St. Isaacs Cathedral in St. Petersburg: Russian Orthodoxy Clothed in Western Classicism
Only three domed cathedrals are larger than St. Isaacs: San Pietro in Rome, St. Paul’s in London, and Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. It is my good fortune to have visited all four so I am attuned to the timeline and style of each. It is quite remarkable to me that aside from required Orthodox elements, St. Isaacs could easily pass for a Roman Catholic Church. In fact, had Michelangelo completed San Pietro during his tenure as master of works, it is likely St. Isaacs would look much like it. While the dome was his most visible achievement, he designed a Greek cross floor plan that he regarded as symmetrical perfection for churches. He did not live to fulfill his vision, and his successors created a Latin cross structure. If, however, you examine the plan below you will see that St. Issacs has a dome over a Greek cross design in accordance with Michelangelo’s ideal.
In addition, the iconostasis, a beautiful display of rich materials and dynamic color, is fully Westernized. The images have no relationship to traditional Orthodoxy. The image of Christ, Mary, and the Saints resemble those found in Florence, Rome, or Venice: full-bodied, three dimensional, and entirely human. Where is the image of Christ “Not made with hands” or any of the three traditional images of the Virgin: Hodigetria, Umeline, or Orans? Engaged Corinthian columns are also part of the iconostasis—a Roman inheritance prominently featured on the façades of Catholic and Protestant churches. To Ouspensky (Theology of the Icon
) this represents a grievous abandonment of principles. It is a violation of the Orthodox allegiance to the Tradition of the Church passed down from the Apostles of Christ and confirmed in the Great Councils. It is “a mixture of sublimated eroticism and vulgar triteness.” For a great admirer of Raphael, Titian and the Western artistic expression, it is the most beautiful iconostasis imaginable.
Each of the four sides of the Greek cross are framed in a classic Roman façade of Corinthian columns. Just to give you an idea of the monumentality and wealth lavished on this Cathedral consider that the 48 red granite columns each weigh 110 tons and the upper columns about 67 tons each. The dome is covered with 220 pounds of gold, and the interior columns faced with lapis lazuli and malachite.
A view of the facade
A model of the church
Unfortunately my photo of the iconostasis will not upload so I am posting this wiki commons photo URL so you can view it. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AIconostasis_in_St._Isaac's_Cathedral.jpg
The stained glass image of the Resurrection of Christ in the sanctuary is seen through the Holy Doors of the iconostasis
A diagram of St. Issacs' floor plan