Thursday, November 3, 2011


Maybe I should rename this blog BIG CATHEDRALS AROUND THE WORLD.  It seems like I've covered an awful lot of them this year.  They start to run together even in MY mind. (Of course, a lot is running together in my mind these days.)  However, when I go back and look at my pictures and notes, the various cathedrals separate themselves out again and I remember their distinct features.  There are just a few more that I'd like to share before I finish off blogging about this trip.

It is interesting to me that cathedrals are among the major tourist sites in Russia, a country that was particularly God-less when I was growing up.  One of the truly magnificant sites in St. Petersburg is St. Isaac's Cathedral. St. Isaac was the patron saint of--guess who?--Peter the Great:
These beautiful gold domes were painted gray during World War II to make them a less obvious bombing target. It worked.
St. Isaac's had an unusual use during the years of Soviet control.  After being stripped of anything religious, it was used as the Museum for Scientific Atheism.  The Soviets really did have a rather sick sense of humor.  This is the official Russian version of its use during World War II:
Anyway, with the fall of communism, work to restore the building to its original purpose began and is still underway. 

I know I overuse the words "breathtaking" and "gasp" and "stunning," but take a look at the interior:
Aside from the wonderful riot of color common to most Russian Orthodox churches, there are a few things that make St. Isaac's unique. One is that fourteen different kinds of marble were used in its construction.  Another is that the beautiful frescoes, such as this one of Christ hanging on the wall:
. . . are gradually being replaced by mosaics.  Here is the mosaic version of the fresco above:
  Here are a couple of close-up shots:
Pretty incredible, don't you think? The mosaics will be much more durable than the frescoes.  (If you have seen DaVinci's The Last Supper, which is sadly not the painting it used to be due to fading and crumbling, you will understand.)  From a distance of about ten feet, it is impossible to tell that the reproductions are mosaics.

We particularly loved this iconostasis (the tiered, painting-covered wall that separates the nave from the sanctuary). Those green columns are malachite and lapis lazuli, not painted plaster:
I love the scene over the door frame, a rather bizarre combo of statuary and painting:
If you look through the golden doors, you see Christ in a red robe waiting to welcome us into his kingdom:
At the apex of the main cupola is the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. During the Atheist Museum years, this dove was replaced with a Foucault's Pendulum.

I wonder what they did with these massive doors and friezes during those years? Perhaps these are replicas:

This bust of the main architect and builder of the cathedral, Frenchman Auguste de Montferrand, is prominently placed.  He gave 40 years of his life to not only the construction project, but also the interior design.  Montferrand himself planned the murals and oversaw the artists.  The cathedral was dedicated on May 30, 1858.  Guess whose birthday that was?  Yep.  Peter the Great's.  Montferrand, his magnum opus complete, died just two weeks later.
This extremely accurate model of St. Isaac's is built to a scale of 1/166:
I call this mural "Jesus and the Crystal Ball." I really like the artist's use of shadow to add depth:
One last lingering look at a small, exquisite side chapel on our way out the door:


  1. Love the color, love the different marbles, lover the bronze doors, truly a spectacular building. Quite a contrast to the drabness we typically think of when we think of Russia - not any more!

  2. It's hard not to gasp breathlessly while feeling stunned upon viewing this cathedrals. I can't imagine the feeling when viewing in person.

    I especially like the paintings-turned-mosaics, and the twisted history of turning this silk purse into a sow's ear of an Atheistic Museum.

  3. Iconostasis? Did you know that word at the time, or did your guide tell you, or did you look it up when you got home? I'm completely impressed, and plan to work that in to my talk in church this month--just throw it out there.

    This is a gorgeous cathedral and I loved looking at your pictures. I like the mosaic better than the fresco, esp. the close-up second shot of a bit player in the scene--exquisite. And yes, I like the iconostasis decor (see? I'm already using it) and all the marbles. Lovely--love this tour, and I'll hate to see it end.

  4. We learned the word LAST year in the Greek Orthodox churches we visited on our Black Sea trip. (They also use those floor-to-ceiling tiers of icon paintings.) The word is thrown around as part of the regular vocabulary among the tour guides. On this past trip, every tour guide we had in Russia assumed we all knew what it meant, which we did because our tour educator, Michael Wilcox, had both explained the term to us and lectured on the different levels of paintings (e.g., one level for apostles, one level for saints, one level for Christ in various roles, etc.).