Friday, April 8, 2016

St Petersburg - The State Museum St Isaac Cathedral

Date of visit: 23rd October 2015

At the onset, I wish to state that it's difficult to imagine St Petersburg without St Isaac's, like Rome without St Peter's, London without St Paul's or Paris without Notre Dame. The church has become St Petersburg city icon and has been placed side by side with Peter & Pauls Cathedral as dominant features and acquired a great significance in St Petersburg skyline. The gilded domes of St Isaac's are generally regarded as a symbol of St Petersburg along with the small ship on the Admiralty spire, the Angel crowning of Peter & Paul Cathedral and the Bronze Horseman.

Line to queue at the entrance ticket counter under the drizzle that morning

Completed in 1858, St. Isaac's took over 40 years to build and furnished. It was built strictly to European Empire style facades and colonnades which are made unique by the employment of red Karelian granite. The interiors is also furnished with an Orthodox tradition with Catholic influence and extraordinary extravagance in the choice of materials. Different types of semiprecious stone brought from all over Russia form its interior walls and columns, whilst an abundance of original art and sculpture goes only a little way to filling the vast hall of the cathedral. It was designed to accommodate about 14,000 standing worshipers. Beside a visit to view in person the Cathedral interiors, travelers may also buy an extra ticket to climb the 300 steps up to the colonnade. We didn’t take that optional visit due to time constraint but we were told that from there, we may enjoy some of the best views of St. Petersburg available.

The best optimal time to spend for a tour of the cathedral and colonnade should take around two hours. It's certainly worth getting an audio guide for the cathedral, and possibly climb the colonnade if you are entirely unfamiliar with the layout of the city. But, we bought book instead which tells about the cathedral and the city from the souvenir stall seated at the corner of the church museum. It help us better to understand about the place and we could always read in the train ride or even at home as reference.

Ceiling painting in the central dome "The mother of God in glory" by painter, Karl Briullov where the Virgin Mary is represented among the saints

Saint Isaac's Cathedral is called "Isaakievskiy Sobor" in Russian, is the largest Russian Orthodox cathedral in the city. In fact it is the largest Orthodox basilica in Russia and the fourth largest cathedral in the world, by the volume under the cupola. It was built in dedication to Saint Isaac of Dalmatia, a patron saint of Emperor Peter the Great, who had been born on the feast day of that saint.

The church on St Isaac's Square was ordered by Tsar Alexander I, to replace an earlier Rinaldiesque structure. A specially appointed commission members examined several designs, including the one that submitted by the French born architect, Auguste de Montferrand, who had studied under the Napoleon's designer, Charles Percier. Montferrand's design was criticised by some members of the commission as they said it is dry and allegedly boring rhythm of having 4 identical pediment tasteless portico's. It was also suggested that despite the proposed gigantic dimensions, the edifice would look squat and not very impressive. The members of the commission, formed from a well-known Russian architects, were also particularly concerned by a necessity to build a new huge building on the old insecure foundation. But, the emperor, Tsar Alexander I who favored the ponderous Empire style of architecture, had to step in and resolved the dispute toward's Montferrand's favour.

Under Montferrand's close supervisions, the cathedral took 40 years to construct, that was from 1818 to 1858. To secure the huge project, the cathedral's foundation was strengthened by driving 25,000 piles into the fen-land of Saint Petersburg. Innovative methods were created to erect the giant columns of the portico. You may see a corner in the museum displaying some of the method used, i.e. the falsework (see below photo) for supporting the structural works. The construction costs of the cathedral came at a final incredible sum of a million gold Russian Rubles. Sadly that when the Soviet government took over, the building was stripped of its religious symbol. In 1931, it was turned into the Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism where the dove sculpture was removed, and replaced by a Foucault pendulum. On April 12, 1931, the first public demonstration of the Foucault pendulum was held to visualize Copernicus’s theory. In 1937, the museum was transformed into the museum of the Cathedral, and former collections were transferred to the Museum of the History of Religion, in the Kazan Cathedral.

Pictorial story of the refurbishment works

During World War II, the dome was painted over in grey to avoid attracting attention from enemy aircraft. On its top, in the skylight, a geodesic intersection point was placed, to determine the positions of German artillery batteries. With the fall of communism, the museum was removed and regular worship activity has resumed in the cathedral, but only in the left hand side chapel. The main body of the cathedral is used for services on feast days only. As of 2016, the church is still maintain as a museum.

The neoclassical exterior of this cathedral expresses the traditional Russian Byzantine formula of a Greek-cross ground plan with a large central dome and four subsidiary domes. It is similar to Andrea Palladio's Villa La Rotonda (a Renaissance villa built in Vicenza, Northern Italy), with a full dome on a high drum substituted for the Villa's low central saucer dome. The design of the cathedral in general and the dome in particular later influenced the design of the United States Capitol dome, Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin and the Lutheran Cathedral in Helsinki.

Sculptured according to the story of devoted Apostles Peter and Paul on the large western door 

Large western doors, about 20 tonne in weight

The exterior is faced with grey and pink stone, and features a total of 112 red granite columns with Corinthian capitals, each hewn and erected as a single block. These columns were placed 48 nos. at the ground level, 24 on the rotunda of the uppermost dome, 8 on each of four side domes, and 2 framing each of four windows. The rotunda is encircled by a walkway accessible to tourists. 24 statues stand on the roof, and another 24 on top of the rotunda.

The cathedral's main dome rises about 101.5 metres and is plated with pure gold (see above photo). The dome is decorated with twelve statues of angels by Josef Hermann. These angels were likely the first large sculptures produced by the then novel process of electrocuting, which was an alternative to traditional bronze casting of sculptures. Montferrand's design of the dome is based on a supporting cast iron structure. It was the third historical instance of cast iron cupola after the Leaning Tower of Nevyansk, built in 1732 by the order of Peter the Great and 1000 year old Mainz or St Martin Cathedral, built in 1826 located near the historical center and pedestrianized market square in the city of Mainz, Germany.

For avoidance of doubt, I'm referring to a few articles in Russian website and Wikipedia for this entry and discovered a lot of new discoveries (to me, especially) about the olden days design choices and preference. And more amazing is, only today I discovered that there's a leaning tower in Russia beside the leaning tower of Pisa, Italy that I visited long ago in May 2006, almost 10 years ago. For your information, there is one (leaning tower) in my very own country that I'm yet to visit, that is "The leaning tower of Perak". Yeah.. palm face guys! I made a vow that I will spend the next 2 years, 2016 & 2017 to explore and blog about attractions available from Malaysia. I promise!

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