Cathedral of St. Basil

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Located on Red Square, Moscow, the Cathedral of the Intercession on the Moat (the official name of the cathedral) was built for Tsar Ivan IV (15321584) between 1555 and 1561 to commemorate his capture of the Tatar stronghold of Kazan, which capitulated after a long siege on October 1 (O.S.) 1552, the feast of the Intercession or Protective Veil (Pokrov ) of the Mother of God, the protector of the Russian land. The original red brick structure incorporated

nine churches, mainly dedicated to feast days associated with the Kazan campaign. Construction began in 1555, but little else is known about the building process as few contemporary documents survive. Not until 1896 were the names of architects Barma and Posnik (also known as Barma and Posnik Yakovlev) discovered. The story that Tsar Ivan had them blinded after they completed their workto prevent them from building something better for his enemiesis a legend. The church acquired its popular name after the addition in 1588 of a tenth chapel at the eastern end to house the relics of the holy fool St. Basil (Vasily) the Blessed.

The cathedral comprises the central "tent" church of the Intercession, which is surrounded by four octagonal pillar chapels dedicated to the Entry into Jerusalem (west), Saints Kiprian and Ustinia (north), the Holy Trinity (east), and St. Nicholas Velikoretsky (south). There are also four smaller rectangular chapels: St. Gregory of Armenia (north-west), St. Barlaam Khutynsky (southwest), St. Alexander Svirsky (southeast), and the Three Patriarchs (northeast). The remarkable regularity of the ground plan had led to the theory that it was based upon precise architectural drawings, rare in Muscovy, while the irregularly shaped towers were constructed by rule of thumb. They look even more varied when viewed from the outside, as a result of cupolas of different shapes and colors. The building as a whole is unique, though certain elements can be found in earlier Moscow churches (for example, the Ascension at Kolomenskoye [1532] and John the Baptist at Dyakovo [1547]).

The cathedral's architecture, bizarre to Western eyes, is often attributed to Ivan IV, known as Ivan the Terrible. In fact, the inspiration almost certainly came from the head of the church, Metropolitan Macarius (or Makary), who created a complex sacred landscape to celebrate Muscovy's status as both a global and a Christian empire: New Rome and New Jerusalem. It was a memorial-monument, to be viewed from the outside, often a focal point for open-air rituals (e.g., the Palm Sunday procession from the Kremlin), but unsuitable for congregational worship. Always a site for popular devotion, it fell into disfavor among the elite in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when Classical tastes branded its architecture "barbaric." In 1812 Napoleon at first mistook it for a mosque and ordered its destruction. Its fortunes were reversed with the nineteenth-century taste for the Muscovite Revival or "Neo-Russian" style. It survived shelling in 1918, and in 1927 it opened as a museum. The story that Stalin planned to demolish it may be apocryphal. In the 1990s it was reopened for worship but continued to function chiefly as a museum, probably the best known of all Russian buildings.

See also: architecture; ivan iv; kremlin


Berton, Kathleen. (1977). Moscow. An Architectural History. London: Studio Vista.

Brumfield, William. (1993). A History of Russian Architecture. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Lindsey Hughes

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Cathedral of St. Basil

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