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Saint Isaac’s Cathedral

From the Bronze Horseman, we went to Saint Isaac’s Cathedral. This cathedral has eclipsed all the temples that I have ever visited. Seeing Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, I gasped and was bereft of the power of speech for some time being unable to cope with my emotions. The cathedral not only surpasses the temples but also any structures created by people.

I thought that after all the magnificence that I had seen in Saint Petersburg and Petergof nothing would be able to surprise me anymore. It seemed that there was no strength left to be surprised. However, Saint Isaac’s Cathedral made me feel numb with delight.

It is huge: its height is over 100 meters. It is the largest church in Saint Petersburg; it is only slightly smaller than the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. But only in size. In terms of beauty and majesty, Saint Isaac’s Cathedral is the grandest religious building in all of Russia. This is not surprising considering that in the 19th century it was Saint Petersburg that was the capital of the Russian Empire at the time of its highest dawn.

The construction of the temple began at the order of Alexander I of Russia in 1818, continued by his brother Nicholas I until 1855, and was completed by the son of Nicholas — Alexander II in 1858. The emperors invested in Saint Isaac’s Cathedral a sense of unification of spiritual and royal power. The cathedral was supposed to be a symbol of God’s blessing of the power of the Russian tsars. This is directly reflected in the phrase placed in the frieze of the northern portico, “O Lord, by Your power the king shall rejoice”.

To create the country’s main temple, Alexander I of Russia drew architect Auguste de Montferrand, a brilliant Frenchman who, after the death of Alexander I of Russia, built the Alexander Column in his honour on Palace Square. Montferrand began to create Saint Isaac’s Cathedral at the age of 32 and completed it being the 72-year-old elder, just a month before his death. Saint Isaac’s Cathedral became a matter of his life.

Being born and brought up in the centre of French culture in Paris, Montferrand brought the tradition of building the best European temples into the project of Saint Isaac’s Cathedral. In particular, the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London served to Montferrand as a model for the creation of the dome of Saint Isaac’s Cathedral.

Saint Isaac’s Cathedral was built by the whole world for 40 years! Looking through the statistics on the construction of Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, it seems that you are not studying the history of the creation of the church but the history of the conquest of a hostile state. About 400 thousand people were involved in the creation of Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, about 100 thousand of them died from diseases and accidents during construction.

Gilding the domes of the cathedral was carried out by the method of fire gilding. In this deadly process, 60 masters were poisoned by mercury vapour and died. Approximately the same number of masters died while gilding interior details.

Knowing these figures, when looking at the gilded dome of Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, I have very conflicting feelings. What is more in it, I do not understand. Human life neglecting or the greatness of life given for beauty like which humanity will never create? Probably a bit of everything.

The soils of Saint Petersburg are liquid, watery, and marshy, since the city stands in a valley, on hundreds of islands surrounded by dozens of rivers and tributaries. The weight of Saint Isaac’s Cathedral is not even thousands but tens of thousands of tons. Just earth in those places could not withstand such a huge burden. In order to strengthen the already powerful foundation, more than 12 thousand pine tree trunks were placed vertically under it!

However, I was shocked not by the trees under the foundation (which are not visible) but by the giant columns of granite installed on the upper tiers of Saint Isaac’s Cathedral. The height of each column is 17 meters, while weight of each of them is 114 tons. A total of 48 such columns are installed in the upper tiers. Just imagine: the weight of these columns (without taking into account all the other structures of the temple) is already 5,500 tons! This can be counted as an additional element of the decoration of the upper tiers, excluding walls, roofs, sculptures, and many other columns.

Most of all in Saint Petersburg, I was impressed by the columns of Saint Isaac’s Cathedral. I could not understand how it was possible to create such grandiose and such perfect columns! How was it possible in the 19th century to raise these columns to the enormous height of the temple and fix them here?! This was not only beyond my comprehension but even beyond imagination.

The painting of the temple was entrusted to the best artists of Russia. However, high humidity and poor ventilation did not allow the artists to realize all their plans. It was decided to decorate the interior with mosaics, precious metals, and stones. Almost half a ton of gold, tons of semi-precious metals and stones were spent on the interior of Saint Isaac’s Cathedral. About 300 high reliefs and statues were cast for the scenery of the master. The mosaic in the inner rooms of the cathedral was 6.5 thousand square meters. The work on interior finishing took more than fifty years and lasted until the 20th century.

Saint Isaac’s Cathedral has become a real temple of Russian art of the 19th century. A unique collection of monumental painting of the first half of the 19th century — 150 panels and paintings — is presented in the cathedral. In addition to painting, on the walls of Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, there is an entire gallery of sculptors working in Russia of that era.

The most significant (from an artistic point of view) is the sculptural composition created by the Italian master Giovanni Battista Vitali. He created a composition of twelve angels under the main dome of Saint Isaac’s Cathedral. In addition to the works of Vitali, the cathedral is decorated with sculptures of many other wonderful masters.

The cost of the creation of Saint Isaac’s Cathedral cost the treasury of the Russian Empire 23 million silver roubles, for those times a lot of money! For comparison, we can say that nine years after the construction of Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, Russia sold Alaska to the United States of America for 7 million roubles. In other words, in order to recoup the costs of creating Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, Russia would need to sell three such states as Alaska.

Saint Isaac’s Cathedral was not only a matter of life for Montferrand but also Emperor Nicholas I, who, during the 30 years of his reign, personally supervised the work on the creation of the temple. Not by chance, after the death of Nicholas I in 1855, the last significant architectural project of the elderly protégé of Emperor Auguste de Montferrand was the work on the creation of a monument to the patron in the square opposite Saint Isaac’s Cathedral.

By the way, the monument to Nicholas I is absolutely magnificent! It shocked me almost more than the monument to Peter I by Falcone. Nikolai sits in a relaxed but dignified pose on a rearing horse. The sculptor managed to create a feeling of flight in metal. It seems that Nikolai is flying above the ground on horseback. The design of the monument is so unique that it was not demolished even by the communist authorities in the 20th century (as you know, they fiercely hated Emperor Nicholas I for suppressing the Decembrist revolt). This is a stunning monument!

Despite all the enormous human and material costs, Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, in fact, never became the main Christian sanctuary in the Russian Empire. Perhaps this happened because of too much attention to the material wealth of the temple. Saint Isaac’s Cathedral played an extremely important role for the authorities, since they invested huge amounts in it, constantly rebuilt, repaired, reconstructed, supplemented, and decorated. This place has never been calm.

After the Communist Revolution of 1917, Saint Isaac’s Cathedral was taken away from believers. The communist government founded a museum of atheism in Saint Isaac’s Cathedral. The reign of God-anointed Russian tsars, which was supposed to glorify the council, ceased to exist.

During the Second World War, Saint Isaac’s Cathedral experienced, along with Saint Petersburg, a three-year attack by the Nazi troops. Shells and bombs of fascists got into the cathedral. Its walls, statues, and pillars were riddled with shrapnel explosions. Nevertheless, Saint Isaac’s Cathedral survived. It won along with the great city and great people.

Sure, I learned all this information about Saint Isaac’s Cathedral much later. On that first day of our travels around Saint Petersburg, Saint Isaac’s Cathedral was the culmination of my admiration for the Russian people and the geniuses of that era who created the most beautiful cathedral and the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen.


© Traveling To Russia - 2024

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