St. Isaac’s Cathedral

St. Isaac's Cathedral

Peter the Great was born on the feast day of St. Isaac the Confessor of the Dalmatian Monastery in Constantinople. The cathedral is consecrated in his honor. It is the largest Orthodox Basilica and the 4th largest cathedral in the world.

Did you know that there were 3 other St. Isaac’s?

1. It was commissioned by Peter the Great in 1707 for the shipyard workers and was built in the Admiralty shipyard. It didn’t last long because of its close proximity to the Neva River, and it was destroyed by flood.

2. In 1717, this building was built further from the river where the Bronze Horseman is now located. In 1735, a fire (caused by a lightning strike) damaged the church and then it sank into the marshy river bank.

3. Catherine II started a new St. Isaac’s, but she died before the project was finished. Emperor Paul, took up the project. He took the remaining marble to build his castle (St. Michael’s Castle) and finished the cathedral with bricks.

4. Catherine’s beautiful design was finished by Emperor Paul I with 1 dome and bricks. It was so ugly that there were many jokes about it, so in 1809, Alexander I found someone to design its replacement.

The Winning Architect Was

Auguste de Montferrand designed a beautiful cathedral in Neoclassical style. Surprisingly to us, there was a great debate surrounding his design. It was considered dull because of the symmetry and the design was thought to be unimpressive. However, the emperor liked it and believed in Montferrand so he stepped in and ended the debate in Montferrand’s favor.

Montferrand spent 40 years working on it! Legend has it that he spent so long working on this cathedral because a fortune-teller foretold that he would die once he finished it. It’s no surprise he would want to be buried inside it given that the majority of his career was spent building it and it is one of the most famous works he created. However, the emperor was angry he would ask for such an honor and denied the request.  The architect was also not an Orthodox and the emperor thought the request was inappropriate. Montferrand died one month after completing the cathedral. His body was returned to Paris after his death and he was buried in a cemetery there.

French writer, Alexandre Dumas, wrote an obituary dedicated to Montferrand just after the grand opening of the cathedral and the architect’s death. It gives a beautiful description of the hard work and effort Montferrand put into building such an awe-inspiring cathedral.

 “Gilberti who had been entrusted to create the doors of the baptistery in Florence had got bent on them, being a young 20-year-old dark-haired man and straightened himself up only at the age of 60 when his hair became grey. Montferrand spent the same time working at his creation – 40 years, almost half a century, longer than an ordinary human life duration, the time that France needed to establish and overthrow three regimes (empires). However, for those 40 years Montferrand had created not only doors of such a baptistery, he had built the whole church, erected it, made it to rise above the earth, to be raised to the sky. Apart from sculpture of bronze and cutting out of granite, he polished marble, melted down gold, mounted precious stones… While the two nations were making war, the union of art had withstood. France with compasses of its architects and pencils of its artists held out its hand to Russia…”.

Interesting Facts About the Building

Underneath the cathedral lies a forest of trees that were cut down in order to provide the cathedral with a stable base in the marshy territory. 24,000 tree trunks were sunken into the marsh and left to settle for a few years before building on top.

It’s 330 feet tall and its columns are made of granite, and the floor is made of marble from Ruskeala (a nice place for a weekend trip from St. Petersburg).

Montferrand’s face is sculpted into an angel on one of the high reliefs on the outside of the cathedral. He is holding a model of St. Isaac’s Cathedral. He left one more signature inside the cathedral; a marble statue of himself made using all of the different marble he used to build the cathedral. There are 14 different kinds of marble in the cathedral and on his statue.

The interior was originally decorated with painted murals, but the cold and damp conditions inside were not ideal and they were remade with mosaics.

The cathedral can hold up to 12,000 people at a time.

Cathedral Turned Museum

The cathedral became a museum in 1928. The first exhibition was The History of St. Isaac’s Cathedral. The exhibition included drawings, pictures, models, and building related records as well as portraits of Montferrand and painters who worked on the cathedral. In April 1931, St Isaac’s became the State Anti-Religious Museum with the world’s largest Foucault pendulum (this demonstrates the Earth’s rotation) on display.

St. Isaac’s in WWII

During WWII, the gold dome was painted over in grey to keep it from attracting the attention of enemy pilots. Exhibitions from the suburban palaces (Gatchina, Tsarskoe Selo, Peterhoff and Pavlovsk) were moved to the basement of the building. If you think about it, it’s a strange idea that they would move the valuable items from those palaces to this cathedral given that the cathedral is centrally located with not much surrounding it closely. It stands out and one would think that it would be a target for the Germans. However, when the officials met to decide where to hide the valuables, it was an artillery man who suggested St. Isaac’s. His reasoning was that since the building is centrally located and stands out, the Germans would use it as a reference point and most likely it would be one of the last buildings they would try to destroy. His theory proved true and while the cathedral was shelled (you can still see the damage on the columns today), it had minimal damage compared to other landmarks in the city. Over 100,000 works of art and other artifacts were housed in the basement along with the staff who were living there.

Staff members from the suburban palaces came with the valuables to live in the basement of St. Isaacs because the Nazis had taken over the palaces and their homes.There were 3 kids living there as well. The living conditions were terrible, especially in the winter. The water pipes busted so several inches of water flooded the basement and condensation was dripping from the ceiling, not to mention the fog and dampness. The staff did their best to protect the artwork from these conditions often taking pieces outside in the winter to air out a few minutes at a time because that’s all they could withstand. If you are interested to know more, it’s possible to arrange a group tour to the basement of the cathedral. Check the website in the link below. 

The Cathedral Today

After the war, it reopened to the public in 1948. When Communism ended, the museum was removed and worship resumed in the left-hand side of the cathedral. In 2010, the Governor of St. Petersburg announced that St. Isaac’s would be given back to the Orthodox church and no longer government-owned property. Although many locals were upset with this change of hand, the handover will take place in 2019. The cathedral will remain open for tours but the entrance will be free.

Tips for Visiting

St. Isaac’s is open everyday (except Wednesday) from 10:30am-10:30pm April 27-September 30. After September 30, the cathedral closes at 6pm until the summer months. The ticket office stops selling tickets 30 minutes before closing time.

If you are going up to the colonnade, be aware that it is a tight, enclosed staircase of about 200 steps followed by a ladder that goes up to the viewing area. If you are claustrophobic or afraid of heights, you may want to enjoy a view from somewhere else in the city like Terrassa restaurant .

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