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The Cathedrals Peter and Paul, St. Isaac's, and Kazan

May 8, 2009 at 1:34 pm
By hagemanm

A major difference between St. Petersburg and Moscow that stood out to me between was the style of its churches and cathedrals.  Moscow, which traces its heritage back almost a thousand years, is riddled with small-ish, onion-domed, Russian-style churches--many of which were built before the 1666 Schism in Russian Orthodoxy.  Even its cathedrals, with the exception of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, are diminutive in comparison with typical European cathedrals.  St. Petersburg is decidedly a break from orthodoxy in this regard.  Its founder, Peter the Great (whom many devout believers of the time considered to be the Antichrist) started this movement with the Peter and Paul Cathedral in the fortress of the same name, the first structure built in St Petersburg.  Our visit to the cathedral allowed us a glimpse of just how unorthodox this Orthodox church was.  An atypical iconostasis!  No Strashny Sud!  And what’s this--a stained glass window?!  The cathedral is also the final resting place of the Russian Royal Family, from Peter I onward, and we went on a sort of a sarcophagus scavenger hunt for our favorite rulers. 

St. Isaac's Cathedral, St. Petersburg, Russia

While the Peter and Paul Cathedral was full of surprises for anyone who has studied Russian Orthodox traditions, the city’s two major cathedrals from the first half of the 19th century are a further departure still from traditional designs.  The Kazan and St. Isaac’s Cathedrals represent a time when St. Petersburg was pulling out all the stops in its attempt to become the “Third Rome,” adhering to the neo-classical styles that dominated the era’s secular buildings.  Both are goliath structures adorned with massive domes and ample columns, and from the outside don’t appear to have any connection whatsoever to the onion-domed, wooden churches of Russia’s past. 

View from St. Isaac's Cathedral, St. Petersburg, Russia 

When we drove around the St. Isaac’s cathedral on our first day bus tour, I noticed some people standing waaayyyy up around the dome of the cathedral, and decided that this was something I needed to do before the trip was over.  The opportunity finally came on Sunday evening, when Brian, Shane, and I climbed up for a look at the city in the sharp-slanting rays of the late evening sunshine.   The view was spectacular (see for yourself), but I was terribly disappointed that the spiral staircases leading to even greater heights were securely chained shut.  We didn’t get to inside the cathedral, but my host mom explained to me that it houses a gigantic Foucault pendulum left over from the Soviet period, when the building was converted into an atheism museum.  We did, however, get a first-hand view of the numerous (112, says Wikipedia) columns, each cut from a single piece of red granite and weighing over 100 tons. 

Kazan Cathedral, St. Petersburg, Russia 

On our last day in town, on my way back to the dormitory for the very last time, I broke off from the main group to pay my last respects to the Kazan Cathedral, possibly my favorite building from our trip.  For a religious building, the cathedral stuck me as somewhat secular in its design—a design dominated by an open, Parthenon-like colonnade forming a semicircle facing Nevskii Prospekt.  Only the Russian Orthodox cross on the top of its dome betrays its true function.  It is constructed of a gray stone that makes it look dirty, lifeless, and almost (I thought) post-apocalyptic.  Nonetheless, I’m sure you’ll agree with me that it is a beautiful structure.