Sacred Spaces: St. Basil’s Cathedral (Moscow)

We recently shared the story of the Church of the Ascension (Kolomenskoye), which was erected by Basil III to spark God’s favor and be rewarded with a son.  Shortly after the Church was completed, a son, Ivan IV (also known as “Ivan the Terrible), was born.  Ivan would go on to oversee the construction of his own religious landmark: St. Basil’s Cathedral.

A Russian architectural icon

Photo by David Crawshaw. Via Wikimedia Commons.

One of the world’s most recognizable landmarks, St. Basil’s Cathedral stands as a testament to Russia’s unique architecture and beauty.  It is interesting to note, however, that the Cathedral’s real name is the “Cathedral of Intercession of the Virgin by the Moat,” referring to a military victory and the moat that protected the Kremlin at the side of Red Square until the early 19th century.

St. Basil’s Cathedral was built to celebrate the defeat of Kazan.  “In 1552 Ivan the Terrible captured the Tatar stronghold of Kazan on the Feast of Intercession[,]” a feat which gave the cathedral its name.

According to legend, the completed Cathedral was so impressive that Ivan had the builders, Barma and Postnik Yakovlev, blinded so that they could not later create anything as spectacular.  This has been thoroughly debunked as, twenty-five years later, the builders were later contracted to add an additional chapel to the Cathedral.

As impressive as it was, the Cathedral initially lacked one detail that makes it so recognizable today: its colorful facade.  Originally, the building was painted white to match the Kremlin and the domes were gold.  Later, in the 17th century, the structure was repainted in its familiar rainbow of remarkable color.  It is said that the idea to add this color was “[…]taken from a Biblical description, in the Book of Revelation, of the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Not much is known of the Cathedral’s architects and so the inspirations and main ideas behind the Cathedral’s plans are up to speculation.  Some believe that “[…] the creators were paying homage to the churches of Jerusalem, or, by building eight churches around a central ninth, they were representing the medieval symbol of the eight-pointed star.” 

Interior of the south church of Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, dedicated to St. Nicholas Velikoretsky. Photo by Concierge.2C. Via Wikimedia Commons

“Built around the 156-foot high central nave are nine small, separate chapels that are aligned to points on the compass, four of which are raised to designate their position between heaven and earth. The chapels are dedicated to the Protecting Veil of Mary; the Entry into Jerusalem, Saints Kiprian and Ustinia, the Holy Trinity, St. Nicholas Velikoretsky, St. Gregory of Armenia, St. Barlaam Khutynsky, St. Alexander Svirsky, and the Three Patriarchs. The ninth chapel was added in honor of Saint Basil.”

Each of these chapels was consecrated to honor an important event or battle against Kazan.

The ninth chapel, the Church of St. Vasily (Basil) the Blessed, is named for one of Moscow’s most revered saints: St. Basil (for whom the Cathedral gets its nickname).  Though he could see into the future (and correctly predicted the 1547 fire that destroyed a third of Moscow), St. Basil was known as a “holy fool.”  Regardless of weather, he wore no clothes or shoes, “[…] purposefully humiliating himself for the greater glory of God.”  After he was canonized in 1588, the ninth chapel was added under his name.


St. Basil’s Cathedral in the modern era

Though it was to be heralded as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990, St. Basil’s Cathedral was nearly destroyed in the early 20th century.  Stalin had decided that the Cathedral took up too much space in Red Square and was an obstacle to his military parades so he ordered architect Pitor Baranovsky to prepare it for demolition.  Baranovsky, however, threatened to kill himself on the Cathedral’s steps rather than destroy one of Russia’s most beloved icons. Baranovsky was sentenced to a few years in prison for disobeying orders.  During this time, however, Stalin changed his mind and St. Basil’s Cathedral was spared.

Today, the Cathedral is part of the State Historical Museum (and has been since 1929), though it is still used for occasional religious services, namely on the Day of Intercession.  It is home to “[…] more than 400 icons painted between the 14th and 19th centuries by the most famous schools of Novgorod and Moscow hanging on the walls”  and is a must-see for anyone visiting Moscow.

Tour St. Basil’s Cathedral

Though we are all familiar with the exterior of St. Basil’s Cathedral, what about the equally-beautiful interior? Firebird Tours has a wonderful video tour of the Cathedral, perfect for those who cannot make it to Moscow.  (Click here to view the video directly on YouTube).

Main image via
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