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The Main Cathedral of the Russian Empire

St Isaac's CathedralDuring the last years of Peter I’s reign there were four cathedrals in St. Petersburg: Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral, the Holy Trinity Cathedral, Cathedral of Assumption of Our Lady and Cathedral of St. Isaac of Dalmatia. Both the first, and the subsequent cathedrals consecrated in the name of St. Isaac were tied closely to the lives of Russian emperors and Russian statehood.

The wedding of Peter Alekseevich and Ekaterina Alekseevna (the future empress Ekaterina I) on February, 19, 1712 took place in the first church of St. Isaac. In 1723 the Czar signed a special decree ordering servicemen of the The Admiralty and seamen of the Baltic fleet to take their oath only in that cathedral.

There is no reliable information available about the services in the second cathedral of St. Isaac. It is only known that in August, 6, 1717 Peter Alekseevich himself broke ground at the construction site of the new church in the presence of high spiritual and state dignitaries.

The first wooden St Isaac's Church. 1710. LithographThe third St. Isaac’s cathedral was laid on August, 8, 1768 in accordance with the project by Antonio Rinaldi. The money for construction was already allocated, but the construction under management of Rinaldi and architect A. Vista went very slowly. Architect Vincenzo Brenna finished the delayed construction, and on May, 30, 1802 Metropolitan Amvrosy in the presence of Emperor Alexander I consecrated the cathedral which thus was transferred from the Imperial Court to the Eparchial Department. Sculptural artwork of this cathedral was done by K. Albani, P.P. Sokolov and I. Shvarts, molding by Bernasconi, icons – by Gualtegri and A.I. Ivanov, and the decor – by F.D. Danilov. Later memorable divine liturgies were held here in honor of St. Petersburg Centennial, and to celebrate universal peace in Europe on July, 10, 1814.

For the following one and a half decade, St. Isaac’s Cathedral became the main cathedral of the capital, and remained as such until when during the Easter Divine Service there occurred an event, which was thus described by archpriest of the cathedral M. Sokolov in his letter to Metropolitan Amvrosy: “This 9th day of April, following the Cherubim Song, the plaster which dampened in the vaults fell in the area of the right choir; while not causing anybody any harm, the falling has made a strong impact and people shuddered, and besides we still see inside the church in many places that the plaster has been damaged by dampness.”

The second St Isaac's CathedralBy the order of the Czar a commission was set up, which consisted of architects Stasov, Sokolov and Beretti, who came to the conclusion that capital renovation was required. His Eminence Vladimir, Vicar of St. Petersburg, ordered to stop divine services at the cathedral, and the throne, the iconostasis, icons and various church articles were transferred for storage to Cathedral of St. Nicholas. The clergy of St. Isaac’s Cathedral were instructed to hold their services and keep their money at the church of the Senate, alternating with the local congregation.

However, the local congregation did not allow the clergy of St. Isaac’s Cathedral to hold divine services in their church permanently. Then the Metropolitan ordered the clergy of St. Isaac’s Cathedral to hold their services in the upper church of St. Nicholas, and himself petitioned the the Senior Arbiter of the Most holy Synod Prince Golitsyn to find a place for the church for parishioners of St. Isaac’s Cathedral in the Admiralty, asking the treasury to pay for this relocation.

Facade of St Isaac's Cathedral. An unrealized design by A.Montferrand. 1820-sNo objections were heard from the Minister of Sea De Traverse, and soon the new cathedral was consecrated in the Admiralty in the name of St. Spiridon of Trimiphunt, with a side altar consecrated in the name of St. Isaac of Dalmatia. Thus, with the organization of this church the clergy of St. Isaac’s Cathedral finally could carry out their services freely and attend to all religious needs of their parishioners.

Immediately after ascension to the throne Emperor Nicholas I had to solve numerous problems which he had inherited from his royal brother. The building of a new St. Isaac’s Cathedral was high on the liSt. The Czar regularly heard reports on its construction, and made useful comments himself, both in the technical, and in the artistic parts of the project. The Emperor had to be credited for that works moved ahead quickly enough. They cost the Russian treasury the inconceivable sum of money in those times – more than 23,000,000 silver rubles.

The cathedral was considered a project of great importance. When someone suggested to build a trading harbor for large ships in St. Petersburg, which was very necessary for the growing Russian industry, the Czar rejected the project, because money was necessary to complete St. Isaac’s Cathedral.

The third St Isaac's Church. Design by A.RinaldiThe fact that consecration and opening of the Cathedral became a significant event in the cultural life of the capital and Russia testifies to the special attention of the reigning dynasty to this cathedral.

Before the consecration Ceremony of the St. Petersburg Cathedral in the name of St. Isaac of Dalmatia on May, 30, 1858 the Czar issued instructions on the sequence of the ceremony of consecration of three side-altars of the Cathedral. The main altar was to be consecrated on May, 30, and side altars – on June 1 and 8. Holy relics were brought from St. Alexander Nevsky Laura and the Kazan cathedral, and placed on the main throne where on the day of consecration the early liturgy was served prior to the beginning of the religious procession.

On the same day at 6 o’clock p.m. after the ringing of the big bell with the usual peal, His Grace Metropolitan Grigory with four archimandrites, two archpriests and local clerics held a nightlong vigil before the main throne of St. Isaac’s Cathedral in accordance with the church charter.

The third St Isaac's Cathedral completed by V.BrennaSome 1200 choristers took part in the opening ceremony. The effect made by their singing seemed amazing for those present.
There was a table covered with cloth put before the Royal Gates, on which there were an artophorion, a communion cloth, the Holy Gospel, a communion cross, a chalise, a communion plate, two small plates, a labis, a spear, scoops, shrouds, aers, ropes, two chitons, two draperies for the throne and the altar, nails, soap, sponges, scarves for wiping lips, cufflinks, towels and knifes. All this was covered with a veil, and four candlesticks with lit candles were placed around.

In the altar, before the High Place, there was another small table covered with a veil, on where there were myrrh, church wine, pink water in vessels, a chipper, an aspergillum, and four stones for nail the boards of the throne.

On Friday, May, 30, at 8 a.m. a peal was sounded for the water sanctification ceremony before the main altar, which was performed by one of archimandrites with four priests and three deacons. The confessor of Their Imperial Majesties with the local court clergy wearing their Twelfthtide garments, brought along with two gonfalons the holy relics of John the Baptist and the Holy Icon of the Savior from the church at the Winter Palace, for the procession.

Consecration of the CathedralThe Father Superior of St. Alexander Nevsky Laura, with four senior monks, brought two gonfalons, a cross with life-giving Cross of the Lord, and a part of the relics of St. Andrew the First-Called from the Holy Synod.
Huge crowds of believers were present at the ceremony of consecration of the cathedral, the neearby streets and even roofs of the nearby houses were overflowing with people. Emperor Alexander II and his entire Court proceeded to the cathedral in a magnificent cortege. Army regiments in full dress uniform were stationed around the cathedral. The city clergy in white and gold attires participated in the religious procession from St. Isaac’s Cathedral to Our Lady of Kazan Cathedral and back.

Ceremony of consecration of the cathedral began at 9 o’clock in the morning on May, 30 and ended about 4 p.m. St. Isaac’s Cathedral was proclaimed the main cathedral of Russian Orthodox Church and remained as such up to the Renovation Split of 1922.

Consecration ceremony of St Isaac's Cathedral in St Petersburg on May, 30, 1858. LithographFrom the time of its consecration the cathedral became the center of city festivities. Its walls bore witness to solemn divine services in honor of saints whose names were born by members of the Imperial Family. Such services were accompanied by religious processions and parades of the Guards. Townsfolk welcomed with special enthusiasm such festivals, as anniversaries of Nistadt Peace Treaty, Poltava and Chesmen victories, and the still memorable at the time “the wonderful rescue of Russia from invasion of the Gauls and twenty other nations” (the Patriotic War of 1812). Established in 1814, this holiday was marked on December 25.

All celebrations began or included divine services and religious processions, were accompanied by processions of church, departmental, and military choirs and musicians.

Of especial solemnity were the prayer meetings on St. Isaac’s Square, held for legendary Guard regiments. In their straight lines, to the sound of silver pipes and drums, on horse or on foot, courageous fighters of Preobrazhensky, Semenovsky, Izmailovsky Regiments, hussars, ulans, cavalrymen, cuirassiers, and huntsmen streamed onto the square. As a rule, fantastically magnificent military holidays ended with an enchanting shows, fireworks, illumination of the Neva, the Moika and the Fontanka.

Consecration ceremony of St Isaac's Cathedral in the presence of Alexander II. LithographCavalier holidays were also very much respected. A special value was given to the day of glorification of St. Prince Alexander Nevsky whose name was born by three Russian emperors. On that day religious processions from the St. Isaac’s Cathedral to St. Alexander Nevsky Laura attracted thousands of the faithful. City clergy were accompanied in the procession by cavaliers of the main Russian orders, among them cavaliers of the Order of St. Alexander Nevsky, who carried the icons of their heavenly patron.

Since 1862, under the influence of the Slavic committee which united many scientists, writers and artists of the capital, who were interested in the history of Russian culture and continuity of its traditions, it was decided to celebrate the memory of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, educators of Slavs, twice a year, on February, 14 and May, 11. After the divine liturgy in the St. Isaac’s Cathedral, a festive meeting was held in the Municipal Duma.

Annually, on February, 19, àðõèåðåéñêîé the service in the cathedral celebrated anniversary of clearing of peasants from a serfdom.

Icon of Our Lady of TikhvinSince December 1896 an Orthodox Fraternal Order of St. Isaac began to operate at the cathedral engaging in religious and moral conversations, charity work, help to the deprived, holding dinners for the poor and schools. For instance, Countess Orlova-Davydova and Countess Vorontsova-Dashkova, parishioners of the Cathedral, founded a school for poor girls. Vorontsova-Dashkova also opened on English Embankment a workshop and boarding house for crippled soldiers, where they were taught tailoring skills.

Foreigners coming to the capital considered it necessary to visit St. Isaac’s Cathedral. Royals from other countries, presidents, supreme ecclesiastics, such as Metropolitans of the Eastern Church, Armenian Catholicoses, Catholic and Anglican bishops, used to pay visits to the Cathedral.

Greatness and beauty of the cathedral were ennobled with its precious sanctities:

  • the Cross with the Life-giving Tree of the Lord and a significant part of the relics of St. Andrew the First-Called, which were sent in 1833 as gift to the Most holy Synod from Jerusalem patriarch Athanasius;
  • Non man-made image of the Savior belonging to Peter the Great, with a gold case and the image of a crown of thorns, presented to the cathedral by emperor Alexander II:
  • Our Lady of Tikhvin icon, which became famous in Peski, suburb of St. Petersburg in the year of consecration of St. Isaac’s Cathedral, and was transported to the cathedral under the order of His Grace Metropolitan Grigory;
  • Our Lady of Korsun icon, from the home of imperial court servant Dmitry Lvovich Naryshkin;
  • Four banners of the State Homeland Guard of St. Petersburg Region in 1855 – 1856 and an old banner of the Homeland Guard of 1812.

Ceremony of washing feet in St Isaac's Cathedral. Watercolor by unknown artist. 1930The Cathedral affairs were managed by the Imperial Church Board, which oversaw the churches of the Winter palace and suburban imperial residences. The staff of the cathedral numbered eighty people, including 12 bell ringers and 17 clergymen: the archpriest, the ecclesiarch, 3 priests, 1 protodeacon, 4 deacons, 5 psalm readers, 2 sextons.

The archpriests of the cathedral included:

  • Rev. Fr. Andrey Okunev (1858 – 1860), M. Div., St. Petersburg Spiritual Academy;
  • Rev. Fr. Peter Lebedev (1870 – 1884), D. Div., St. Petersburg spiritual academy. During his tenure in 1883 a free of charge dining room for the poor was opened at the Cathedral, financed by the charity of the parishioners;
  • Rev. Fr. Platon Karashevich (1884 – 1886), M. Div., St. Petersburg Spiritual Academy. In 1856 he was appointed a priest at St. Isaac’s cathedral, and in 1884 transferred to the position of the archprieSt. Under his petition and upon the blessing of His Grace Metropolitan Isidor, there began weekly acathistos services to the Holy Virgin before the Miracle-Working Icon of Our Lady of Tikhvin, with participation of the choir;
  • Peter Smirnov (1886 – 1897), M. Div., Moscow Spiritual Academy, editor of Church Bulletin, scholar of divinity, a remarkable expert on the Scriptures and church history, brilliant orator, and skilled teacher;
  • Ioann Sobolev (since October, 1897), D. Div., St. Petersburg Spiritual Academy.
  • Since 1909 Rev. Fr.A.I. Ispolatov served as the archpriest, and in 1917 he was replaced in this capacity by Archpriest Rev. Fr.N.G. Smiryagin.

All the divine services were conducted accompanied by the choir, who were allowed to sing only in St. Isaac’s Cathedral. There were 50 persons in the choir: 20 adults and 30 youngsters, including 12 basses, 12 tenors, 12 altos and 14 trebles. Most of the choir came from Ukraine – Kiev, Poltava, Chernigov Regions, most of them being from clergy families. The catalogue of hymns was constantly checked and confirmed by the Most Holy Synod. The choir conductor was Lvov, director of the Royal Chapel Choir.

Protodeacon V.N. Malinin who served in St. Isaac’s Cathedral in 1863 – 1905 was especially popular among the parishioners for his phenomenal bass.

Church articles used during the service in St. Isaac’s Cathedral were made of gold and silver by manufacturers Nichols and Plinke, and in the workshop of P.I. Sazikov and F.A. Verkhovtsev. The church articles were made of the first silver recovered in Alagirsky depositories and presented to the Cathedral by Emperor Nicholas I.

Lightening the lights on St Isaac's Cathedral at midnight of Easter Sunday. Drawing by A.Baldinger, engraving by K.VeyermanSome years after the October revolution, finding the country on the verge of a financial crisis, the Soviet government was compelled to find the means to add to the state treasury at any coSt. Besides in 1921 the country was overcoming a natural disaster, a drought and terrible famine that came along in 34 Russian provinces.

The Orthodox Church was among the first to respond to the national trouble. Cathedrals began gathering donations, some money came from abroad. It was allowed to sell precious church articles, which were not used during the church service. The parishioners and clergy of St. Isaac’s Cathedral took a very active part in this project.

But such a position did not suit the new "owners" of Russia. The collected church means were requisitioned, and any contracts and compromises between the Church and the Soviet authorities were forgotten. Sacred divine service articles were requisitioned from churches, and this led to broad-scale conflicts between believers and authorities.

Now, after much time, we can safely assume that the Soviet government tried hard not for the citizens dying of famine, but pursued other purposes.

From the letter by V.I. Lenin dated 19.03.1922, discussing the unrest in Shuya: “Without ruthless confiscation, we can not even start thinking about any economic means, any state work, any upholding of our position in Genoa. The process against Shuya rebels should end with the execution of a very large number of reactionary bourgeoisie and clergy.”

As a result cathedrals were vandalized, there were thousands upon thousands of victims, much of the Russian cultural heritage and religious loci were destroyed. Only in Petrograd alone, more than 3 poods of gold 665 poods and 16 pounds of silver, 1028 of diamonds and 366 jewels were confiscated from churches. About 3 poods of gold, 140 poods of silver and about 800 jewels, i.e. the most part of what was confiscated in city cathedrals was taken from St. Isaac’s Cathedral.

The church articles were priced according to their weight, therefore the majority of unique pieces of art were lost forever.

After the processes against Patriarch Tikhon and Petrograd metropolitan Veniamin the “Tikhonite” Church was declared counterrevolutionary, and two thirds of functioning orthodox cathedrals were transferred to the so-called “cooperating clergy.” In 1923 the “cooperating clergy” held 113 churches from 123 in St. Petersburg, including St. Isaac’s Cathedral, and they held it to the closing of the cathedral in June, 1928.

In 1931 the Antireligious Museum was opened in the building, and after six years it changed its direction of work to becoming the museum of history and art.

But all flows, all varies, and on June, 17, 1990, on Sunday, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, at one point in time the first cathedral of the Russian Orthodox Church, again held a solemn divine service. The divine liturgy according to St. John Crysostom was served here by the Most holy patriarch of Moscow and all Russia Alexis II.

Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovitch and Patriarch Alexey IIUpon completion of the divine service, addressing the faithful, His Holiness said: “Today’s service has shown, that St. Isaac’s Cathedral can be perfectly used both as a cathedral, and as a museum... Nowadays all have understood, that the revival of morals will allow to overcome the lack of spirituality which has affected our society, and will make us merciful, and tolerant to each other. So, be perfect, as our Heavenly Father is perfect. Then we shall solve all the problems facing the people, the Church and our society.”

After two years in the same cathedral, on the Wednesday of the Easter Week, the Most Holy Patriarch said: “The Merciful God judged to us these Easter days to gather under the vaults of the majestic St. Isaac’s Cathedral, to see Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich who headed the Russian Imperial House for over fifty years “go the way of all the earth.” (Josh. 23, 14).”

Henceforth all the divine services in St. Isaac’s Cathedral were made on a regular basis, on all Great holidays and Sundays.

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