Saint Basil’s Cathedral or Cathedral of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat (its canonic full name) was erected at the Red Square within the period from 1555 till 1561. The Cathedral is rightfully considered as the main symbol of Moscow and Russia. It is not only because of its location in the very center of Moscow and an important historical event, in the memory of which it was built, but also because of the Cathedral's singular beauty.
In the XVI century a stone Church of the Trinity “on the moat” resided at the place where the Cathedral now stands out in all its glory. The existence of protective moat at the place is authentic. It was extended along the Kremlin wall from the side of the Red Square. The moat was eliminated in 1813. Today, Soviet necropolis and Lenin’s mausoleum are placed there.
In XVI century, in 1552 Saint Basil, who passed away on August, 2 (some sources insist he passed away in 1551) was buried beside the Trinity Church. Moscow native “fool for Christ's sake” Vasiliy (Basil) was born in 1469 in the village named Elokhovo. From his youth he possessed the gift of clairvoyance - he predicted the horrific fire in Moscow in 1547, which destroyed almost the whole capital. It is believed that Ivan the Terrible himself feared and honored St. Basil. His funeral was burried with great honors at the cemetery near the Trinity Church (apparently on orders of the Czar himself). Soon the construction of the new cathedral called Pokrovskiy, where the hallows of St. Basil were moved to, began after it was discovered that miraculous healings occurred at his gravesite.
A long history of construction preceded erection of the new cathedral. It took place in times of the grand Kazanian Cruise, a campaign of colossal significance: before it every attempt of the Russian army to invade Kazan had failed. Ivan the Terrible, personally leading the army in 1552, has sworn to erect a grandiose cathedral in Moscow at the Red Square in case of success, to honor this victory. During the war, every big victory has been celebrated with the construction of small wooden church besides the Trinity Church. Every small church was named after the saint, commemorated at the victory day. After the triumphant return of the Russian army to Moscow Ivan the Terrible has commanded to substitute eight wooden churches with one: huge, stoned and supposed to stand for ages.
Many controversies exist concerning the builder (or builders) of Saint Basil’s Cathedral. It is commonly believed that Ivan the Terrible has commissioned the construction to craftsmen Barma and Postnik Yakovlev, but many researchers share the point of view that it was one person - Ivan Yakovlevich Barma aka Postnik. Famous legend narrates that Ivan the Terrible has commanded to blind the craftsmen to prevent them from building something of a similar beauty, but this is no more than a legend. Documents state that after the erection of the cathedral of the Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat craftsman Postnik “by the name Barma” has been participating in construction of the Kazan’s Kremlin. His name was also mentioned in several historical documents. Besides Saint Basil’s Cathedral and the Kazan’s Kremlin, this craftsman is given credit for Uspenskiy cathedral, Temple of Nikolay in Sviazhsk, Blagoveschenskiy (Annunciation) cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin and by some sources (quite dubious though) the Church of John the Baptist in Dyakov.
Saint Basil’s Cathedral consists of nine churches standing on one footing. It is hard to avoid some sort of confusion concerning its design when you get there, until you walk couple of circles inside. Central altar is dedicated to the Holiday of Most Holy Theotokos. Precisely on this day the wall of Kazan’s fortress was blown up and the city was captured.
Here is the full list of eleven altars existed in the cathedral before 1917:
- Central - Pokrovskiy (of Intercession of the Virgin)
- Eastern - Troitskiy (Trinity)
- South-eastern – of Alexander Svirskiy
- Southern – of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker
- South-western – of Varlaam Khutinskiy
- Western – of Entry to Jerusalem
- North-western – of St. Grigoriy Armenian
- Northern – of Sts. Adrian and Natalia
- North-eastern – of John the Gracious
- Above the grave of John the Deranged – sacrarium of the Nativity of Theotokos (1672) adjoined to the sacrarium of St. Basil
- In annex built in 1588 – the sacrarium of St. Basil
The cathedral is made of bricks. In XVI century this material was quite new – white chopped stone or thin plinth form brick were traditional for construction of churches at the time. Central part is crowned with magnificent tall tented roof with “fiery” decorations up to the middle of its height. The tented roof is surrounded with sacrarium domes, which differ one from another. It is not only the drawings on the big domes that differ – every dome drum is uniquely decorated. Apparently, the domes had a helmet-shaped form at first, but remade onion-shaped in the late XVI century. Their present coloring was established only in the middle of the XIX century.
Specific issue in the concept of the cathedral is the absence of prominent facade. Doesn’t matter from which side you approach to it, the closest dome seems to be the main one. The height of the cathedral is 65 m. For a long time, till the end of XVI century it has remained the tallest building in Moscow. At first, the cathedral was painted in a “red brick” color, but repainted later. The researchers has discovered the remaining of the drawings, which demonstrate false windows and corbel arches, as well as memorable inscriptions wade with paint.
In 1680 the cathedral was significantly restored. Prior to the restoration in 1672 a small sacrarium was attached to it at the place of the grave of Moscow’s Fool for Christ John, interred here in 1589. Restoration of 1680 involved the substitution of wooden galleries with brick ones, and roof tented bell-tower with a new coat was erected instead of the campanile. At the same time thirteen or fourteen sacrariums of churches were moved into the basement of the cathedral from the moat area of the Red Square. They used to stand at the place where public executions have been conducted (all churches possessed a prefix “on the Spilled Blood”). In 1683 the tiled friso carrying the history of the cathedral was conducted around the perimeter.
The cathedral was reconstructed, though not so significantly, in the latter half of the XVIII century within the period from 1761 till 1784: basement arches were laid, ceramic friso removed and “flowered” decorations put inside.
During the war of 1812 the St. Basil’s Cathedral could be demolished for the first time. French soldiers mined it before leaving Moscow. However they failed to blow it up, but succeed in looting the place. Right after the end of the war one of the most beloved cathedrals of the Muscovites was renovated and in 1817 O. I. Bowe, who was responsible for the restoration of Moscow after the fire, has strengthened and decorated the retaining wall of the church from the side of the Moscow river by cast-iron fencing.
During XIX century the cathedral was renovated several times and in the end of the century an attempt of the scientific research of the cathedral has been initiated.
In 1919 a senior priest of the cathedral father John Vostorgov was executed for “anti-Semitic propaganda”. In 1922 valuables of the cathedral was retrieved and in 1929 the cathedral was closed and passed over to the Historical Museum. The most horrific times awaited the cathedral ahead. In 1936 Soviet architect and renovator Piotr Dmitrievich Baranovskiy was summoned and ordered to take dimensions of the St. Basil’s Cathedral for its subsequent demolishing. From the perspective of the authorities the cathedral was an obstacle for vehicles traffic at the Red Square... Baranovskiy committed a truly unexpected act: he stated to the officials that demolition of the cathedral is madness and crime and promised to commit suicide if this happens. For sure he has been immediately arrested. After his release 6 month later the cathedral still resided at its place...
Many legends narrate miraculous salvations of the cathedral. One of the most popular states that Soviet official Lasarus Kaganovitch while presenting the project of the Red Square renovation for the convenience of conduction of parades and demonstrations to Joseph Stalin removed the miniature of the cathedral from the model of the Square. Stalin commanded: “Lasarus, put it back!”. It is believed to determine the fate of the monument…
One way or another, but St. Basil’s Cathedral still stands at the Red Square and has outlived everyone who tried to destroy it. Major researches has been provided within the period from 1923 till 1949, which allowed to restore an initial appearance of the gallery. From 1954 till 1955 the cathedral was once again painted in “red brick” color, as it was in the XVI century. Today, a branch of the Historical Museum is located in the cathedral and it doesn’t experience any shortage of tourists. Since 1990 services are held here from time to time but it is still considered a museum. Nothing matters more than one of the most beautiful Russian and world-wide cathedrals still resides at the Square and no one dares to withdraw it. Let’s hope it will be there forever.