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St. Basil’s Cathedral: Medieval Russia’s Iconic Building

By Alice Isabella Sullivan

Situated in the heart of Moscow’s historic Red Square, St. Basil’s Cathedral is perhaps one of the most iconic buildings in Russia. The structure exhibits an unprecedented architectural complexity and a decorative scheme drawn from various artistic traditions. Moreover, it was designed to serve as the main backdrop for the events that celebrated the expansion of the Muscovite state under Ivan IV “the Terrible”.

Built first as a church (Trinity Church) and then elevated to the status of a cathedral a few decades later, St. Basil’s was a commemorative monument to the victories of Ivan IV (r. grand prince of Moscow 1533-1547; tsar of all Rus’ 1547-1584) in the Russo-Kazan Wars of 1552. These events significantly expanded the borders of Ivan IV’s domain, helping transform the Russian State into an empire with far-reaching control. The territorial and economic growth under Ivan IV also enabled the Russian tsar to turn his attention toward building projects, like the impressive new structure of St. Basil’s Cathedral.

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The new cathedral was built using mainly red brick on a foundation of white stone. The complex consists of nine main chapels or “tower-churches” organized in a symmetrical pattern and offering a staggered ascending impression from the exterior. Onion domes, a hallmark of Russian architecture, cap the tops of these tall chapels. With no parallel in Byzantine or Slavic religious building, St. Basil’s Cathedral is intriguing from an architectural standpoint and in terms of its dazzling design and colorful decorative features.

Metropolitan Macarius (Ivan IV’s spiritual advisor) had laid down the original design for the building, which centered on eight chapels. In efforts to render the complex more harmonious and rational, the architect(s), likely inspired by Italianate models, proposed a nine-chapel scheme. The distinctive and symmetrical layout of St. Basil’s consists thus of nine chapels arranged in a rectilinear pattern. Eight of these mini-churches—dedicated to The Entry of Christ into Jerusalem (W); St. George the Illuminator of Armenia (NW); Saint Martyrs Cyprian and Justinia (N); The Three Patriarchs of Alexandria (NE); The Holy Trinity (E); St. Alexander Svirsky (SE); St. Nicholas Velikoretsky (S); St. Barlaam Khutyn (SW)—surround the larger and central one dedicated to the Intercession or the protection of the Virgin Mary to comprise the total structure. In 1588, a tenth chapel was added to the complex in the NE annex and dedicated to St. Basil the Blessed, a wonderworker of Moscow (1468-1557), after whom the cathedral is known today. In 1672, the SE annex received another chapel for the Virgin’s veil, later rededicated to the Nativity of the Theotokos.

A 156-foot high central nave and a massive multifaceted central tower on the exterior define the core of the church. From the exterior, thus, the cathedral offers the impression of an ascending, layered, and “flame-like” structure focused on the central massive tower. Originally, the cathedral’s appearance was mainly white with golden cupolas crowning each of the towers. After the 1583 fire that greatly damaged the building, the golden domes of the tower cupolas were replaced with the onion domes. These now-famous domes received their multi-colored appearance in 1670. The rich and vibrant colors for which the building is celebrated today also date to these seventeenth-century restoration projects.

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Plan and elevation of St. Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow © Alexei Kouzaev / Wikimedia Commons

One of the most distinctive exterior features of St. Basil’s Cathedral is its architectonic ornamental forms drawn from Italianate, Gothic, and local traditions. Unlike earlier Russian churches that regularly displayed figural motifs in paintings or relief sculptures on their exterior walls, St. Basil’s decorations center on vegetal, geometric, and abstract forms. In this building, the brickwork is employed for both structural aspects and decorative effects. Rounded arches, engaged columns, cornices, and various kinds of pilasters derived from Classical and Italianate forms articulate the facade of the building. Of a Muscovite origin are the semicircular motifs known as kokoshniki set in multiple rows in the upper portions of the towers, which became a popular feature of Russian architecture from the sixteenth century onward.

Although the mastermind behind the design of St. Basil’s Cathedral remains unknown, some scholars have proposed an architect of Italian origin. It is known that Italian architects worked on nearby buildings in the Kremlin beginning in the 1470s. The Russian chronicles also name two local architects, although they could be one and the same person: Barma and Postnik Yakovlev (Postnik could be a nickname for Barma). Nevertheless, the actual process through which the designer(s) arrived at the eclectic visual appearance of the cathedral with features and forms drawn from distinct building traditions remains elusive.

Legend also has it that supposedly Ivan IV blinded the cathedral’s architect(s) so that the designs of his new and impressive structure could not be replicated in any other subsequent building. Although such accounts cannot be verified, they do align with what is known of Ivan IV’s complex personality and aspects of his severe and capricious temperament. Sources note episodes of mental outbreaks, with one notable tragic instance, detailed in visual and textual sources, in which Ivan IV killed his own son during an argument. Other accounts speak of his harsh treatment of Russian nobility.

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Situated outside the walls of the Kremlin – Moscow’s fortified and elite civic and religious epicenter – St. Basil’s Cathedral symbolized the tsar’s connection to the people. In the space of the marketplace, this connection was unmediated by the supreme power of the Kremlin and its aristocracy and clergy. As such, this building is a monument to the ideology of the Russian Tsardom and the Russian Orthodox Church.

Interestingly, a scale replica of St. Basil’s Cathedral was built in Jalainur, China (about 3200 miles west of Moscow and about 700 miles north of Beijing). This building was not designed nor ever served as a church. Instead, beyond the replica façade of Moscow’s St. Basil’s Cathedral, this place is a science museum with copies of fossils and other ancient artifacts. Also, there is the hotel and tourist attraction known as Asteria Kremlin Palace in the Kundu district of Antalya, Turkey, that contains a replica of St. Basil’s with a swimming pool nearby, alongside other buildings that emulate famous Russian monuments.

Until the completion of the renovations on Ivan the Great’s Bell Tower in the Kremlin in 1600, St. Basil’s Cathedral stood as the tallest building in Moscow. As a symbol of Moscow and one of the city’s most famous tourist attractions today, St. Basil’s Cathedral remains a prominent centerpiece of the Red Square. It is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and today serves as a museum.

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Alice Isabella Sullivan is an art historian specializing in the medieval history, art, and culture of Eastern Europe and the Byzantine-Slavic cultural spheres. She has authored award-winning publications, is co-editor of Byzantium in Eastern European Visual Culture in the Late Middle Ages, and co-founder of North of Byzantium and Mapping Eastern Europe. Follow her on Twitter @AliceISullivan

Further Reading:

I. G. Gross, “Saint Basil’s Cathedral as a Symbol of the Otherness of Russia,” Comparative Literature Studies 28, no. 2 (1991): 178–188.

D. Hepburn, Saint Basil’s Cathedral: History and Architecture of Moscow’s Greatest Church (Hyperink, 2012).

M. Y. Lannie, and V. N. Soukchov, “Case Study: Acoustics of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square, Moscow,” Building Acoustics 6, no. 2 (1999): 141–149.

Top Image: St. Basil’s at Night – photo by Rob Lee / Wikimedia Commons

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