Being the landmark of the city, Saint Isaac’s Cathedral was of course at the top of my must-visit list when I was in St. Petersburg last March. I could see its enormous 101.5-meter-tall-gilded dome soaring to the sky from the distance. As I got closer, I realized how massive the structure was and I was even more astounded by the grandeur of the church’s interior.
Saint Isaac’s Cathedral has a long history that goes back to the era of Peter the Great. The first cathedral dedicated to St. Isaac of Dalmatia was built in the beginning of the 18th century but did not last long, thanks to the floods from the river nearby. The second and third rebuilds did not last long either due to the construction problems. The current structure we see now is based on the design of Auguste de Montferrand who won the design contest in the beginning of the 19th century. The construction began in 1818 by the order of Tsar Aleksandr I and it took around 40 years to complete. The main altar of church was then consecrated in May 1858 during the reign of Tsar Aleksandr II.
As it was below 0°C and snowing, I didn’t spend much time outside to observe the structure. As soon as the ticketing machine dispensed my ticket, I rushed inside hoping for some warmth. There was no Cloak Room inside, so I had to keep my coat and other stuff in my hands (not practical!). The staff later guided me to a machine near the reception to buy a ticket for the audio guide.
Now… I have seen quite a lot of churches during my travels in Europe, including Basilica St. Peter in Vatican. It was probably the biggest, most amazing and jaw-dropping church I have ever seen. And I have to say that Saint Isaac’s Cathedral gave me the similar overwhelming effect as Basilica St. Peter did me. The building is made of marble, malachites and other stones which names I had never heard of before. The ceilings and some of the walls are covered with paintings and there are sculptures and ornaments everywhere in shining gold. It was said that 400 kg of gold were used to decorate this place!
There are two things that immediately grabbed my attention when I got further inside: the iconostasis and the cupola.
The row of green malachite and blue lazurite columns somehow make the iconostasis made of mosaics and paintings more outstanding – and in a way helped ‘relax’ my eyes from being over-exposed to the shining gold everywhere! Behind the slightly opened gilded Royal doors in the middle, you can see the stained-glass window portraying Jesus Christ. Oh, and the sculpture titled “Christ in Glory” and The Last Supper painting on the arch above the blue columns are just as impressive!
The ceiling of the cupola in the centre of the church is decorated with a painting by Karl Briullov, depicting the Virgin Mary with angels and saints. While the iconostasis gives a strong and grandiose vibe to me with its bold colours, the cupola seems to balance it out. With the surrounding paintings in sky blue background, the sunlight going through the windows and gilded sculptures just below them, there is a certain gracefulness that makes the whole sight look kind of heavenly.
The paintings on the rest of the ceiling and walls are just as beautiful. As explained by the audio guide, these detailed paintings depict the scenes in the Old and New Testaments. A big painting of Jesus Christ next to the cupola, right above the Royal Doors is another thing that can “Wow” you.
Visitors were allowed to enter the side altars on the left and the right of the iconostasis, dedicated to St. Alexander Nevsky and St. Catherine respectively. The church also displays various liturgical items used by the church in the past in these altars. By the way, the details of the mosaics in St. Catherine altar are amazing!
Oh, and you cannot overlook the bronze doors in every wing of the building. These giant doors are adorned with detailed reliefs and remind me of the doors of Battistero di San Giovanni in Florence.
There were also some souvenir stalls inside selling religious items and copies of the famous Fabergé eggs. The eggs looked nice but were a bit too pricey for me, so I didn’t get anything and just proceeded to the colonnade.
The ticket I bought already included an entry to climb up to the colonnade walkway right under the dome. There were around 262 spiral, narrow steps to climb, which is nothing compared to climbing up the Duomo in Florence! :-p But… I got satisfied with myself a bit too early! I did not have any problem climbing those stairs, but I surely was not prepared with what was waiting on the roof outside.
The snow was already falling when I started going up from the entrance on the other side of the church, but it felt 1,000 times worse up there! In order to get to the colonnade, I had to cross a small iron bridge that suddenly and suspiciously looked not stable enough to withstand the wind. Plus it was quite slippery for me because of the snow! But somehow I managed to do it anyway. The wind was much stronger above and that of course resulted in my face being slapped by snow flakes from all directions. Not fun at all! I did manage to capture the view, though, and could clearly see the frozen Neva river, the gilded spire of the Admiralty Building and the Winter Palace from above here. Marvelous!