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St. Isaac’s Cathedral (St. Petersburg)

Saint Isaac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg, Russia

Saint Isaac's Cathedral or Isaakievskiy Sobor (In Russian: Исаа́киевский Собо́р) located in Saint Petersburg, Russia is the largest cathedral (sobor) in the city. It was the largest church in Russia when it was completed in 1858 with a height of 335 feet (101.5 meters). It is dedicated to St Isaac of Dalmatia.


From the time of Tsar Peter I a series of four cathedrals were built in St. Petersburg dedicated to St. Isaac of Dalmatia on whose name’s day the Emperor Peter was born. In the first of these churches Peter Alekseevich and Ekaterina Alekseevna (the future Elisabeth I) were married on February 19, 1712. Built too close to the river, it was soon destroyed by floods. Peter broke ground for the second cathedral on August 6, 1717. Due to an inadequate foundation the walls of the church cracked and crumbled by mid-century. The ground breaking for the third cathedral, built by Antonio Rinaldi, was on August 8, 1768. After many delays, including Rinaldi’s death in 1794, this cathedral was consecrated on May 30, 1802 and was the principal cathedral in St. Petersburg. In 1817, the plaster in the vaults that had become wet collapsed. This incident had a profound effect on the people, resulting in His Eminence Vladimir, Vicar of St. Petersburg, ordering suspension of services in the cathedral after examination showed further damage of the plaster due to dampness. The throne, iconostasis, icons, and liturgical articles were stored. Until a renovated cathedral was available, the clergy of St Isaac’s conducted services in a side chapel, dedicated to St. Isaac, of the cathedral of St. Spiridon of Trimiphunt.

Planning for a new St. Isaac's Cathedral began under orders of Emperor Alexander I who initiated a design competition in 1809. A number of designs for the cathedral were examined by a specially appointed commission before the design by the French born architect Auguste Ricard de Montferrand was selected. Great emphasis was placed on building a firm foundation for the new cathedral. Emperor Nicholas I, who ascended to the throne after the death of his brother, moved to solve the numerous problems that he had inherited from his brother. Nicholas placed a high priority on completion of the cathedral and provided the necessary funding. The exterior structure was essentially completed by 1842. The next sixteen years were spent completing the interior.

The consecration ceremony for main altar of the St. Petersburg Cathedral of St. Isaac of Dalmatia was conducted on May 30, 1858 in the presence of Emperor Alexander II, followed by consecration of the two side altars on June 1 and June 8. During the ceremonies, St. Isaac’s Cathedral was proclaimed the main cathedral of the Church of Russia and remained so until 1922. St. Isaac’s was the center of religious life in St. Petersburg.

The ground plan for St Isaac’s is Greek-cross with a superstructure surmounted with a large golden central dome and four subsidiary domes. The general design of the cathedral with the central dome later influenced the design of the Capitol Building in the American capital, Washington D.C. The exterior of the building is enriched by 112 columns of red granite, capped with Corinthian capitals. The interior features many columns, pilasters, and a floor made of multicolored granites and marbles with a sculptured dove, representing the Holy Spirit, suspended beneath the central dome. The iconostasis is built in a frame of eight stone columns. The entrance to the cathedral is through relief covered bronze doors patterned after the doors on the Battistero di San Giovanni in Florence, Italy.

Under the Bolshevik government, the parishioners and clergy attempted to cooperate in efforts to aid those in the countryside who, in 1921, were overcome by drought and famine. The Soviet government, however, requisitioned all divine service articles and, under a V. I. Lenin directive, all cathedrals were vandalized for their valuable furnishing and liturgical vessels. After the Church of Patriarch Tikhon and Metropolitan of Petrograd Benjamin was declared “counterrevolutionary” St. Isaac’s Cathedral was one of the 113 churches in St. Petersburg that was turned over to the “cooperating clergy” (the living church, also renovated church). The “cooperating clergy” held the cathedral until it was closed in June 1928. In 1931, the cathedral was used as a museum of atheism until 1937 when it became a museum of history and art. The dove under the dome was removed and replaced by a Foucault pendulum as part of the conversion to a museum. During World War II the golden dome was painted over with grey paint to lessen its prominence as a geographical feature.

After the fall of the Soviet government, regular religious activities resumed in the cathedral on June 17, 1990 with a divine liturgy served by Patriarch Alexei II of Moscow and All Russia. The museum was closed and, while the main altar area in the nave is now only used for major events including feasts, regular services are held in the chapel on the left side of the nave.

Pre-Soviet governance

The affairs for the cathedral were managed by the Imperial Church Board. The cathedral staff consisted of eighty people. This included 12 bell ringers and 17 members of the clergy that consisted of the archpriest, 3 priests, a protodeacon, 4 deacons, 5 readers, and 2 sextons.


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