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’s 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 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. Just 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.
If the Russian history is a subject of your interest and you want to know, for example, what is the oldest church in Moscow, what are the famous monasteries around Moscow, which style of Moscow architecture you can see only in this town, you can read about it on our website pages about Red square Moscow and “History and Architecture”.
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. Troitsy 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.
SAINT BASIL AND the relics of the CATHEDRAL
Basil the Blessed, whose remains are buried in the cathedral, lived in Moscow in the 16th century and was a fool for Christ, i.e. a religious zealot rejecting worldly blessings. Legend has it that he went naked all year round, slept in the street and kept a strict fast. He is believed to have worked a number of miracles and to have had the gift of prophecy: even Ivan the Terrible heeded his words. The saint was widely venerated and still lives in the memories of Russian people. The cathedral also contains the grave of Blessed John the Fool for Christ, or John of Moscow.
Throughout centuries, the Cathedral of the IntercessionRussian: Pokrovsky sobor or Покровский собор was the final destination of great processions led by the Patriarch from the Assumption Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin on the Day of the Lord’s Entry into Jerusalem. The Patriarch was riding a donkey, thus symbolizing Jesus Christ’s journey. As soon as the procession arrived, the final part of the service with Gospel readings took place on Lobnoye Mestoa stone platform in front of the cathedral. Contrary to popular misconception beleif, Lobnoye Mesto was not designed as an execution site, rather the platform was used to announce the tsar’s decrees and address the Muscovites.
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