St. Issac of Dalmatia was one of Peter the Great's patron saints and several successive churches were dedicated to him near this spot. The ground around the church was unstable and each church had foundation problems, which did not dissuade Russian Tsars from dreaming of bigger and bigger cathedrals here.
Returning victoriously from France after the Napoleonic wars, Alexander I awarded a young French architect, Auguste Ricard de Montferrand, the job of designing the current building in the classical style. The choice of the classical style ended a long search for the appropriate style. Designs were proposed by different architects cloaked in the superficial veneer of many ages - pseudo-Byzantine, Gothic, etc... but Alexander's long visit to Paris had made him hungry for his own version of the Parisian Pantheon back home in Russia and Monteferrand's drawings came closest to that in Alexander's eyes.
When completed Montferrand's church had one of the largest domes in Europe at the time, but the construction took decades to complete. Monolithic red Finnish granite columns, weighing 114 metric tons each, were quarried for the church and were transported over a great distance. The exterior of the church is covered in grey Siberian marble which makes the building somewhat heavy and dark. Unfortunately the huge weight of the building has caused it to sink unevenly into the bank of the Neva River.
Orthodox Churches in Russia face east; here we can see the left hand side of the Cathedral facing the main square. The altar apse is cleverly concealed in the right side wall. Five gilded domes crown the roof, with the central representing Christ surrounded by his four apostles represented by smaller domes. On the corners are huge kneeling bronze angels holding giant torches, which were set afire on Easter night.
St. Issac's is the Cathedral church of the city and it has been the scene of many important events. Easter services here were considered the most impressive of any in the city for magnificence, pomp and the quality of the singing. The interior of the church is breathtakingly encrusted in gilt bronze, marble and rare stones - including lapis and malachite in amazing quantities. Over the years the paintings of the church were replaced with technically dazzling mosaics.
When completed the dome of St. Issac's dominated the skyline of city more than any other building. It's hulking mass was either loved or hated depending on one's view of it's architectural style.
In front of the church was erected a monument to Nicholas I. The statue was a technical wonder for it was the first major equestrian statue in Europe to balance itself on only two legs. Around the base are statues modelled on the daughters of Nicholas I personifying virtues. The statue faces the cathedral while the horse's posterior faces the palace of his daughter, Maria. This was said to have caused the Grand Duchess considerable discomfort.
In 1911 the Imperial German government built a massive granite embassy - which is, unfortunately, missing from our picture - on the left side of the square. The austere building was despised at the time by the St. Petersburg cultural establishment as an affront to St. Petersburg's delicate neo-classical architectural heritage and the sign of bad things to come. It was designed by the famous German architect Peter Behrens who crowned his building with huge statues of bodybuilders and wooly mammoth-like horses on the roof. These embellishments were among the first things tossed overboard when a mob attacked the embassy at the outbreak of war with Germany in 1914.
On the right hand side of the square was soon to stand the Astoria Hotel, designed by the Russian neo-classical architect, Lidval - erected in 1912.
This square is an icebox in winter.
Next photograph: On the Nikolaievsky Bridge
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