An ornate church building occupies the vast expanse of Red Square. This Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Basil dates back to the 16th century and the era of Ivan the Terribleruled from 1533 to 1584. It is the most famous symbol of medieval Russian church architecture. The cathedral has a rather unconventional look. It is thought that abundant domes and bright colours symbolize the New Jerusalem described in the Revelation to John as a heavenly city shining with precious stones. The cathedral’s design is unique, too: inside, the space is not fully integrated but is instead divided into nine churches and a bell interconnected by galleries built on a common foundation.
Despite its impressive size, Saint Basil’s Cathedral is not suitable for large-scale services, as each of its churches represents an isolated pillar-like structure with a small footprint.
During the Soviet era, the Cathedral was converted into a museum. Since 1991, it has been under joint supervision of the museum and the Russian Orthodox Church; worship services have been resumed and are now held on a weekly basis in Saint Basil’s ChurchRussian: Tserkov’ Vasiliya Blazhennogo or Церковь Василия Блаженного. Choir ensembles also occasionally perform Russian religious songs in the cathedral.
Originally, the cathedral was named the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos on the MoatRussian: Sobor Pokrova Presvyatoy Bogoroditsy na Rvu or Собор Покрова Пресвятой Богородицы на Рву. Thus, St Basil’ Cathedral history starts in the mid-16th century, during the reign of Ivan the Terrible. The cathedral was built to honour the capture of Kazan, the capital of the powerful Khanate of Kazan. The victory was a remarkable military success for Rus’. Religious people never doubted that any battle could be won without God’s help and decided to express their gratitude to the Almighty by erecting a richly decorated church.
A wooden church was built on Red Square Moscow in 1553 in honour of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos. The timing of its construction was not accidental as the final attack on Kazan began on that holy day. The wooden church was a temporary building, and the construction of a stone church was launched two years later. The architect behind St Basil’s Cathedral was named Barma Postnik.
st as in the wooden church, the altars of the stone church were dedicated to saints or holy days on which milestones of the military campaign fell. For instance, the defeat of the Tatar Prince Yapancha’s cavalry, one of the pivotal events in the Kazan Campaign, fell on the 30th of August — that’s how the Side Altar of Three Ecumenical Patriarchs of Constantinople appeared. The name of the Church of Saints Adrian and NataliaRussian: Tserkov’ svv. Adriana i Natalii or Церковь свв. Адриана и Наталии has a special history. Formerly, the church was dedicated to Saints Cyprian and Justina, on whose feast day Kazan was captured. However, a parishioner donated a large amount to the cathedral in the 18th century, asked to rededicate this altar to her patron saint Martyr Natalia of Nicomedia.
Those who lived at the time were astonished by the beauty of the cathedral. Legend holds that Ivan the Terrible even blinded the masters who had built the cathedral so that they could never reproduce the masterpiece. However, historians dismiss it as a myth as there is evidence that Barma Postnik was one of the architects who participated in restoring Kazan some years later.
The ARCHITECTURE AND DECORATIONS OF ST. BASIL’S CATHEDRAL
Although the cathedral in the Red Square consists of separate churches, the effect is still cohesive. In fact, it does not have a main façade and the cathedral is perceived as a single whole from all the sides. Its eleven domes (one crowning each of the main side altars, two above the Saint Basil’s Church, and one topping the bell tower) are arranged into one pyramidal composition with a 65-metre high tented roof of the Side Altar of IntercessionRussian: Pokrovsky pridel or Покровский придел in the center.
The cathedral of St. Basil is very ornate: red bricks with white-stone ornaments are enhanced by the green, blue and red palette of the domes. Yet all the shades are consistent in their hues, lending the cathedral façades harmonious beauty without making it look gaudy. The cathedral’s red walls dominate the white, a colour which is used only for decorative elements. At the same time, decorations are deliberately made flat so as not to degrade the monumental lines of the edifice.
Barma Postnik was brilliant in handling the challenge of reflecting the military campaign milestones in the architecture. Instead of designing a common space with numerous side altars, the architect placed nine individual small churches on one foundation. The Church dedicated to the Intercession of the Theotokos acts as the central core, the other eight churches surrounding it. Interestingly, the cathedral as a whole is not arranged in perfect symmetry; each church varies a little because the central church has to accommodate its large apse on the eastern side. Russian architecture had not ever seen a design solution like that before.
All the churches are connected by two galleries. One runs inside around the Church of the Intercession, while the other runs outside encircling all the nine churches. The outside gallery used to be open above but an arched roof was added in the 17th century. At about the same time, tent-roofed porches appeared above the stairs. The tenth church dedicated to St. Basil the Blessed had been added to the cathedral a bit earlier, in 1588.
The church has partially preserved 19th-century paintings, and the originally brickwork pattern has been restored in certain parts. The central church is neighboured on the west by the Side Altar of the Lord’s Entry into JerusalemRussian: Pridel Vkhoda Gospodnya v Ierusalim or Придел Входа Господня в Иерусалим, the one that served as the final destination for the walk with the donkey. This is where you can see the 16th-century iconostasis transferred from the Alexander Nevsky CathedralRussian: sobor Aleksandra Nevskogo or собор Александра Невского (the latter used to be part of the Kremlin but was dismantled in the 18th century). St. Basil’s Cathedral houses many beautiful ancient icons. The cathedral interior creates a more natural setting for them than the walls of a museum. Today, every church has decent lighting which provides an opportunity to have a closer look at each of the icons.
Back in the day, the Trinity ChurchRussian: tserkov sv.
oitsy or церковь св. Троицы was where St. Basil’s Cathedral is currently, and one of the side altars of the existing cathedral is dedicated to the Holy Trinity. The side altar is notable for its gorgeous iconostasis composed of ancient icons (some of them dating back to the 16th century). The Church of Three Ecumenical Patriarchs of ConstantinopleRussian: Tserkov’ Trekh Patriarkhov Konstantinopol’skikh or Церковь Трех Патриархов Константинопольских has preserved the 19th-century interior decorations including frescoes and the iconostasis. While renovating The Church of St. Nicholas VelikoretskyRussian: Tserkov’ Nikoly Velikoretskogo or Церковь Николы Великорецкого, the renovators discovered preserved oak flooring — most probably, wooden floors had once been a feature of the whole cathedral.
The narrow galleries between the churches also have their own decor: they were painted with floral ornaments in the 17th century and with narrative frescoes a bit later. The podkletRussian ‘подклёт’ meaning bottom floor or basement, which used to serve as a treasury, deserves particular attention. Its space is covered with complex three-centered basket-handle arches. The podklet exhibits a collection of icons, silverware, weapons and a lovely pall to cover the Reliquary of St. Basil the Blessed manufactured in the 16th century.
History of St. Basil’s Cathedral
St. Basil’s was built to commemorate the capture of the Tatar stronghold of Kazan in 1552, which occured on the Feast of the Intercession of the Virgin. The cathedral was thus officially named Cathedral of the Intercession of the Virgin by the Moat (the moat being one that originally ran beside the Kremlin).
But the cathedral was popularly known as St. Basil’s Cathedral, after St. Basil the Blessed (a.k.a. St. Basil Fool for Christ; 1468-1552), almost from the beginning. Basil impressed Ivan in 1547 when he foretold a fire that swept through Moscow that year. Upon his death, Basil was buried in the Trinity Cathedral that stood on this site at the time.
The Cathedral of the Intercession a.k.a. St. Basil’s Cathedral was constructed from 1555 to 1560. Legend has it that after it was completed, Ivan had the architect blinded in order to prevent him from building a more magnificent building for anyone else. (In fact, he went on to build another cathedral in Vladimir.)
In 1588, Tsar Fyodor Ivanovich added a ninth chapel added on the eastern side to house the grave of St. Basil.
In modern times, St. Basil’s came very close to falling victim to Stalin, who resented that it prevented his soldiers from leaving Red Square en masse. But the architect Baranovsky stood on the cathedral’s steps and threatened to cut his own throat if the masterpiece was destroyed and Stalin relented (but punished Baranovsky with five years in prison).
More recently, St. Basil’s Cathedral has suffered significant damage from weather and neglect. It was not until the Millennium that funds were allocated to restore its foundations and flaking surfaces.
What to See at St. Basil’s Cathedral
Saint Basil’s is located at one end of Red Square, just across from the Spasskaya Tower of the Kremlin. Not particularly large, it consists of nine chapels built on a single foundation.
The riot of color and shapes that is St. Basil’s Cathedral is unmatched anywhere else in the world. The French diplomat Marquis de Custine commented that it combined "the scales of a golden fish, the enamelled skin of a serpent, the changeful hues of the lizard, the glossy rose and azure of the pigeon’s neck" and wondered at "the men who go to worship God in this box of confectionery work."
The powerfully eastern design of St. Basil’s reflects both its location between Europe and Asia and its historical origins. Since the Kazan Qolsharif mosque had been the principal symbol of the Khanate captured by Ivan the Terrible, some elements from the mosque were incorporated into the cathedral to symbolize the victory.
Although the towers and domes appear chaotic, there is symmetry and symbolism in its design. There are eight domed chapels symbolizing the eight assaults on Kazan: four large and octagonal and four small and square. In the center is a tent-roofed spire topped with a small golden dome.
The ninth chapel on the east side added in 1588 for Basil’s tomb interrupts the symmetery of design somewhat. It can be recognized on the outside by its green-and-gold dome studded with with golden pyramids.
The interior is a maze of galleries winding from chapel to chapel and level to level via narrow stairways and low arches. The walls are painted in floral and geometric patterns.
St. Basil the Blessed can be visited in his chapel on the lower floor, where he lies in a silver casket in gaudy splendor. Upstairs, the Chapel of the Intercession contains the equally splendid blue and gold iconostasis. Other chapels, such as that of St. Nicholas, are more restrained and even austere in their decor.
In a garden at the front of the cathedral stands a bronze statue commemorating Dmitry Pozharsky and Kuzma Minin, who rallied Russia’s volunteer army against the Polish invaders during the Time of Troubles in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
The statue was originally constructed in the center of Red Square, but the Soviet government felt it obstructed parades and moved the statue in front of the cathedral in 1936.
Quick Facts on St. Basil’s Cathedral
|Names:||Cathedral of St. Basil the Blessed · Intercession Cathedral · Pokrovsky Sobor · Sobor Vasiliya Blazhennovo · St. Basil’s Cathedral|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||55.752550° N, 37.623067° E|
|Hours:||11am-6pm; closed Tues and 1st Mon of each month|
|Lodging:||View hotels near St. Basil’s Cathedral|
Note: This information was accurate when first published and we do our best to keep it updated, but details such as opening hours and prices can change without notice. To avoid disappointment, please check with the site directly before making a special trip.
- The Rough Guide to Moscow, 4th ed. (April 2005), 73.
- St. Basil’s Cathedral – Fodor’s Online Travel Guide
- St. Basil’s Cathedral – Moscow-Taxi.com
- St. Basil’s Cathedral – Moscow’s Districts and Landmarks
The Church of St Basil’s in Moscow is perhaps as unique in the field of masonry as is the Church of the Transfiguration on Kizhi Island in the field of wooden architecture. It is basically cross-shaped, the arms of the cross extending from a square centre. The main church over which rises the central tower is covered with a tent-shaped roof and crowned with a gilt cupola. At each arm of the cross along the principal axis is an octagonal church. Four other secondary churches are along the diagonal axis. All these elements are placed over a tall, vaulted substructure – the typical lower story of the Russian wooden churches.
The pyramidal belfry at the southeast corner is separate from the church. The plan and the general massing of the elements are unusual, not only in the accepted concept of church design but in the distribution of the main masses. The main church is of stone and brick and covered with stucco. In the seventeenth century the entrance structure, originally white, was painted in variegated colours, the stairways were roofed over, the sheet iron covering of the cupola was replaced with tile, and the old belfry was replaced with a present tent-roofed bell tower.
St Basil’s embodies the characteristic architectural features of the wooden churches of north-east Russia, translated into masonry. The same method is used to form the transition from the massive base to a smaller octagon supporting the tent-shaped spire, surmounted by a small, bulbous cupola.
The eleven steeples are banded together like an immense bundle of fantastically shaped plants. The eight cupolas dominated by the central pyramid are all of the same general silhouettes, but are different in design, as if to single out each of the component churches in the complex. Some with their twisted, variegated shapes are reminiscent of oriental turbans, some are decorated with ribbed or interlacing designs, others are faceted, giving the appearance of pineapples. Still, another has imbrications reminiscent of the aspen shingles of the wooden churches. All the cupolas are bulbous and project beyond the diameter of the drum. This diversity of forms and decorative features is further heightened by the lavish use of coloured tile.
Храм Василия Блаженного в Москве, пожалуй, столь же уникален в области каменной кладки, как и церковь Преображения Господня на острове Кижи в области деревянного зодчества. В плане он имеет форму креста, где крест исходит от квадратного центра. Главная церковь, над которой возвышается центральная башня, покрыта шатровой крышей и увенчана позолоченным куполом. На каждой стороне креста вдоль главной оси находится восьмиугольная церковь. Четыре другие вторичные церкви расположены вдоль диагональной оси. Все эти элементы расположены над высоким сводчатым основанием — типичная для русских деревянных церквей.
Пирамидальная колокольня в юго-восточном углу отделена от церкви. План и общее количество элементов необычны не только в принятой концепции церковного дизайна, но и в распределении основных масс. Главная церковь из камня и кирпича и покрыта штукатуркой. В 17 веке вход был первоначально белым,но со временем был окрашен в пестрые цвета, лестницы были покрыты кровлей, железобетонное покрытие купола было заменено плиткой, а старая колокольня была заменена существующей колокольней с крытой палаткой.
Собор Василия Блаженного воплощает характерные архитектурные особенности деревянных церквей северо-востока России, переведенных в каменную кладку. Тот же метод используется для формирования перехода от массивного основания к меньшему восьмиугольнику, поддерживающему шатровидный шпиль, увенчанный небольшим выпуклым куполом.
Одиннадцать шпилей соединены вместе, как огромная связка растений фантастической формы. Восемь куполов, в которых доминирует центральная пирамида, имеют одинаковые общие силуэты, но различаются по дизайну, как будто выделяют каждую из составляющих церквей в комплексе. Некоторые с их витыми, пестрыми формами напоминают восточные тюрбаны, некоторые украшены ребристыми или переплетенными узорами, другие — огранены, и напоминают ананасы. Тем не менее, есть и пряничные украшения, напоминающие черепицу деревянных церквей. Все купола выпуклые и выступают за диаметр барабана. Это разнообразие форм и декоративных элементов еще более усиливается благодаря щедрому использованию цветной плитки.
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