Travels with Tim and Lisa

"If my discoveries are other people's commonplaces I cannot help it – for me they retain a momentous freshness" (Elizabeth Bowen)

St Petersburg: St Isaac’s Cathedral

Posted by Lisa Hill on August 29, 2012

St Isaac’s Cathedral is just around the corner from our hotel, the Renaissance Baltic, and like all the other churches we’ve seen today it’s splendid.  Unlike the others, however, it’s a museum, not a religious building, though apparently church leaders are campaigning to have it returned to them.

Among the many impressive aspects are the massive doors.  There are three of them, carved  by Ivan Vitali, with reliefs of Christ and the saints, and the main ones weigh 20 tons.  Understandably they’re not opened very often, most recently on the 300th anniversary of the city, and before that in 1917 during the Revolution.   Unusual in a Russian church, there is also a stained glass window which is the centrepiece of the iconostasis (the royal doors, which correspond to where an altar would be in a Christian church).  Again there are all kinds of precious stones but the most amazing of all are two priceless columns of lapiz lazuli, some of which had to be imported from Afghanistan.  When you think how expensive a small piece of lapis lazuli jewellery is, these columns must be worth a king’s ransom.

All these splendours, however, were created at enormous human cost.  The gold leaf on the turrets was applied by to a mercury base which was heated to secure the gold leaf – and the serfs who worked on it all died from mercury poisoning.  Building went on all year round, right throughout Russia’s frigid winter, and hundreds of serfs perished in the cold and damp.  And, while not the same kind of tragedy, the architect who came from Italy as a young man and spent his entire life building it, was denied his last request to be buried there because it was against Russian church tradition.  His widow took his body back to Italy where he lies in an unknown grave.   You can see a bust of this remarkable man, Auguste de Montferrard, in the slideshow.

St Isaac’s was our last stop for the day.  After a short rest we went out for dinner to Gogol’s – a gorgeous restaurant where Gogol the author wrote Dead Souls. My other bookish moment for the day was a glimpse of the monument to Peter the Great, which I read about it Andrei Bely’s Petersburg.  Hopefully I’ll get back there to take a proper picture in due course.

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