Onion domes and spires: Orthodox churches of St. Petersburg

August 11, 2015

Trinity Cathedral (Troitsky Sobor)
We passed this cathedral, which I thought was so pretty, on our tour bus and did not visit.  Wikipedia says that it is an example of Russian Neoclassism, and was built between 1828 and 1835. After years of neglect, it has recently begun to be restored. Many of its relics were looted or destroyed in the early years of the Bolshevik Revolution. In 1990, it became part of the UNESCO World Heritage site of St. Petersburg. In 2006, a fire started by a collapsing resotration scaffold burned the main dome, but the interior of the church was not damaged. Rebuilding of the dome was completed in 2010.

Trinity Church, St. Petersburg
Trinity Church, St. Petersburg

St. Isaac Cathedral (Isaakievskiy Sobor) is the largest orthodox basilica and the fourth largest cathedral in the world. It was designed by Auguste de Montferrand, a French architect that also designed the interiors of the Winter Palace (now the Hermitage Museum). It took 40 years to build so the tsar was able to request an even more grandiose structure than was originally planned. (Source) The cathedral was dedicated in 1858 on the anniversary of Peter I (Peter the Great)’s birthday. It is no longer an active church but is open for visitors. Occasionally a religious service may be held there at Easter or Christmas.

The dome of St. Isaac Cathedral is a feature of the St. Petersburg skyline.
The dome of St. Isaac Cathedral is a feature of the St. Petersburg skyline.

There were actually a total of four St. Isaac’s cathedrals built in St. Petersburg. The first St. Isaac opened in 1707 in a converted wooden barn. The second church, a stone structure built between 1717-1727, was built on the left bank of the Neva River. The left bank was unfortified and prone to flooding, so the building settled unevenly and eventually had to be demolished. The third St. Isaac’s was built on the site of the modern cathedral in 1768, designed by architect A. Rinaldi. Construction dragged on but under instruction by Pope Paul I, the building was hurriedly completed in 1802 under the supervision of another architect, V. Brenna, who distorted Rinaldi’s vision considerably – the final result was incongruous and ugly! Thus a decision was made to rebuild it. The fourth cathedral, built between 1818-1858, is what we see today.

This display case has models of each of the St. Isaac buildings.Outside the modern cathedral, massive pink marble columns, made from single pieces of red granite that weigh 80 tons each, hold up ornamented arched ceilings and towering marble walls display bas relief sculptures set up high, depicting Biblical and battle scenes. The doors are also covered with bas relief sculptures.

Columns - St. Isaac Church

St. Isaac Cathedral
St. Isaac Cathedral
Door detail - St. Isaac
Door detail

Many people choose to climb the almost 300 steps up to the colonnade (the drum part of the dome) to enjoy beautiful views of the city. We, however, spent our time looking at the relics inside.

KODAK Digital Still CameraInside, the walls are covered with marble panels, and above these are frescoes depicting religious themes. The ceilings contain more bas relief sculptures in gold leaf. (According to one source, more than 100 kg of gold leaf was used to cover the dome alone.)

Ceiling of central dome
Ceiling of central dome

100_0537DSC_0464KODAK Digital Still CameraIcons - St. Isaac CathedralKODAK Digital Still Camera

Many of the icons as well as malachite and lapis lazuli columns were created using the mosaic technique – tiny pieces fit together, which you can see on the columns if you get really close.

Mosaic malachite columns
Mosaic malachite columns

Two icons of Saint Isaac, one using the mosaic technique and the other painted, show the difference in texture:

This icon was made with small tiles as a mosaic. St. Isaac - iconA stained glass window portrays Jesus dressed in a red shroud. This is a Roman Catholic element – the Orthodox portray his shroud as lilac in color.

KODAK Digital Still CameraIcons of specific religious saints dominated the walls around the Jesus window, but the most beautiful icons were two small ones, one of the Virgin Mary and Child, and the other of St. Isaac.

Icon of Virgin & child KODAK Digital Still CameraPersonally, I didn’t like St. Isaac as a cathedral – it was too large and impersonal, its decor too lavish for my taste. On the other hand, maybe it was because many of the things I think of as part of a church – like the pews – were missing. And of course, how can it feel spiritual when there are hordes of tourists poking around and taking pictures? But as a museum, it was majestic and its relics beautiful.

Peter and Paul Fortress (Petropavlovskaya Krepost) is on Zayachi Island. The gold cathedral spire can be seen from various places in the city. At 123 meters from the ground to the top of the spire, it can be considered the tallest Orthodox church in the world. At any rate, its bell tower is definitely the tallest Orthodox bell tower in the world. (Source) All tsars, tsarinas and emperors from Peter the Great to Nicholas II (the last tsar) are buried within the cathedral, except two – one of whom was buried in Moscow and the other was executed. In the summer on Peter & Paul Island, there is an exhibition of sand sculptures and in the winter, an exhibition of ice sculptures.

DSC_0487The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood (Tserkovʹ Spasa na Krovi) was built on the exact spot where Tsar Alexander II was fatally wounded in 1881. Per Wikipedia, the church was built from 1883 to 1907 and was funded by the royal family. It was dedicated as a memorial to the father of the then reigning monarch Alexander III. The interior is a museum of mosaics, as all the icons are made of mosaic tiles. Unfortunately, we did not have the chance to go inside. However, there is a walkway that encircles the church ¾ of the way around, affording many good photo opps! It is definitely one of the most photographed landmarks of St. Petersburg, as its colorful domes appear in many travel brochures on Russia.

KODAK Digital Still Camera Church of the Spilled BloodKODAK Digital Still Camera100_0570KODAK Digital Still Camera KODAK Digital Still Camera

2 thoughts on “Onion domes and spires: Orthodox churches of St. Petersburg

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