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St. Isaac's Cathedral


St. Isaac's Cathedral is one of the most remarkable monuments of Russian art and classical architecture of the 19th century. It is the fourth largest cupola cathedral in the world after St. Peter's in Rome, St. Paul's in London, and Santa Maria Cathedral in Florence. It was designed by the French architect August Montferrand, and was under construction for 40 óears - from 1818 to 1858.

In 1928 the services were stopped to be held in the cathedral and in 1931 it was turned into a museum; nowadays it is visited by about a million people a year.

The cathedral is 101.5 metres high and its total weight is estimated at 300,000 tonnes. It can hold a capacity of up to 8,000 people.

This cathedral was the fourth church of St. Isaac to be constructed in St. Petersburg. The story of its construction goes back to the period of Peter I: it is believed that Isaac was a monk who lived in Byzantium in the 4th century and was canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church. Peter I, the founder of the city, was born on May 30th (the day of St. Isaac, hence the dedication). The first church dedicated to St. Isaac was actually a barn (in front of the Admirality), which was converted into a church. It soon became dilapidated and was torn down.

In 1719, Peter I personally laid the first stone of the new church of St. Isaac. Very close to the Neva, almost in the same place where the Bronze Horseman was later erected, a stone building with a spire was constructed by the architect Maternovi. Peter I and Catherine -future Empress- were married in this very church. The second church of St. Isaac resembled the cathedral of the Peter and Paul Fortress - however the Neva bank was not shored up yet, and the structure began to collapse.

In 1763, by the order of Catherine II, the foundation of the third St. Isaac's church was laid (in the exact location of the present-day St. Isaacs), in order to respect the memory of Peter I. The design was made by the architect Rinaldi; according to the design, the walls of the cathedral both inside and outside were to be faced with marble. But after Catherine's death hår son Paul I ordered to use all the marble for the decoration of his new palace. Rinaldi died just as the lower part of the cathedral had been constructed, and the court architect, Brenna, who was entrusted to complete the building, was not interested in the work and the result satisfied neither the court nor the church.

At the beginning of the 19th century St. Petersburg was expanding rapidly, and the third St 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. But the tsar forbade to destroy the consecrated parts of the old cathedral - the altar and the walls. 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 them, in classical style, was approved by Alexander I and Montferrand was appointed a court architect. Though he was very gifted, he had little experience as an architect: in France he had worked mostly as an interior decorator. That was why there were some serious mistakes in his design. So a special committee of 13 prominent Russian architects was formed to help Montferrand in his work.

Construction started in 1818. First they tore down the building of the previous cathedral and strengthened the ground as the city is built on very marshy soil. Then 48,000 wooden piles were driven into the ground. Granite plates were put upon the piles and covered with plates made of lime stone. It took them 10 years to lay the foundation only. Because they had to preserve the walls of the old church, the uneven sinking of the structure was observed after the foundation had been laid. As a result cracks appeared in the walls and finally they had to stop building and dismantle what still remained of the old structure.

On the outside the cathedral is decorated with 112 monolithic columns. Columns were made of local red granite, which had been cut from the stone walls of the quarries of Karelian Isthmus. For that purpose holes were made in a granite layer, upon which wedges were inserted and a large slab of granite was broken loose from the rock. The columns were roughly shaped on site, shipped on barges to St Petersburg, and finally ground and polished at the construction site, then they were brought inside the scaffolding and pulled by capstans. It took 45 minutes and 128 people to put up one column; the weight of each column is 114 tonnes. This was the only kind of machine tool used in the construction process. All the columns of the porticos were put up in two years. The first column was put up in 1828.

On that day Nicholas I was present at the construction site and put a platinum coin into the base of the column. The construction of the central dome was another achievement of engineering thought. The dome is made of metal and consists of three cupolas mounted one over another forming something like a Russian "matryoshka". The sphere inside the cupola is made of metal ribs. The gaps between the beams of the middle cupola and the sheets of the top cupola are filled in with about 100,000 hollow clay pots, which form a light-weight vault, as well as excellent acoustics. This method was used in the construction of churches in ancient Russia.

The outside dome is made of metal faced with brass sheets gilded ''in fire''. Gold solved in mercury was put on top of brass sheets. The sheets were heated in open fire. Mercury evaporated from the amalgamation and gold welded into the metal. The process was repeated several times, and after such treatment a brass sheet was covered bó a thin out dense layer of gold. But mercury vapours caused extremely harmful effect upon the workers for mercury is quite poisonous for blood system. 60 people perished during the process of gilding.

he dome of the cathedral has never been re-gilded. 100 kilos of gold were used for gilding. The dome is visible from far, far away… In 1858, on May, 30 there was the grand opening and consecration of St. Isaak Cathedral.

The interior of the cathedral is decorated with 400 bas-relieves, mosaics, and bronze statues. From the colonnade of the cathedral one can see marvelous view to St.Petersburg and even feel the soul of the city.

In 2002 the great value, Tykhvinskaya miracle-working icon of Mother of God was returned to the cathedral. Nowadays religious services are held here on greatest Orthodox holidays.

(Open: 11.00 - 18.00. Closed on WED.)

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