Secrets of Moscow’s Astonishing St. Basil’s Cathedral

May 21, 2015
St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow

An iconic sight: St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

St Basil’s Cathedral is one of the architectural wonders of the world. Located in Moscow’s Red Square beside the Kremlin, the church’s fanciful design, brilliant colors and onion domes are a singular phenomenon – a symbol of Russia and its culture.

Officially named the Cathedral of the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God upon the Moat (try saying that fast three times), St. Basil’s is named for Basil (Vasily) the Fool, or Basil the Blessed. It is composed of a central church surrounded by eight chapels, four major and four minor, aligned to the points of the compass. The holy site is built on a single foundation (crypt).

History of St. Basil’s Cathedral

Icon, St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow

Exquisite icon in St. Basil’s. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

St. Basil’s Cathedral was built on orders of Ivan the Terrible to commemorate his capture of the tartar strongholds of Kazan and Astrakhan. It was constructed between 1555 – 1561 and has no equivalents in contemporary or later Muscovy and Byzantine architecture. According to legend, Ivan blinded the architects so that they could never create a similar masterpiece.

Over its 450-year history, St. Basil’s has been threatened more than once. In 1812 French troops used the sacred site as a stable and Napoleon ordered its destruction. Fortunately, the fuses for their dynamite were drenched by an unexpected downpour (divine intervention?). The Soviet authorities confiscated the church as part of their anti-theist campaigns and it became a museum in 1928. In the 1930s Joseph Stalin, annoyed that its placement interfered with his military pageants, planned to raze the landmark, but over time he had a change of heart. St. Basil’s remains a federal property of the Russian Federation and became part of the Moscow Kremlin and Red Square UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990. It is occasionally used for Russian Orthodox services.

Inside St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow, Russia

The walls of St. Basil’s are decorated with delicate floral designs. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

Inside St. Basil’s Cathedral

Inside St. Basil's Cathedral tower

Inside on of St. Basil’s towers, covered in frescoes. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

St. Basil’s interior is a maze of galleries winding from chapel to chapel via narrow stairways and low arches. The churches are joined together by two galleries — an inner gallery, going around the central church, and an outer gallery, which circles all nine churches.

The interior includes icons and paintings reflecting styles of its long history. There are 16th-century frescoes, 17th-century tempera painting, 18th – 19th-century monumental oil painting, and more than 400 icons from the 14th to 19th centuries painted by famous Novgorod and Moscow icon painting schools. The walls and vaults are adorned with grapevine and floral geometric patterns.

On St. Basil’s northwestern side, the Church of St. Vasily the Blessed is annexed to the cathedral. On its southeast is a 16th-century tented roof bell tower.

Iconostasis, St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow

Intricate iconostasis in St. Basil’s. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

Visit St. Basil’s Cathedral

St. Basil’s (now a museum) is open daily 10:00am – 7:00pm. In winter: 11:00am – 5:00pm.

Admission: 250 rubles ($4.88 at time of writing). There are additional fees for photography and video filming, ranging from 160-180 rubles.

In summer audio tours in Russian and English are sold at the entrance to the cathedral.

The museum’s kiosk sells a guide to the museum in various languages, postcards, souvenirs, CDs and DVDs.

St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow

The back of St. Basil’s, including its 16th-century bell tower. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

Have you visited iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral? What did you find most memorable? Tell us in the comments below.

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