The St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow has become one of the most recognized visual landmarks of Russia. It was built by Tsar Ivan IV, the terrible between the years 1555 AD to 1561 AD to commemorate his victory and capture of Kazan and Astrakhan. Kazan opened the way for Russia to expand towards the south towards the Caspian sea and towards the east to Siberia so as for it to become a true empire. As such the St. Basil’s Cathedral was a politically significant structure that today has become a world heritage site and is used as a museum of history and architecture. The church was designed and built by two architects Posnik and Barma. While the cathedral is a known architectural monument, several aspects of its design and history still to date remain unknown. Here are some interesting lesser-known facts of the cathedral that have been documented over the years.
- Although it is popularly known as Saint Basil’s Cathedral, originally it was called the Cathedral of Intercession of the Virgin by the moat as it was built to commemorate the capture of Kazan which occurred on the same day as the Feast of the Intercession of the Virgin in 1552. It was built on the moat which previously surrounded the Kremlin and was later covered up. It was later named after Saint Basil (the blessed), the fool for Christ, as he had correctly prophesied about a fire breaking out in Moscow in the year 1547. He later died in 1552 and his body was buried in the vaults of the church.
- The cathedral was the first building built on the moat that gave the Red square its present-day characteristic silhouette as the pyramidal roofs had not yet been on the Kremlin towers.
- The cathedral originally had eight small chapels arranged around the main cathedral in the center. The ninth chapel on the periphery was later added in 1588 by Fyodor I to house the tomb of Saint Basil. The central cathedral would rise above the others vertically having a height of 47.5 m. This was supposed to be symbolic of the dominance of the Tsar over the faithful public.
- The colorful rendering of the cathedral is an anomaly to the usual Russian style of architecture. It was normal practice for the Russians to keep the structure in white and have the domes above painted in gold. This was how the cathedral too was originally conceived to match the white stones of the Kremlin, however, the colors were later added in the 17th century inspired from the description of the Kingdom of Heaven from the Book of Revelations. It was painted in several stages to achieve its present-day colorful form.
- It is also the first structure to have adapted the traditional construction style in wood to the brick form in the cathedral. Therefore, a new never before seen style of architecture emerged in Russia which was not comparable to any other structure ever built. The onion-shaped domes were also a later addition to the design. The domes were added in the restoration works done post the fire of 1595.
- The Red square being the central place in Moscow, also the site of the earlier Trinity Church and a place of political prominence was chosen to be the site of the Saint Basil’s Cathedral. However, it is also believed that the place where the cathedral stands today was also the place where the saint’s Peter and Alexei, who left the Kremlin, met Sergius of Radonezh and Varlaam Khutynsky to pray for the protection of Moscow from the invasion of the Tatar khan Mukhhammed-Grey. Thus, the place acquires a sacral quality and denotes the presence of the Lord in the ruling of the sovereign state.
- The Church has almost been destroyed twice. The first time in 1812, when the French forces occupied Moscow and Napoleon Bonaparte wanted to destroy the church. However, they had to retreat before they could do so and the cathedral was saved. The second time was during the Soviet period, it is believed that Stalin wanted to burn down the cathedral to establish the end of the Tsardom in Russia and signify the new regime. However, Pyotr Baranovsky, an architect and restoration artist wrote a letter pleading him to refrain from tearing down an architectural marvel and offering his own life in exchange. This spared the cathedral; however, the architect was imprisoned for five years as compensation.
- The most remarkable part of the design of the Saint Basil’s Cathedral is that it stands apart from any of the cathedrals built in Europe in the 15th or 16th century. It was truly unique and nothing like it was built before it or has been built after. Several historians in their writings have thus appropriately struggled to describe it as they lacked a reference point for it and often resorted to the analogies of nature to describe its appearance or aesthetics.
- It is a popular myth that Ivan the Terrible had the architects of the Cathedral blinded after its completion to restrict them from replicating its design elsewhere. It is, however doubtful that this would be true as the architect involved named Posnik is referenced to have been involved in building the Annunciation Cathedral and the walls of the Kremlin.
- Only one of the original bells from the several in the belfry has survived and continues to function. After the Soviet authorities acquired control of the cathedral in 1929, they ordered all the bronze bells to be melted down and surprisingly only one of them has still survived.
The cathedral was one of the first structures to have come under the ownership of the Soviet state post the Bolshevik revolution in 1923 and was converted into a museum of art and history. In 1929, it officially became a branch of the State Historical Museum. In 1990, it was declared to be a UNESCO World Heritage site along with the Red Square and the Kremlin.