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Auguste-Ricard de Montferrand


Not far from the Neva river and the Admiralty Garden, in the middle of a huge square, stands the largest and most luxurious cathedral of the former Russian capital and indeed, of all Russia. Its astonishing proportions cannot be fully realized from a distance because of the open space of the square and the buildings around it, which are also of gigantic size. Even more amazing is the fact that this magnificent structure was built entirely of granite and marble, weighing hundreds of tons, and that entire forests were driven into the swampy soil to prevent it from eventual sinking. The spot had been chosen over a century earlier by Peter the Great, who built the first wooden church not far from there, and later replaced it with a stone one. In 1868 Catherine II began to build a new marble church which Rinaldi designed, but it was finished in bricks, after architect Breno shortened its dimensions. Finally Alexander I commissioned the French architect Auguste-Ricard de Montferrand to design the existing cathedral, dedicated to Saint Isaac of Dalmatia. For several views of this magnificent structure please go to Peteburg.
The first granite foundation for the Cathedral was laid down in 1819, and it took 39 years to finish the construction. This magnificent, heavy and rather simple edifice is in the form of a cross crowned with a large dome. It is over 340 feet long and about 300 feet across, built entirely of polished red Finland granite, with some parts done in bronze or marble. On three sides massive granite steps, made of single blocks, lead to the entrances under magnificent porticos. The fourth, eastern side, where the altar is, has instead three oval windows under the portico. The main entrances are on the north and south, each with two rows of eight highly polished red granite monolith columns, almost sixty feet high and seven feet in diameter, on mighty pediments decorated with bronze bas-reliefs. The western and eastern sides are similar though their porticos are smaller and have only eight columns. The bases and Corinthian capitals of the columns are made of bronze. The bas-reliefs were sculptured by Lemaire and Vitali, and depict scenes from the life of Christ and Saint Isaac. One, which shows Saint Isaac with Emperor Theodosius, has the head of the latter sculpted to resemble Alexander I's. There are statues of evangelists and apostles on pediments, and at the corners of the roof are statues of angels. A large central dome over eighty feet in diameter rests on a high drum, surrounded by 24 granite Corinthian columns, each thirty feet high. The dome is elongated and is surmounted by a lantern, crowned with a twenty-foot long golden cross. The dome is made of iron and covered with glittering, gold-plated copper. It dominates most of the skyline of Leningrad and, like the Basilica of Saint Peter in Rome, which it resembles, is visible from many sides. Four small domes at the corners of the Cathedral contained the bells, an obligatory item in any Orthodox church. The heaviest weighed almost three tons.
Three enormous and richly sculptured bronze doors lead to the interior of the Cathedral, whose thick walls are recovered with marble, a gift of the Demidov family. Inside the ceiling of the dome is an enormous painting of the Virgin surrounded by saints, the work of Briulov and Bassin. The ceiling above the main iconostasis was painted by Bruni, and one of the two chapels by Pimenov. In he absence of apses, the eastern part of the Cathedral is reserved fro the iconostasis and altars. There are three: a large one in the center and two on the sides. This is the most splendid and gorgeous part of the Cathedral, with malachite columns and pilasters that decorate the white marble iconostasis, royal doors with pillars of lapis lazuli, mosaic pictures framed in silver, and a splendid stained-glass window representing the Resurrection of Christ, which was made in Germany. Before the revolution there were inside the Cathedral about two hundred icons and paintings, and hundreds of various religious and decorative objects, comprising several tons of silver and tens of pounds of gold. This fantastic wealth and splendor, enhanced by hundreds of burning candles and lamps, by magnificent chanting, and by gorgeous vestments of priests and bishops, could not but bewilder anybody who entered the Cathedral. It is indeed a brilliant spectacle that no theater could offer for free, yet as far as admission is concerned the Orthodox church never discriminated against anybody. It was in Saint Isaac's Cathedral that the Russians came closest to imitating the lavishness of the Hagia Sofia and offering the people, to use the words of Saint Vladimir, "The feeling of being in Heaven." The Soviets confiscated everything and emptied the cathedral of all valuables and finally turned it into a museum.




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