St. Basil’s Cathedral: Moscow’s Architectural Mashup

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Saint Basil's Cathedral at Sunrise in Moscow

Many visitors to Moscow will find themselves at the heart of the Russian capital, in Red Square. This is an excellent place for people to watch and take souvenir pictures with iconic buildings like St. Basil’s Cathedral in the background.

Nonetheless, if you want to see more exciting architecture from Moscow that is not as well known outside of Russia, it’s worth walking around the city.

Moscow is full of interesting buildings, both old and new. Many different architectural styles are represented, from the traditional Russian Orthodox churches to the more modern glass and steel skyscrapers. Yet, St. Basil’s Cathedral is one of Moscow’s most iconic and recognizable buildings.

What is Saint Basil’s Cathedral?

St. Basil’s Cathedral was built between 1555 and 1561 on the orders of Ivan IV. It is located in Moscow’s Red Square. The cathedral combines different styles, including Byzantine, Gothic, and Russian Orthodox. It has nine domes, each representing one of the saints that Ivan the Terrible had canonized.

The cathedral was initially built to memorialize the Russian victory over the Tatars in Kazan. But, it soon became a symbol of the power of the Russian Orthodox Church. It was even used as a prison during the Soviet Union. Nowadays, St. Basil’s Cathedral is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Moscow and is a symbol of Russian national architecture.

This nearly psychedelic riot of shapes and colorful domes is over 450 years old. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site — but it’s even brighter today than it was back in 1560 when it was completed under the direction of the legendary Ivan the Terrible.

A little history of St. Basil’s Cathedral

St Basil Cathedral

St. Basil’s Cathedral was built to celebrate the victory of Tsar Ivan IV over the Mongols in 1522. The building itself was all white, intended to match the white stone exterior of the nearby Kremlin. Its onion-shaped domes were made of tin and covered with a light gold leaf coating.

Since then, the Cathedral has gotten a few facelifts. St. Basil’s Cathedral was first remodeled in the 17th century when the bell tower was added, and the domes’ gilded covering was replaced with colorful decorations. A second makeover took place in 1860 when the entire structure was painted with the complex designs that visitors see today.

St Basil Cathedral

Photo: Flickr

The official name of this Russian icon is The Cathedral of the Intercession of the Virgin by the Moat or Pokrovsky Cathedral.

But it’s been called St. Basil’s Cathedral since it was built in honor of St. Basil the Blessed, whose body is enshrined in a splendid silver casket in his chapel beneath the cathedral floor.

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Interior

The architecture and artwork of the Cathedral of Saint Basil are pretty diverse. The cathedral contains oil paintings, frescoes, portraits, and landscape paintings. Labyrinths of vaulted interior passageways and galleries connect the chapel.

Exterior

The St. Basil Cathedral is unlike anything else in Russia due to its unique design. It has nine onion-domed towers that elicit joyful pleasure.

The walls are adorned with carved Kokoschka, which soar over the windows and are interspersed with overlapping layers of embroidered florals. Decorative tiles and geometric designs line the roof and staircase. The austere red-white façade of St Basil’s Cathedral did not correspond to today’s colorful riot.

Church of Varlaam Khutynsky

Saint Mary Basil’s Chapel also has yellow and green triangle domes. The book honors Saint Varlaam Khitynsky, a saint venerated by Emperor IV and his father as a protector saint. Saints Day is observed on November 6 to commemorate Ivnikov’s triumphant return to Russia in 1553.

The iconostasis is decorated with paintings from the 15th to 18th centuries, each particularly beautiful. The Vision of the Sexton of Tara, a huge hanging painting depicting a foretelling of many disasters that would strike Novgorod, is one of the most magnificent because it was the first work to show the city towering over everything in Red Square, the massive walled fortress known as the Kremlin is both the symbol of Russian power and the home of its president.

The second chapel is dedicated to Boris and Gleb, the two first Christian martyrs of Russia, who were brothers of Prince Vladimir. One interesting note about this chapel is that there are no crosses on the onion domes. This was most likely because, at the time of its construction, Orthodoxyaints Peter and Paul.

The third chapel is the Chapel of Saints Peter and Paul. The chapel’s iconostasis was created in the 17th century and features paintings by Simon Ushakov, considered one of the greatest Russian icon painters of his time.

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Stories About Saint Basil’s Cathedral

St Basil
Photo: Flickr

As you might guess, a 450-year-old building has a lot of stories surrounding it — some true, some not. The most famous legend about St. Basil’s Cathedral is that Ivan the Terrible blinded his architects when the cathedral was finished, so they could never again create a thing so wonderful. This story is untrue.

There are also stories about the Saint Basil Cathedral narrowly escaping destruction. Legend states that Napoleon attempted to burn St. Basil’s Cathedral down, but it was miraculously saved when a sudden rainstorm extinguished the fire.

This one probably isn’t true, either — although Napoleon did use the cathedral as a stable for his horses. However, Joseph Stalin planned to tear St. Basil’s down to make Red Square a bigger venue for political demonstrations during the Soviet Union.

This time, St. Basil’s Cathedral was saved by a Russian architect and preservationist, Pyotr Baranovsky, who refused to prepare the cathedral for demolition. He spent five years in prison, but St. Basil’s Cathedral endured.

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And a little controversy with St. Basil’s Cathedral

Inside St Basil
Photo: Flickr

At first glance, St. Basil’s Cathedral seems to be a chaotic structure — but it was built with an asymmetrical plan in mind. The thought behind the project has puzzled architecture students for centuries.

Some experts will tell you that the configuration of a central church surrounded by eight chapels is a nod to the vital medieval symbol, the eight-pointed star. Some insist that the structure was designed to honor the churches of Old Jerusalem.

Others have a more exciting interpretation: St. Basil’s eight domed chapels remind of the eight assaults Ivan the Terrible’s armies made on the Mongol forces at Kazan.

Whichever interpretation you like best, St. Basil’s Cathedral is a wild mashup of Eastern and Western architectural styles — although, once again, there’s a lot of disagreement as to precisely what those styles are.

Moscow St Basil

Photo: Flickr

Some experts have called St. Basil’s Cathedral the culmination of the old traditional Russian Orthodox church. Others see its unique construction echoes of the Italian Renaissance or similar design trends in Renaissance Germany. The only point everyone agrees on is that St. Basil’s incorporates a lot of the shape and style of an Islamic mosque.

The controversies surrounding St. Basil’s even extend to the millions of tourists photograph it yearly. Whether they think St. Basil’s Cathedral is a sacred icon of Russia’s religious past or it looks like it belongs inside a snow globe, everybody’s got to agree on one thing: it’s undoubtedly the coolest, kookiest landmark in Russia.

Why visit St. Basil’s Cathedral?

St Basil

St. Basil’s Cathedral, located in Moscow, is an architectural masterpiece and one of the best-known buildings in Russia. The cathedral, commissioned by Ivan the Terrible and completed in 1561, features a unique design that has been copied numerous times.

St. Basil’s Cathedral is an essential symbol of Russian history and culture and is a must-see for any visitor to Moscow. The cathedral is named for Saint Basil the Blessed, a Russian hermit canonized in 1588. Legend has it that Ivan the Terrible killed the architect of Saint Basil’s Cathedral so that he could never build anything as beautiful again.

Front of Saint Basil's Cathedral in Moscow Vertical

The architecture of St. Basil’s Cathedral

St. Basil’s, one of the world’s most significant buildings, is a stunning architectural accomplishment that became the defining moment in Russian National Architectural history. The initial plan is unknown, and the debate continues.

The cathedral has eight churches around it, with the Church of Intercession and the tenth chapel built over the tomb yard in 1588. The structure is white stone, while each temple is red brick. Wooden walls are seen behind a stone wall.

Red bricks were a popular construction material during the Terrible Times for multiple fortresses and the tomb of Saint Basil, the cathedral’s namesake.

The architecture of St. Basil’s Cathedral is very complex. The outside is decorated with many intricate designs and patterns. The inside is just as ornate, with beautiful paintings and mosaics covering the walls and ceilings.

The cathedral is full of symbolism. For instance, the nine domes represent the nine saints that Ivan the Terrible had canonized. The use of different colors for the exterior walls was prevalent during that time, and the different colors were likely used to indicate the other functions of each church.

Ivan IV had each of the nine churches constructed in his honor, each with its distinct form but all featuring onion-shaped domes and two-story rooftop galleries.

FAQ

Where is St. Basil’s Cathedral?

St. Basil’s Cathedral is in the Red Square of Moscow, Russia.

When was St. Basil’s Cathedral built?

St. Basil’s Cathedral was built between 1555 and 1561.

Who designed St. Basil’s Cathedral?

The original design of the cathedral is attributed to Russian architects Barma and Postnik Yakovlev. Nonetheless, the final look of the cathedral is a result of additions and modifications made by multiple architects over the years.

How many chapels does St. Basil’s Cathedral have?

There are nine chapels in total, each dedicated to a different saint. The height of the cathedral is approximately 81 meters (266 feet).

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Kyle Kroeger
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Kyle Kroeger

Kyle Kroeger is the Founder and Owner of ViaTravelers.com. He is a full-time traveler and entrepreneur. Kyle started ViaTravelers.com to help travelers experience a fully immersive cultural experience as he did initially living in Italy. He's a converted finance nerd and Excel jockey turned world wanderer (and may try to get lost on purpose). After visiting 12 countries and 13 national parks in a year, he was devoted to creating and telling stories like he'd heard.

Plus, after spending more time on airplanes and packing, he's learned some incredible travel hacks over time as he earned over 1 million Chase Ultimate Rewards points in under a year, helping him maximize experiences as much as possible to discover the true meaning of travel.

He loves listening to local stories from around the world and sharing his experiences traveling the globe. He loves travel so much that he moved from his hometown of Minneapolis to Amsterdam with his small family to travel Europe full-time. Read more about his portfolio of work.

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