The Iconic Saint Basil's Cathedral – So Magnificent the Architects Were Blinded
Saint Basil’s Cathedral is a church located on Moscow’s Red Square and is one of Russia’s most recognizable landmarks. The building of the church was commissioned by Tsar Ivan the Terrible during the 16th century and was intended to serve as a votive offering for his victories over the Muslim khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan. Some modifications were made to Saint Basil’s Cathedral in the centuries that followed. The monument was almost destroyed twice during its history. Fortunately, on both occasions, the plan to destroy the church could not be carried out, hence allowing it to stand till this day.
Early History of Cathedral of the Intercession of the Virgin by the Moat
Although popularly known as Saint Basil’s Cathedral, the actual name of the church is the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Virgin by the Moat. The church was named as such to commemorate the capture of Kazan, which occurred on the Feast of the Intercession of the Virgin in 1552. ‘by the Moat’ refers to the location of the church, i.e. by the moat that originally surrounded the Kremlin.
Even during the early days of the church, the structure was popularly known as Saint Basil’s Cathedral. The saint in question is Saint Basil the Blessed, known also as Saint Basil, fool for Christ. The saint lived between the 15 th and 16 th centuries and impressed Ivan the Terrible when he accurately prophesized in 1547 that a great fire would break out in Moscow that year. The saint is believed to have died in 1552 and his body was buried in the vaults of the church during the reign of Fyodor I, Ivan’s successor.
Icon of St. Basil the Blessed, at St. Basil's Cathedral. (Adelchi / Public Domain)
Saint Basil’s Cathedral was constructed between 1555 and 1561 and there are two main theories behind the identity of the architect(s) responsible for its construction. The first theory is that two Russian architects, Posnik and Barma, designed the church. It has been further speculated that these two men may have in fact been just one person. The second theory is that the church was designed by an Italian architect who was working in the Moscow Kremlin at that time. According to popular legend, Ivan had the architect(s) responsible blinded, so that he/they may never build any other building whose magnificence would match that of Saint Basil’s Cathedral.
The Structure of Saint Basil’s Cathedral
Saint Basil’s Cathedral is composed of nine separate chapels, built around the central church, that rose to a height of 47.5 m (156 feet) and connected via galleries and passageways. Initially, there were only eight chapels surrounding the central church, and the final chapel was added in 1588 by Fyodor I to house the tomb of Saint Basil. According to one theory, the design of the church was meant to represent the Heavenly Jerusalem, while the other states that the architects drew inspiration from the Church of Saint Mary of Blachernae, a church in Constantinople (now Istanbul).
Front elevation drawing of the cathedral's façade and overhead view of floor plan. (KDS4444 / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Fyodor I’s chapel to Saint Basil was not the only change that was made to the church. For instance, the iconic onion-shaped domes were not part of the original structure and were only added to the chapels following a fire in 1595. It is recorded that the original color of the church was white, so as to match the white stones of the Kremlin, whereas the domes were gold. The vibrant colors of Saint Basil’s Cathedral began to be added only during the late 17 th century and the entire painting process was done in several stages. The choice of colors was supposedly derived from a description of the Kingdom of Heaven in the Book of Revelations.
St. Basil’s Cathedral iconic colored domes. (Maria / Adobe)
Saint Basil’s Cathedral Was Almost Destroyed Twice
Saint Basil’s Cathedral was almost destroyed twice during its four and a half centuries of existence. The first occurred in 1812, when Moscow was occupied by the French forces under Napoleon Bonaparte. According to one story, the French Emperor had intended to have the church relocated to Paris. When he realized that his plans could not be carried out, he decided to have the monument destroyed instead. Before the French could destroy Saint Basil’s Cathedral, however, they were forced to retreat from Moscow.
- The Basilica of San Petronio: The Biggest Church in the World…if the Pope Had Allowed it
- Upcycling Ancient Beauty – How Precious Stones, Monuments, and Jewels Have Been Re-Used
- Synchronizing Science and Religion? Why We Find Solar Observatories and Astronomical Features in Churches
Napoleon retreating from burning Moscow 1812. (Hohum / Public Domain)
The second time that Saint Basil’s Cathedral was almost destroyed happened during the Soviet period. There were rumors that Stalin wanted to demolish the church, primarily because it was hindering his plans for having mass parades on the Red Square. The monument was saved thanks to an architect by the name of Pyotr Baranovsky, who allegedly sent a telegram to Stalin telling the leader that he would rather kill himself rather than destroy the church. Thus, Saint Basil’s Cathedral was spared and Baranovsky paid for it by spending five years in prison.
Saint Basil’s Cathedral interior. (Jorge Láscar / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Top image: St. Basil's Cathedral on Red Square, Moscow, Russia. Source: Ivanfirst / Adobe.
By Wu Mingren
Bridgetomoscow, 2019. St Basil’s cathedral. [Online] Available at: https://bridgetomoscow.com/st-basils-cathedral
Lampkin, B., 2016. 12 Facts About Saint Basil’s Cathedral. [Online] Available at: http://mentalfloss.com/article/76266/12-facts-about-saint-basils-cathedral
Moscow.Info, Inc., 2019. St. Basil's Cathedral. [Online] Available at: http://www.moscow.info/red-square/st-basils-cathedral.aspx
Russia Beyond, 2016. 8 facts about Russia’s best-known church – St. Basil’s Cathedral. [Online] Available at: https://www.rbth.com/arts/2016/07/12/8-facts-about-russias-best-known-church-st-basils-cathedral_611023
Sacred Destinations, 2019. St. Basil's Cathedral. [Online] Available at: http://www.sacred-destinations.com/russia/moscow-st-basil-cathedral
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2010. Saint Basil the Blessed. [Online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Saint-Basil-the-Blessed