Two Views Toward Heaven

by wjw on September 15, 2017

IMG_1091Looking back on my summer of travel, I found these photos of St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg.  Commissioned by Alexander I, the cathedral took 40 years to build, and produced a saying in Finnish: “Rakentaa kuin Iisakin kirkkoa,” “to build like Isaac’s Church,” meaning to take forever to complete some vast, ungainly, overdesigned project.

Like St. Petersburg, the building of which cost the lives of tens of thousands of serfs, St. Isaac’s is build on the bodies of its workers: 60 alone died from mercury poisoning while gilding the dome.  No doubt they died willingly, and are now rejoicing in Heaven.

IMG_1099Everything inside is slathered with ornament: gold leaf, frescoes, precious marbles, bronze doors, huge pillars of red granite and malachite.  As is usual with Orthodox churches, there are no freestanding statues inside (a remnant of the Iconoclastic Controversy), but there are plenty of angels and whatnot on the exterior.

The church cost 1,000,000 gold rubles, a fabulous sum for the time, much of it spent on ornament.  The building is so over-ornamented that it verges on bad taste, and the only thing I’ve seen to compare is St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, which seemed to me less a church than God’s Football Stadium.

I found the frescoes to be an uneasy mixture of Byzantine and Western styles, as if Rafael had taken up painting ikons.  It didn’t work for me.

There was a service going on in one of the side chapels while I was there.  The choral singing was nothing short of magnificent, and the small devout crowd knew the words and joined in.  If I were to be converted to Orthodoxy, it would be the singing that would do it, not the lashings of gold.  The service itself featured a lot of bowing and kissing of the Scriptures, rather repetitious.

A few days later we dined at Gastronomika, a trendy fusion restaurant, the sort that serves tom yum, borscht, Texas-style BBQ, and pizza all on the same menu.  Gastronomika is on the roof of Gazprom, a striking modern glass cathedral dedicated to the extraction and sale of natural gas. The restaurant is essentially across the street from St. Isaac’s, and put us on the same level as the golden dome and the gilded angels guarding it.

I don’t remember my meal, except that it was expensive and I enjoyed it, but I remember the view, and the golden angels glowing in the light of the sun that, in July, hardly set at all.

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