in 1843-1845 and titled “The Mother of God in Glory”. The dove is made of silver and symbolises the Holy Spirit. The dome’s outer diameter is 25.8 metres. From the colonnade supporting it there is a splendid view over all of St Petersburg, as seen in the last photo. The dome itself is a prominent landmark that can be seen not only from the other side of the Neva, as in the eighth picture, but also from the outskirts of the city.
St Isaac’s Cathedral was consecrated on 30 May 1858 in the presence of Alexander II and remained the most senior church in Russia until the Revolution. Following the Revolution it was deconsecrated and turned into a museum of atheism. Even today it is still a museum rather than a church, although it is a bit unclear what it is a museum of. Yet there are sometimes religious services held in St Isaac’s, such as a solemn mass for the Dowager Empress Maria Fyodorovna when her coffin in 2006, 78 years after her death in exile, was brought to St Petersburg for reburial in the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul.

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