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Everything You Should Know About St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg

St. Isaacs Cathedral, also known as Isaakievskiy Sobor in Russian, is nestled in the heart of St. Petersburg, Russia. It was completed in the year 1858 as an honorable dedication to the patron saint of Peter the Great, who had been born on the feast day of that saint. It was turned into a museum in 1931 by the Soviet government and remains a museum to this day. 

What the cathedral is most known for are the impressive mosaic displays all throughout the interior and exterior of the structure. People travel from all across the globe just to experience these impressive, historical views. All of the revivalist-inspired mosaic artworks cover about 500 square meters in total, making the cathedral home to some of the most inspiring and prolific mosaic artworks of the 19th Century. 

The History

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Originally, the artwork inside St. Isaacs Cathedral were paintings. Over time, and due to the cold, damp conditions inside the cathedral, the paintings began to deteriorate. Karl Bryullov, one of the greatest painters in Russia during this time, was responsible for painting these masterpieces all along the inside of the cathedral along with other great painters of the day. Architect Auguste de Montferrand, the man responsible for most of the design and structure of the cathedral itself, wanted to recreate all the artwork using the mosaic interpretation. The painstaking procedure of reproducing these paintings as mosaics was introduced by Mikhail Lomonosov, but due to the vast volume of artwork, not all of the paintings could be recreated as coveted mosaics. 

The mosaics inside St. Isaacs Cathedral are world-renowned for their lifelike features. The very materials were handpicked to covey likenesses to the various holy paintings through warmth and feel. For example, the tones of tiles for the hands were carefully chosen to exude the warmness of human flesh. The jewels glitter about the holy saints’ robes as if they were made of precious stones and even the textile features of the artworks were chosen to represent actual fabric. It was fine details like these that made the mosaic works of art that much more intriguing to spectate. While the cathedral itself has undergone hundreds of various bouts of renovations, the mosaics works of art remain in their original state, being carefully preserved and watched over by cathedral staff and groundskeepers. 

Works of Art

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While the mosaic art pieces are original in their construction, the actual paintings were a rendition from previous holy sketches and artwork found within scripture. The work that went into replicating the pieces with mosaics was grueling and extremely difficult. Given the time period, there were not a lot of machinery that could mimic the fine details that the mosaics portray today. Given that fact, the task of cutting the mosaics was often done by hand. Each piece had to be finely cut in order to fit into the grander image. Each tiny mosaic piece also had to go through multiple layers of toning since no piece could be too much lighter or darker than the last. It is speculated that the mosaic art pieces in total contain over 12,000 different shades and tones of color. What makes mosaics so captivating, after all, is the seemingly sporadic placement that has an incredibly scaled out design. Each piece had to coincide in both shape, size, and color in order to make the mosaics as impressive as they are today. Thankfully, there were artists that helped in the process and hundreds of individuals have come together over the centuries to make sure that the mosaics maintain their original luster. 

Some of these grand works of art include “The Passions of Christ,” known as iconostasis including the four evangelists in pendentives. Brilliant works of art such as the iconic “The Last Supper,” and portraits of Mary Magdalen glitter under the soft lights of the cathedral. Once a mosaic piece was done, the act of exemplifying it was not over. The cathedral itself has massive and impressive architecture. Everything from the domed roof to the cathedral ceilings was scaled in mind to make the cathedral as stunning as possible, even God would think so himself. Each artwork was meant to be presented under warm lights that made each individual tile glitter and sparkle when beheld by the public. The creations, using this kind of light play, become so alive that some patrons have sworn to be able to see the figures blink and move. 

This light play is what makes these mosaic designs so captivating to look at. The architecture of the space also helps set the mood to a sacred realm of religious mosaic wall art. Even for those who are not religious or practice a different religion, there is a beauty to be found from the sheer awe experienced from simply viewing these gorgeous mosaic designs. Art enthusiasts old and young have been lost in wonder viewing these delightful works of art. 

Mixed Media

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Intermittent into some of the mosaic wall designs lay precious stones and marble. Stones such as lapis malachite and lapis lazuli can be seen inset within the mosaic pattern. Since the art of mosaic work lies within the tiny fragments of color and pieces of tile, you have to really be looking in order to notice the precious stones. Set among the gorgeously painted tiles, it could be a bit difficult to see any of these unless you’re looking for them since they all sparkle so brilliantly. The difference in using these precious stones for texture is in the detail and shading. There are pieces that are much more luminous than others due to these stones intermittent with the brilliantly colored tiles. 

Alabaster marble also lights up the cathedral in some areas. Going back to those tactful lighting techniques, the marble is used, not only to add a brilliant sheen into certain spaces but can actually act as a reflector of light for certain mosaic art designs. This casting of light is extremely subtle, but the sparkle and glimmer of the tiles will catch the viewer’s eye as more brilliant and breathtaking. Since white is a color typically used in the painting world to extenuate color, it only makes sense that light marble can be used as a mirror to bounce light off of to present the same effect. Again, true artists and artisans helped craft the interior of the cathedral, so there are plenty of tricks of the trade found all throughout the space in order to make each brilliant mosaic work of art look their absolute best. 

Unparalleled Beauty

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While there are hundreds of thousands of pieces of mosaic artwork throughout the world, it is relatively rare to find mosaic wall art that is as stunning and lifelike as a painting. That is the exact kind of mosaic art that you will find inside the St. Isaacs Cathedral in Russia. With careful precision, each mosaic work of art was replicated and crafted in order to withstand the test of time for generations to enjoy. It took hundreds of skilled craftsmen to, not only construct these replicas but to make sure that their beauty and integrity remain preserved for centuries to come. 

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Candace Osmond

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