St Isaacs Cathedral is the fourth largest Cathedral Dome in the world. It took 40 years to build this magnificent place of worship that can accommodate over 12000 people and is decorated with gold and silver to startle anyone who enters.
Any grand structure has a story behind it and the story of St. Isaacs Cathedral starts at the time of Peter the Great. Actually, let us step back all the way to the 4th
century of Vizantia, where one of the first Christian monks was baptized as Isaac. Isaac was persecuted by pagans, helped poor people, promoted Orthodox Christianity and after his death was canonized. As history would have it, Peter the Great was born on the feast day of St. Isaac and he wanted to have a church in Saint Petersburg dedicated to his patron saint. The church was constructed soon after the foundation of the city, it was small, made of wood and unfortunately dilapidated in several years. Thus in 1717 Peter the Great laid down the foundation of the second church of St Isaac and even got married there to his second wife Catherine the First. The new church was built very close to the Neva river and nature took its toll slowly causing cracks in the walls and floor of the church, so in the middle of the 18th
century it was dismantled just like the first one.
The third church of St. Isaac was initiated by Catherine the Great, who admired Peter and his heritage. She wisely chose a different place for the construction of the Cathedral and pink marble as the main material. It was designed as a two story building with a tall bell tower, but at the time when Catherine died, only the first floor was completed. Next, Russian emperor Paul the First having a complicated relationship with his mother disliked all her projects, so he ended up using the pink marble to decorate his own palace instead of continuing the construction of the church.
Much later Paul's son - Alexander the First announced a competition to construct the forth version of St. Isaac's church. The winner was a French architect August Monferran, who ended up moving to Russia and stayed for 40 years working on the cathedral.
Construction started in 1818. As Saint Petersburg is located on marsh lands, the soil contains a high percentage of water, so, first of all, August Monferran set out to strengthen the ground on which the Cathedral was to be build. To achieve this he ordered to place more than 25 000 pine wooden trunks into the ground, filling the space between the trunks with chalk, as chalk absorbs moisture. As a result of these preparations the soil became strong enough to withhold a giant cathedral.
After Monferran and his team strengthened the soil while placing granite slabs on top of wooden trunks, their next step was to erect huge granite columns to surround the cathedral. The enormous pieces of granite where excavated not far from the Russian-Finnish border and were transferred to Saint-Petersburg by barges.
Now, after getting the columns to Saint-Petersburg, the next logical step was to erect them. The weight of one column was 114 tons, in the XIX century there were no special machines or cranes to raise the columns. Yet, August Monferran did not even use horses, instead he found a way to erect the columns using only human power. At the basement of the cathedral were constructed 3 rows of scaffoldings (for 3 rows of columns) 70 meters in hight. The workers placed a column, in between every row of scaffolding and tied the columns with numerous ropes.
One end of the rope was tied to the base of the column, while the other end was connected with special wooden rotator called capstone. The 126 workers started rotating the machines around its axes, and the column was pulled up. It took the men only 45 min to erect one column, extremely fast even by today's standards. The use of such technology was so interesting and unusual to see, that people from all over St.Petersburg came to watch. All in all the cathedral has 112 columns and it took about a year to erect all of them.
St. Isaac Cathedral was being constructed to be the main church of the Russian empire, so the government did not spare any money in decorating it. The interior of the Cathedral has 42 different kinds of semi-precious stones and 14 types of marble that decorate the walls and the altar. The stones were transported from Italy, France, Germany, Afghanistan, Turkey, and many other countries.
While on a tour of Saint-Petersburg
don't miss the chance to go to the top of the Cathedral and see the 25 meter dome that is covered with a gilded brush sheets. Learn the story on how it was constructed: workers took the brush sheets, and a natural fluid compound of gold and mercury, and started a controlled fire underneath. Mercury evaporated, so left over was a thin layer of gold covering the sheets. The whole process took place on the ground and it was done 3 times. The main craftsmen who was responsible for the production process put his personal hallmark on the dome, which guaranteed 100 years of quality. In 1958 engineers checked the quality of the dome and it was in perfect condition, to this day there is no need to put new layers of gold.
Today St.Isaac Cathedral is a functioning Orthodox Church and also one of the most visited museums in Saint-Petersburg. Every Wednesday is a day off, but any other day from 10 a.m. till 17.30 p.m. the doors are opened for visitors. From May till September there are additional working hours from 6 p.m. till 10.30 p.m.