Although it’s known to everyone as St. Basil’s, this legendary building is officially called “The Cathedral of the Intercession of the Virgin by the Moat”. The popular alternative refers to Basil the Blessed, a Muscovite ‘holy fool’ who was buried on the site (in the Trinity Cathedral that once stood here) a few years before the present building was erected.
The Cathedral was ordered by Ivan the Terrible to mark the 1552 capture of Kazan from Mongol forces. It was completed in 1560. That’s pretty much all the genuine history that’s known about this celebrated landmark. There, however, scores of legends. Nothing is known about the builders, Barma and Postnik Yakovlev, except their names and the dubious legend that Ivan had them blinded so that they could not create anything to compare. Historians unanimously state that this is nothing but urban folklore.
Architectural specialists are to this day unable to agree about the governing idea behind the structure. Either the creators were paying homage to the churches of Jerusalem, or, by building eight churches around a central ninth, they were representing the medieval symbol of the eight-pointed star. The original concept of the Cathedral of the Intercession has been hidden from us beneath layers of stylistic additions and new churches added to the main building. In fact, when built, the Cathedral was all white to match the white-stone Kremlin, and the onion domes were gold rather than multi-colored and patterned as they are today.
In the 17th century a hip-roofed bell tower was added, the gallery and staircases were covered with vaulted roofing, and the helmeted domes were replaced with decorated ones. In 1860 during rebuilding, the Cathedral was painted with a more complex and integrated design, and has remained unchanged since.
For a time in the Soviet Union, there was talk of demolishing St. Basil’s – mainly because it hindered Stalin’s plans for massed parades on Red Square. It was only saved thanks to the courage of the architect Pyotr Baranovsky. When ordered to prepare the building for demolition, he refused categorically, and sent the Kremlin an extremely blunt telegram. The Cathedral remained standing, and Baranovsky’s conservation efforts earned him five years in prison.
The Cathedral is now a museum. During restoration work in the seventies a wooden spiral staircase was discovered within one of the walls. Visitors now take this route into the central church, with its extraordinary, soaring tented roof and a fine 16th Century iconostasis. You can also walk along the narrow, winding gallery, covered in beautiful patterned paintwork.
One service a year is held in the Cathedral, on the Day of Intercession in October.
Opening hours: Daily from 11.00 to 17.00, closed on Tuesdays.