The Church Of St. Isaac
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
The Isaac Church stands in the finest square in the city. Forests of masts are sunk into the earth to give it firm support. Wide granite steps lead up to the platform upon which it stands. The design is of a cross, the arms from east to west being twice as long as those from north to south, where the principal entrances are. The altar stands in the long eastern arm and is separated from the rest of the church by the ikonostase.
The entrances north and south are formed by two peristyles supported by columns, an exact copy of the Pantheon, and scarcely smaller; for these columns are sixty-five feet high, seven feet wide, and each from a single block of granite. They are of the same dimensions as the famous columns of Baalbec, in Syria, only that those are of three pieces, while the Finnish morasses have produced such massive rocks as are only to be found in Upper Egypt. I remember something like it only in Maria degli Angeli, where the four pillars, monoliths of granite, came from the Baths of Diocletian. The frontispiece is filled with altirilievi of bronze; hundreds of French guns may be in them. Powerful doors of the same material, wonderfully and beautifully sculptured, lead to the interior of the church. There everything suggests St. Peter's. There are the same strong quadrangular pillars supporting the dome, which is only sixty feet in diameter, while the Pantheon, St. Peter's, the Dome of Florence, St. Sophia, and even St. Paul's in London, have more than twice as great an extension. On this account the interior of the Isaac Church is far from giving the great surprize one experiences in entering the Pantheon, where at a glance you see two thousand square feet covered by a single arch. The Byzantine dames are all narrow and high, often turreted as in the Cathedral at Mayenee.
The dome of the Isaac Church has twenty-four pillars, like the one of the Johannis Church, in Potsdam. These are all of granite, with bronze capitals; and the richly-gilded roof arches over it, not in the form of a segment, but of a half-globe. The gilded turret above the roof is a reduced copy of the whole dome, with the cross above it. The windows of the cupola are large, but they provide all the light for the interior, which produces that mysterious dimness which the Russians like in their churches, but which prevents one from admiring the whole magnificence of the materials used. Next to the Emperor's gate, within the ikonostase, are two colossal pillars, entirely of lapis-lazuli, and six of malachite. Of course, they are only en-crusted, for those precious stones are never found in large pieces. Between these are the pictures of saints, a few of which, at least, are in mosaics as in Rome. The floor and walls are of the most costly antique marble and porphyry worked into the most beautiful designs. It is incredibly magnificent. The cupola is three hundred feet high; to the top of the cross three hundred and forty feet —about the height of the Magdeburg towers.
Nothing could be more imposing than the Russo Greek church architecture. It excludes the showiness of the Roman Catholic Church, received from Paganism, as well as the aspiring nave and tower construction of the Germanic style. One does not get the full effect of the whole, on account of the indispensable necessity of having the sanctuary concealed by the picture-screen. The heavy columns take up much room, and the small lateral pressure of the narrow cupolas scarcely gives cause for them. The Isaac Church has accomplished what it could under such conditions, and no one will leave it without admiration. Two arrangements worried me. Sculpture is strictly prohibited in the Russia Church, and even the raised work on the gigantic bronze doors is an exception. But they have put colossal angels of bronze and gold between the windows of the dome, which to my mind oppresses the whole, and makes it seem smaller than it really is. You can see through the Emperor's door of the ikonostase a stained-glass window representing Christ. This was done in Munich, and is in itself very fine, but the colors are so intense that it does not accord with the other decorations, which are but feebly lighted by the dome. It would be better did the church receive its light through side-windows. But the glass painting is so brilliant in the dimness that even the lapis-lazuli and malachite seem pale. The whole superb structure was carried out by the Emperor Nicholas who has done by all odds more for St. Petersburg than any of his predecessors. He did not see his task finished.
The more one sees of it, the more superb it appears. The colossal size of the bronze reliefs in the lanthorn became apparent to me. A man who was repairing something had a string around the neck of the Infant Christ, upon which he drew up his suspended seat. He was only half the size of this babe in its mother's lap. The great saints' pictures of mosaic on the ikonostase are beautiful. To the left is a Madonna with the Infant Christ; nothing could be finer. The blond child, drest in a little white shirt, stretches its arms out toward the beholder, and his dark eyes are lit up by the seriousness of his great mission. By this stands Alexander Nevsky, in full armor; then St. Catherine; to the right, a Christ with a globe; St. Isaac Dalmaticus, with the plan of the church in his hand, and another saint. The drawings are real masterpieces. Between each picture stands a pillar of malachite, forty feet high, of which there are eight. The entrance to the Emperor's gate is formed by the two priceless columns of lapis lazuli with golden capitals. The two adjoining chapels, in marble and malachite, white and green, are very fine. The steps are of rosso-antico. The paneling of the floor is of giallo, porphyry, and a Genoese green marble, that very much resembles the verde-antico.