St Isaac. A Daring Monk and a Magnificent Cathedral

June 12, new style (May 30, old style) is a symbolic date for the Russian “northern capital” of St Petersburg. It is associated with a name well known to locals and visitors. Let us begin our story with a tragic episode of the troublesome 378, which took place in Roman Empire.

The church historian Theodoret of Cyrus preserved an account of a daring sermon, addressed by the venerable Isaac to the Roman emperor Valens, known to be a persecutor of the Orthodox and a supporter of the heretical teaching called “Arianism”, denying the equality and consubstantiality of the natures of God the Father and God the Son. The emperor, accompanied by his army, was on his way to Thrace and stopped in Constantinople (378), where Isaac lived at that time.

Seeing the emperor passing by his cell with an army, Isaac exclaimed to him, “Where are you going, o king, who fights against God and does not use His help? Don’t you see that it is He Who sent the barbarians against you because you have turned many tongues to blasphemy, expelling those who praise God  from the holy churches. Stop fighting against Him, and He will end this war; return the proper shepherds to their flocks, and you will quickly gain victory. If you embark on this war before you do this, you will learn from experience how disastrous it is to go against a pointed stake, because neither you nor the army will return!” The irritated king said to him, “I will come back and kill you for false predictions.” Isaac was not in the least afraid of the threat and exclaimed, “Do so if the falsity of my words is revealed!”

The “daring monk” was right. The ill-fated emperor could not keep his promise.  Valens suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the Visigoths and was killed at the Battle of Adrianople.

Despite this story not being widely known, Isaac’s name has become symbolic in St Petersburg. Why is the famous cathedral (and one of the greatest in the world!) dedicated to a Constantinople monk living long before the baptism of Rus and not connected in any way with its later territory?

The name of St Isaac the Confessor (+ 383), abbot of a small Dalmatian monastery in the vicinity of Constantinople, appears in small print in our calendar on May 30 according to the Julian calendar (June 12, new style), and yet it is on the lips of many! The reason for this is a remarkable historical coincidence.

The fact is that on May 30 (1672) (that is, on the memory day of Isaac of Dalmatia) Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich Romanov and Tsarina Natalia Kirillovna Naryshkina had an heir, the future Emperor Peter the Great, baptised after St Peter the Apostle.

Although birthday celebrations were rare in the Orthodox Russia where celebrating name days (patron saint feast day) was much more common, Peter, known for his “Western” orientation, deliberately introduced the Roman tradition of celebrating the emperor’s “dies natalis”. In view of this, the first wooden church of St Isaac appeared in the meadow opposite the Admiralty Gate as early as in 1707. Soon it was dismantled, and the second church was built in 1717, on the site of the future Bronze Horseman. In 1735, it suffered the same fate. The third church was built on the site of the present-day cathedral by Catherine II and according to the project of Antonio Rinaldi. It was hastily completed by Paul I and provoked the ridicule of his contemporaries by the obvious disharmony between its stone plinth wall and the brick top.”

Therefore, Emperor Alexander I approved the project of the fourth temple in 1817. It was the St Isaac’s Cathedral of Auguste de Montferrand, consecrated on its patronal day, May 30, 1858. Built by a Catholic architect, this temple has become an embodiment of the open and universal character of Orthodoxy in our European city.

A few words about the size of the temple. The area of the interiors of the cathedral is 4 thousand square meters. It accommodates from 7 to 12 thousand people. External height – 101.5 meters (including the cross). Internal height – 80 meters. The wingspan of the soaring pigeon under the dome is 2 meters. 14 varieties of marble and 400 kg of gold were used in the construction (300 of them are on the dome). The temple is surrounded and supported by a total of 112 columns (upper and lower).

It is easy to guess St Isaac’s fate in the twentieth century. As the main cathedral church in Russia, it has shared the destiny of most churches of our long-suffering Fatherland. The divine services in St Isaac were ended in 1928 and resumed only 62 years later. The notorious Foucault pendulum was swaying here between 1931 and 1986, as an obsessive reminder of a widely known fact.

The renewal of divine services in St Isaac’s Cathedral took place on June 17, 1990, on the feast of “all saints who shone forth in the Russian land”. The Divine Liturgy there was celebrated by His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and All Russia, whose enthronement took place only a week earlier, on June 10.

Yury Ruban, Candidate of Sciences (History), Candidate of Theology

Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds
Source (abridged):

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