St. Isaac's Cathedral

St. Isaac's Cathedral is the largest cathedral in St. Petersburg. It was the largest church in Russia when it was built (101.5 meters high), and is still the third largest domed cathedral in the world. For visitors willing to climb 300 steps, it provides a spectacular view of St. Petersburg.

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History of St. Isaac's Cathedral

St. Isaac's Cathedral was ordered by Tsar Alexander I to replace an earlier Rinaldiesque structure. A specially appointed commission examined several designs, including that of the French-born architect Auguste de Montferrand (1786-1858), who had studied in the atelier of Napoleon's designer, Charles Percier.

Monferrand's design was criticised by some members of the commission for the dry and allegedly boring rhythm of its four identical colonnades. It was also suggested that despite gigantic dimensions, the edifice would look squat and not very impressive. The emperor, who favoured the ponderous Empire style of architecture, had to step in and solve the dispute in Monferrand's favour.

The cathedral took 40 years to construct, under Montferrand's direction, from 1818 to 1858. It was dedicated to Saint Isaac of Dalmatia, a patron saint of Peter the Great.

Under the Soviet government, the building was abandoned, then turned into a museum of atheism. The dove sculpture was removed, and replaced by a Foucault pendulum.

During World War II, the dome was painted over in gray to avoid attracting attention from enemy aircraft.

Today, worship activity has resumed in the cathedral, but only in the left-hand side chapel, and in the main body of the cathedral on feast days only.

What to See

The severe neoclassical exterior of St. Isaac's expresses the traditional Russian-Byzantine formula of a Greek-cross plan with a large central dome and four subsidiary domes. It is similar to Andrea Palladio's Villa La Rotonda, with a full dome on a high drum substituted for the Villa's low central saucer dome.

The exterior, which barely hints at the riotously rich interior, is faced with gray and pink stone, and features a total of 112 red granite columns with Corinthian capitals, each hewn and erected as a single block: 48 at 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 gaze down from the roof, and another 24 from the top of the rotunda.

The cathedral's doors are covered in reliefs, patterned after the celebrated doors of the Battistero di San Giovanni in Florence, designed by Lorenzo Ghiberti.

Inside, suspended underneath the peak of the dome is a sculpted dove representing the Holy Spirit. Internal features such as columns, pilasters, floor, and statue of Montferrand are composed of multicolored granites and marbles gathered from all parts of Russia.

The iconostasis is framed by eight columns of semiprecious stone: six of malachite and two smaller ones of lazurite. The four pediments are also richly sculpted.

The interior was originally decorated with scores of paintings by the great Russian masters of the day. When these paintings began to deteriorate due to the cold, damp conditions inside the cathedral, Montferrand ordered them to be painstakingly reproduced as mosaics, a technique introduced in Russia by Mikhail Lomonosov. This work was never completed.

Quick Facts on St. Isaac's Cathedral

Site Information
Names:St. Isaac's Cathedral
Country:Russia
Categories:cathedrals
Styles:Neoclassical
Dedication: St. Isaac
Dates:1818-58
Visitor and Contact Information
Coordinates:59.934161° N, 30.306087° E
Address:St. Petersburg, Russia
Lodging:View hotels near St. Isaac's Cathedral
Note: This information was accurate when first published and we do our best to keep it updated, but details such as opening hours and prices can change without notice. To avoid disappointment, please check with the site directly before making a special trip.

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Map of St. Isaac's Cathedral

Below is a location map and aerial view of St. Isaac's Cathedral. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.