A tale of two cathedrals

Caroline Hurry
Caroline Hurry

Russian Orthodox showstoppers St Isaac’s together with the Peter & Paul Cathedral are St Petersburg’s oldest and most iconic landmarks

Both the soaring gold spire of the Peter & Paul Cathedral and the golden dome of St Isaac’s Cathedral – the largest orthodox basilica on Earth – dominate the St Petersburg skyline.

One of the frescos on the vaulted ceilings of St Isaacs Cathedral in St Petersburg. Picture: Caroline Hurry
One of the frescos on the vaulted ceilings of St Isaacs Cathedral in St Petersburg. Picture: Caroline Hurry

While services for 14,000 worshippers are held within St Isaac’s on religious holidays, Russia’s biggest cathedral is open as a museum. Many climb the 262 steps to the colonnade around the drum of the dome, providing stunning city views from the 43-m height but when we visited, it was under renovation.

Door detail at St Isaacs Cathedral.
Door detail at St Isaacs Cathedral.

More than 100kg of gold leaf was used to cover the 21.8m-high dome alone and, like the Peter & Paul Cathedral, its lavish interiors are festooned with gold. Raked with biblical shafts of light, frescos gaze down from vaulted ceilings, while mosaic and terrazzzo floors add to the hushed atmosphere by muting the footfall of tourists.

Bust of the French St Isaac's designer Auguste Montferrand.
Bust of the French St Isaac’s designer Auguste Montferrand.

St Isaac’s French designer Auguste Montferrand fell from the scaffolding around the dome in November 1837. Fortunately some of the workers caught him before he hit the ground. If that doesn’t make a man religious, then what does?

At the Peter & Paul Fortress and Cathedral, the city’s tallest building and the highest Orthodox Church in the world, our Tour de Force guide Veronika Pominova told us about a Russian peasant called Peter who successfully climbed up the 122.5 m spire topped off by a flying angel bearing a cross, to touch up the gold leaf after it was struck by lightning – a death defying feat indeed.

Peter & Paul Cathedral showng its soaring gold 122.5 metre spire. Picture: Caroline Hurry
Peter & Paul Cathedral showng its soaring gold 122.5 metre spire. Picture: Caroline Hurry

Peter the Great rewarded his bravery by instructing him to get a neck tattoo that entitled him to drink for free in any of the city’s taverns. The man died five years later from alcohol poisoning.

The first structure to be built in St. Petersburg, and thus the birthplace of the city, the Peter & Paul Cathedral is also the burial place for the royal Romanovs, all laid to rest in marble tombs

People still leave fresh flowers on Peter’s grave at the front right. Also here are the bones of both Catherines, Elizabeth, all three Alexanders, Paul, Peter III, Anne and both Nicholases, as the remains of Nicholas II and his family were re-interred in the small Chapel of St. Catherine on July 17, 1998.

  • Special thanks to Tour de Force for showing us around some of the best places St Petersburg has to offer.