Chapter 9 ST.ISAAC’S CATHEDRAL

One of the most grandiose dome-constructions in the world and main architectural dominant of the centre of the city is St.Isaac’s Cathedral. Its extraordinary grandeur and splendour expressed as in the size of the construction, so in the richness of the stone decoration was explainded by the importance the House of Romanovs attached to it: the cathedral was devoted to Peter I and called in honour of St.Isaac Dalmatsky on whose day the tsar had been born. Before the present Isaac’s cathedral was built three more and more expensive Isaac’s churches had been erected one after another. The first of them built of wood in the Admiralty suburb existed till 1727 and was pulled down because of its getting old and falling into decay.

Later the architect G.Mattarnovi built the second Isaac’s church of wood as well. It was located closer to the Neva, on the place of the Bronze Horseman and had burn out in 1735. Catherine II especially respecting the memory of the great predecessor commissioned A.Rinaldi to build the third St.Isaac’s church of marble. The works started in the 60-s of the XVIII-th century were going on very slowly and had been finished in a hurry under the reign of Paul I. As that took place, the size of the church and its bell-tower proved to be much less than it was projected by A.Rinaldi. The thi rd St.Isaac’s church, in spite of being faced with Karelian marble, did not harmonize the surrounding constructions and was demolished. Today its model is exposed in the department of history of architecture at the Scientific Research Museum of the Academy of Arts.

Alexander I had decided to erect new cathedral that could “by the richness and nobleness of its architecture,both outside and inside, represent everything arousing astonishment in the most splenid churches of Italy.”* The construction was intended for a main Orthodox church in Russia, therefore neither pains, nor money was spared to erect it. As a consequence of considerable technical difficulties the cathedral was being built by the project of the architect Au.Montferrand for unusually long time, during 40 years beginning in 1818.

Columns of dark-pink rapakivi-granite arrest our attention first and foremost among the exterior decorations of St.Isaac’s Cathedral. Particularly grandiose columns had been installed on the massive granitic stylobates of the four majestic porticos of the cathedral: sixteen at a time - in the northern and southern porticos and eight at a time -in the eastern and western ones. The columns are crowned with the entablature,frieze of which is also cut out of dark-pink rapakivi-granite. Wide granitic steps lead down from the columns to the basement of the cathedral. These 48 columns, each weighing 114 tons, are 17 m high, with diameter of 1.85 m. They are among the most gigantic columns in the world and are second in the size only to the Alexander column, also set up after the design by Au.Montferrand, to the obelisk of St.Peter in Roma and to the Pompeian column. The total cost of 48 columns, including the open-cut quarry, delivey, finish and installation, had come to 2 611 510 roubles and 48 copecks. Above the portico, in the drums of cupolas and in belfries, as well as on each side of every window the rows of columns of the same pink granite are as if in the clouds over the city. Altogether 112 granitic columns adorn the cathedral.

* Serafimov V., Fomin M. Description of St.Isaac’s Cathedral in St.Petersburg compiled with use of official documents. St.Petersburg, 1865, p.7.

The walls of the cathedral were constructed after the columns of the porticoes had been established. Outside they are faced with large slabs of light-grey Ruskeala Marble. The carved porticos of doors with bronze reliefs ornamented with many figures had been cut out of the same marble. The Ruskeala Marble proved to be very unstable and began to decay rather soon. Therefore in the 1870-1890-s, during >the first restoration of the cathedral not a few slabs of Ruskeala Marble were replaced by insertions of more homogeneous pale-grey Italian marble Bardiglio from the deposit near Serravezza.

St.Isaac's Cathedral represents the show of monolithic columns from rapakivi-granite (dints from artillery shelling of the city in 1941-43 are clearly seen).

The huge St.Isaac’s Cathedral can hold 15 thousand people at one time. Its interior is lined with coloured stone in plenty and looks triumphantly rich. Especially impressive is the iconostasis the cost of which amounted to one tenths of the total cost of the cathedral building. The iconostasis had been cut out of white statuary marble quarried in Serravezza in stone pits of La Vinkarella, Falkovaya and Monte Altiesimo. It is embellished with eight columns and two pilasters made of malachite in the manner of “Russian mosaic.” These columns 9.7 m high and 0.62 m in the diameter represent unique in that the curiosity. The columns and pilasters are adorned with cannelures and decorated with gilded capitals. Insert-roundels and narrow slab-panels in the side arches of the apse are also made of malachite. The interior decoration of Isaac’s cathedral had taken a total of 15 tons of the top quality Mednorudyansk (Copper-ore) malachite.

It was expected to the initial design by Au.Montferrand that eight columns of green Siberian jasper and four columns of purple porphyry would be put in the altar. But in the connection with finding of a huge block of malachite at the mine Mednorudyanskaya in 1836, just that stone tinged with various hues of green colour was decided to use for the column finish.

The two central columns of the iconostasis, 4.9 m high and 0.43 m in the diameter, are faced with dark-blue Badakhshan Lazurite in the manner of “Russian mosaic” too. Curiously, in the beginning those columns had been faced with Baikal Lazurite, but Montferrand did not like them in such a form and ordered to make new columns of Badakhshan Stone for the iconostasis and used the columns of Baikal Lazurite for the decoration of his mansion on the embankment of the River Moika. The architect had not taken into account that Badakhshan Lazurite looked well only in the presence of very bright light. However even nowadays the light in the iconostasis of St.Isaac’s cathedral is almost lacking and the Badakhshan Stone looks rather glum, whereas the Baikal Lazurite does not suffer its beauty loss even at artificial light. Favourite Ancient Greek ornament - that is meander, or bordure a la grecque is also lined of lazuritic plates in the arches of the side chapels of the iconostasis.

Steps to the altar and the bottom part of the iconostasis were hewn out of dark-red Shoksha Quartzite. Made of the same stone is the cornice topping the whole interior stone decor. The wide friese of that quartzite fringes the floor of the cathedral around its periphery.

The floor is composed of slabs of dark-grey and light-grey Ruskeala Marble arranged chess-board fashion. The central part of the floor, situated under the cupola of the cathedral, represents the splendid mosaic in a huge circle form called “rosas” that is a rose. It is inlaid of pink and cherry-red Tivdiya Marble and put in a frame of a border “a la grecque”.

The lower part of the walls and enormous pylons are faced with slabs of black slate. The upper part of the cathedral’s walls is lined with white Italian marble and embellished with pilasters and columns of Tividiya pale-rosy and cherry-red Marble. Altogether there are 8 columns and 172 pilasters, half-pilasters and quarter-pilasters of Karelian marbles in the cathedral. The columns and pilasters, decorated with cannelures, are pale-rosy of warm tint, while the dark cherry-red pilasters, standing at the corners of the cathedral, have smooth surface. In some slabs, for instance in those situated at the south-west corner of the cathedral, we can see, how delicate rosy colour of the marble grades into cherry-red and in places the stone turns ash-pink, almost grey. Installed in frames of Belogorsk Marble arranged below the pilasters are round medallions and narrow ornamental boards made of perfectly polished Solomino Breccia.

St.Paul's Cathedral in London (left), the Pantheon in Paris and St.Isaac's Cathedral in St.Petersburg (right). The drawing by Ja.Kotov.

Huge plates of marble of different colours, brought from various places, are fitted in the recesses between the pilasters: green rock from Genoa, or Verde di Levanto; red one -Rosso di Levanto; yellow marble from Siena. Large tables of French marble Griotto, placed under the mural icons that are ornamented with white carved Italian marble, attract our attention. Indeed, this very valuable marble is picturesque because of its rich red colour contrasting with white round spots of fossilized shells.

The costs of the works with use of the home and imported marbles had amounted to 1 021 397 roubles 18 copecks and 831 971 roubles 75 copecks correspondingly.

In the southern nave, the bust to Auguste de Montferrand - the author of the project and builder of St.Isaac’s Cathedral stands. The disciple of the famous architect, sculptor A.Foletti, had created that bust from all kinds of stones used by Montferrand for finish of the cathedral. He carved out the face of Montferrand of white Carrara Marble, the hair – of grey granite, the collar of the uniform – from slate, the cloak – of crimson Shoksha Sandstone, the cordon – of green marble, and the orders – of yellow Siena marble and crimson quartzite. Pink Tivdiya Marble served for the pedestal of the bust.

The Cathedral of St.Isaac of Dalmatia (St.Isaac's Cathedral), an old engraving .

Marble and granite in the decoration of walls and windows of St.Isaac's Cathedral. Dark insertions of Siena Marble are distinctly noticeable against the background of lighter slabs of Ruskeal Marble.

Here, it is pertinent to recollect the words of Alexandre Dumas from the poorly known obituary dedicated to Au.Montferrand and written during his short visit to St.Petersburg in 1858, just after the grand opening of the cathedral and the architect’s death: “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...”.*

* Journal de Saint-Petersburg, 1858, 4 (16) juillet, p.3191.

St.Isaac’s Cathedral was inaugurated on the 30-th of May, 1858, when the 186-th anniversary of Peter the Great’s birthday was celebrated. The total sum expended for the construction of the cathedral was 23 256 852 roubles 80 copecks in silver. A lot of technical innovations and daring solutions of engineering problems was put into practice during the building of the cathedral. It is worthy to remember such devices as: the thick pile basement, block masonary at the bases, use of Ammosov’s system of heating, the elaboration of the special construction of vaults and ceilings under the cupola and domes, galvanization method of making of bronze sculpture, skilful raising of the complex scaffold and so on , and so forth... The old ways of installation of columns with help of movable portal cranes, as well as gilding “in fire” of the domes with amalgama were used too. The latter process was repeated several times, and after such treatment the cupola and domes of the cathedral has never been regilded and are brightly shining up till now. Nevertheless this huge edifice had proved to be unstable. The bases of the cathedral subsided unevenly, marble walls collapsed. In 30 years already the cathedral was covered with a scaffold again, and since that time it was repaired repeatedly.

Isaac’s cathedral had severely suffered during the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945. Its granite columns were damaged by splinters of Nazi shells exploded close by. In particular, numbers of such “wounds” mark columns of the western portico. Fragments of bombs and shells had breached the roof of the building and rain precipitations began to percolate inside. The decoration of the interior was destroyed through damp and cold. A net of fractures, scars and holes emerged on the marble facing of the inner walls and pylons. The marble lost its glassy polish, its surface crusted with dirt and soot.

The restoration of the cathedral began immediately after the war and lasted up to 1963. The walls were cleared of layers of dirt with abrasives, fractures and scars in the marble were carefully blocked up with mastics of different colours, produced on the base of synthetic resins. After it the whole surface of the stone was polished again. Today, only scrutinizing the glossy surface of the marble slabs, you can see numerous small insets of mosaic with marble bits. Later columns and walls of the cathedral were cleaned and restored many times. And nowadays continuous cleaning of the outer columns and walls is kept. Every time when scaffolding is removed people enjoy the updated stone ornament. But the scaffold travels further over a corner, and big buses, stopping near the part of the edifice, grown lighter, begin to foul it again. It remains only to believe that some day this “perpetual motion” will come to a stop in the result of some reasonable decision.

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