The Mesmerizing Sculpture of St. Isaac’s

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The St. Isaac Cathedral is one of Russia’s main tourist attractions and most imposing buildings in St. Petersburg. It is the city’s largest church and its proportions are truly extraordinary. Nationally, its size is matched only by Stalin buildings or, at a stretch, Moscow’s giant, Cathedral of Christ the Savior.

But even more striking is its decoration. The sculptures it boasts are not only numerous, there are about 300 of them, and pleasing to the eye, but they also vary from one another. To make clear who is who, as it were, we will show your around St. Isaac’s right now.

A little bit of history

Before it became a museum, the cathedral had been one of the city’s main places of worship. It was planned as such and the Synod closely supervised the work on the cathedral’s sculpture. The religious authorities wanted the human images to be as sanitized as possible, but the sculptors managed to infuse what could have been unexpressive church representations with life and emotion.

Ivan Vitali’s genius

Some achieved more than others. Various masters created the cathedral’s images, and their work differs accordingly. Arguably the most successful among the artists that set their hand to the cathedral is Ivan Vitali, a Russian sculptor.

Ivan Vitali was a Russian sculptor of Italian origin. Born in Saint Petersburg, he studied the art as an apprentice of his father, Pietro Vitali. After attending the Academy of Arts he went to Moscow in 1818. His major works are a six-horse chariot on Bove’s Triumphal Arch, a fountain opposite the Bolshoi Theatre, the bas-reliefs above the doors of St. Isaac’s Cathedral and an outdoor bronze statue of Emperor Paul in Gatchina.

His sculpture is truly expressive. Vitali’s works include sculptures of apostles and evangelists on the pediments, angels with thorn crowns and palm branches below the cornice, kneeling angels on the corners of the cathedral, embracing the lamps garlanded with fruit and flowers, door decorations and two of the cathedral’s four pediment low-reliefs.

The angels tenderly hugging a flower and fruit festooned lamp
The angels tenderly hugging a flower and fruit festooned lamp

Vitali’s low-relief looking south

One of Vitali’s reliefs fills the southern pediment. It depicts Adoration of Magi. Holy Virgin holds Jesus with magi coming to worship him set nearby. The kings of Mesopotamia and Ethiopia, the first two magi, are distinguished by their ornamental headdresses; they are placed to the left of Mary. Present also is Joseph, Mary’s husband, standing to the right of her with his head a little bit lowered and turned right, the third magi lying prostrate below him. There is also an old man with a child in the left of the low-relief, looking at the Holy Virgin. In the child’s hands is a small box. Behind the old-man, there is a man, who has piously folded his hands.

The crowned head of one of the maggi: the king of Ethiopia
The crowned head of one of the maggi: the king of Ethiopia

Also depicted the slave of the king of Ethiopia upholding the tail of his crowned master’s cloak. It is said that the relief was made from life; the feeling of awe conveyed in the low-relief suggests Vitali’s proficiency in depicting human body language.

An old man and a child with a box looking at Mary and Christ in awe
An old man and a child with a box looking at Mary and Christ in awe

It took about 40 years to construct the cathedral and many people died when building it. During its construction majority of Russians were in serfdom, and some were forced to contribute to the church’s erection, their life worth approximately the equivalent of a sturdy draught horse. The marshy soil which would treacherously sink during the construction became a burial ground for many a builder.

Vitali’s low-relief looking west

It is not the only low-relief by Ivan Petrovitch Vitali decorating the church’s exterior. The other on the western facade features Isaac of Dalmatia, patron saint of Peter the Great — after whom the cathedral is named, and Roman Emperor Theodosius. Theodosius was an experienced commander and protector of Christian faith against infidels and heretics; the low-relief symbolizes the union between spiritual and secular authorities.

St. Isaac blesses Theodosius, the Emperor of Rome, and his wife
St. Isaac blesses Theodosius, the Emperor of Rome, and his wife

Depicted in the center is Isaac of Dalmatia; he seems to be invoking divine favor upon Theodosius with a gesture of his right hand, holding the cross in his left hand. In the right are warriors with their knees reverentially touching the ground and Theodosius and his wife Flaxilla are in the left. They are followed by two other reverentially positioned figures. The first of them looks like A. N. Olenin, the president of the Academy of Arts, and the other resembles prince P.V. Volkonskiy, a prominent Russian official of the time. In the leftmost part of the low-relief you can make out a figure lovingly holding a model of the cathedral, — which seems strangely upright: this representation bears striking semblance to Auguste Monferrand, the architect of the cathedral.

Monferrand in relief’s sitting before a saint with the back straight was deemed irreverent and arrogant. Consequently, at the opening ceremony the emperor ignored the real man and did not shake his hand.

After the ruler of Russia showed his displeasure with him, Monferrand is said to have died from humiliation and disappointment over his 40 years of efforts having been left unacknowledged.

Monferrand - the architect, the author of the project
Monferrand – the architect, the author of the project and the builder of the cathedral imprinted himself in the act of abuse of his official position

Monferrand’s depiction’s upright position thought profane in front of St. Isaac threw the real architect out of favor and probably resulted in his death.

The sculpture made by other artists

Even though the two other pediment low-reliefs, made by A. Lemer center around the same texts, they are less expressive. The one to the north represents the Resurrection of Christ. It looks less natural then the relief by Vitali and the facial features lack individuality. The other relief by Lemer, portrays Isaac of Dalmatia once again. In this sculpture, Isaac of Dalmatia faces another Roman Emperor Valent. He is standing in front of Valent, who is riding a horse. Weathered warrior and Theodosius’s predecessor Valent was a heretic. He incarcerated Isaac of Dalmatia, who, in the low-relief, is seen chained by the Emperor’s warriors. Both Christians and warriors appear excessively dramatic and fail to convey all the complexity of the situation, soon Theodosius will ascend to power and the saint will be freed.

Also by different sculptor, namely Herman, are the angels on the circular balustrade below the dome.

The colonnade offers a chance to see some of the sculpture more closely. Note that during St. Petersburg white nights it is possible to climb onto the colonnade at nighttime. Request information on the schedule from a Russian travel agency.

The sculpture already described above is the most visible, but it is not all you can see on St. Isaac ’s exterior.

Hidden Treasures

Have a look at the doors sheltered by porticos. Just climb a few steps towards the columns and you will see the doors covered in bronze relief depicting scenes described in the Bible. The door decoration was created by Vitali and shows his artfulness at its highest. Particularly impressive are the representations of the apostles Peter and Paul on the doors looking west.

Don’t miss out on the low-reliefs in the recesses near the cathedral’s doors. The low-relief in the niches of northern portico, to be specific Christ Carrying the Cross and Entombment of Christ, was made by P.K. Klodt, the author of the Horse Tamers on the Anichkov Bridge. The sculpture in the openings of the southern portico, that is to say the Massacre of the Innocents and the Birth of Jesus Proclaimed by Angels to the Shepherds, are by N. V Loganovskiy. They are prime examples of Russian sculpture of the time.

What makes St. Isaac’s one of the most interesting places in Russia is also its interior decoration. The cathedral’s sumptuously rich interior is beautified with 600 sq. meters of mosaics , 14 kinds of marble, 16 tones of malachite, and an 816 sq. meters ceiling painting by Carl Bryulov. It is truly one of the most chic interiors of Russian architecture.

Summary

There is about 300 representations in sculpture both in and on the cathedral. Some of them strike you with their likeness to humans and some seem a little bit too theatrical. Nevertheless, one thing causes no doubt: they are heritage which has grown into St. Peterburgers identity and both locals enjoying their leisure and tourists doing some sightseeing come to feast their eyes on both the splendid building and its, at least, not less splendid decoration. It is this mix of human likenesses in sculpture and the mountain-like body of the cathedral that makes the site one of the most interesting places to visit in Russia.

St. Isaac’s is a huge space, and for you to see and know what is there to be seen and known it might be best to hire a private guide in St. Petersburg. Seek assistance of one of a Russian travel agency offering tours of St. Isaac’s cathedral and you may enjoy one of the Russian architecture gems and St. Petersburg top places of worship having access to expert knowledge. There are many mysterious and curious facts about the cathedral building that must be worthy of your attention.

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