The spectacular St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow was commissioned by Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century to commemorate a military victory. It is easily the most famous sight on Red Square.
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|
- 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
Map of St. Basil's Cathedral
Below is a location map and aerial view of St. Basil's Cathedral. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.