Regarded as one of the most beautiful monuments to the Russian Orthodox Church, St. Basil’s has come to represent Moscow and Russia to the outside world. Commissioned by Ivan the Terrible to celebrate the capture of the Mongol stronghold of Kazan in 1552, the cathedral was completed in 1561. It is reputed to have been designed by the architect Postnik Yakovlev. According to legend, Ivan was so amazed at the beauty of Yakovlev’s work that he had him blinded so that he could never design anything as exquisite again.
The church was officially called the Cathedral of the Intercession, because the final siege of Kazan began on the Feast of the Intercession of the Virgin. However, it is more usually known as St. Basil’s after the “holy fool,” Basil the Blessed, whose remains are interred in the cathedral’s ninth chapel.
BASIL, THE “HOLY FOOL”
Born in 1464 into a peasant family in the village of Yelokhovoe, Basil worked as an apprentice to a shoemaker. His skill at divining the future soon became apparent and at the age of 16 he left for Moscow. There he undertook the ascetic challenge of walking the city’s streets barefoot educating Muscovites in piety. Although he was often derided and beaten for his sermonizing, his fortune changed in 1547, when he foresaw the fire of Moscow and was credited with preventing it from destroying the entire city. On Basil’s death, at the age of 88, Czar Ivan the Terrible carried his body to the cathedral for burial. He was canonized in 1579.
St. Basil’s Cathedral consists of nine churches dedicated to different saints. Each of these, with the exception of the Central Chapel of the Intercession, symbolizes the eight assaults on Kazan and is topped by a multicolored dome. All of the churches are uniquely decorated and different in size from each other, giving the structure an all-around balance. The building is designed to be viewed from every angle, hence the absence of a single main facade. In plan, the eight churches form an eight-pointed star. The four larger domes form the endpoints of an imaginary cross with the Central Chapel in the middle, and the smaller churches between the larger ones.
ICON PAINTING IN RUSSIA
The Russian Orthodox Church uses icons for both worship and teaching and there are strict rules for creating each image. Iconography is a symbolic art, expressing in line and color the theological teaching of the Church. Icons are thought to be imbued with power from the saint they depict and are often invoked for protection during wartime. The first icons were brought to Russia from Byzantium. Kiev, today the capital of Ukraine, was Russia’s main icon-painting center until the Mongols conquered it in 1240. The Moscow school was founded in the late 15th century when Ivan the Terrible decreed that artists must live in the Kremlin. The great icon painters Dionysius and Andrey Rublev were members of this renowned school.
Chapel of St. Cyprian
This is one of eight main chapels commemorating the campaigns of Ivan the Terrible against the town of Kazan, to the east of Moscow. It is dedicated to St. Cyprian, whose feast is on October 2, the day after the last attack.
An exhibition on the cathedral’s history, and armor and weapons dating from the time of Ivan the Terrible, can be seen here.
Chapel of St. Basil
The ninth chapel to be added to the cathedral was built in 1588 to house the remains of the “holy fool,” Basil the Blessed.
Following a fire in 1583, the original helmet-shaped cupolas were replaced by ribbed or faceted onion domes. It is only since 1670 that the domes have been painted in many colors; at one time St. Basil’s was white, with golden domes.
Running around the outside of the Central Chapel, the gallery connects it to the other eight chapels. It was roofed over at the end of the 17th century and the walls and ceilings were decorated with floral tiles in the late 18th century.
The Baroque-style iconostasis in the Central Chapel of the Intercession dates from the 19th century. However, some of the icons contained in it were painted much earlier.
Chapel of the Entry of Christ into Jerusalem
This chapel was used as a ceremonial entrance during the annual Palm Sunday procession. On this day, the patriarch rode from the Kremlin to St. Basil’s on a horse disguised to look like a donkey.
MININ AND POZHARSKIY STATUE
A bronze by Ivan Martos depicts two heroes from the Time of Troubles (1598-1613): the butcher Kuzma Minin and Prince Dmitriy Pozharskiy. The men raised a volunteer force to fight the invading Poles and, in 1612, led their army to victory when they drove them out of the Kremlin. The statue was erected in 1818 in the center of Red Square. It was moved to its present position, in front of St. Basil’s, during the Soviet era.
St Basil’s Cathedral is located in Red Square in the heart of Moscow. The name of the square is derived from the Russian word krasnyy, which originally meant “beautiful” but later came to denote “red.”
1555: Building work commences, and St. Basil’s is completed six years later.
1583: Onion-shaped domes are built to replace the original cupolas destroyed by fire.
1812: Napoleon’s cswalry stable their horses in St. Basil’s during his invasbn of Russia.
1918: The Communist authorities dose the cathedral and melt down its bells.
1929: St. Basil’s is turned into a museum dedicated to the Russian conquest of Kazan.
1990s: St. Basil’s is declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990, and returned to the Orthodox Church in 1991.