The architectural wonder of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square

Russia’s Cathedral of the Intercession of the Virgin on the Moat or Mantle, better known as St. Basil’s Cathedral, with onion-like domes, is the country’s “business card”. The cathedral, located at one end of the Red Square in Moscow, is now a subsidiary of the Historical Museum in Moscow and continues to host Orthodox church services.

Saint Basil's_architecture_Red Square in Moscow_Kenny Slaught
Image courtesy of James Byrum at

One of the most representative and striking gems of Russian history and architecture, deemed as a World Heritage by UNESCO, the cathedral was consecrated solemnly in July 12, 1561 upon completion of the construction, which lasted five years.

The construction of the cathedral was ordered by Tsar Ivan the Terrible between 1555 and 1561. In 1588 Tsar Fyodor Ivanovich had a chapel added on the east side of the building, on the tomb of St. Basil the Blessed, a saint whose name is popularly used to refer to the cathedral.

The temple consists of nine churches. The tallest tower is in the center and measures 47.5 m. The initial concept was to build a group of chapels, each dedicated to each of the saints on which day the Tsar won a battle, but the construction of a central tower unifies these spaces in a single cathedral.

The legends about its construction

The project, wrapped in numerous legends, was ordered by Tsar Ivan the Terrible to glorify his victory over the Khanate of Kazan. One legend says that the cathedral is a copy of a mosque in Kazan, which was destroyed by Ivan the Terrible, who was angry due to the resistance offered by the inhabitants of today’s Tartar capital to the troops of the Tsar.

It is believed that the domes of the destroyed mosque were then taken to Moscow and symbolized the victory of Tsar over Kazan.

Another legend says that the Tsar blinded the architect of the cathedral, Postnik Yakovlev, as soon as the construction was complete, so that he would never build anything that surpassed the beauty of the cathedral.

On the other hand, those who refute the legend say that Yakovlev later built other architectural complexes, for example, the Kazan Kremlin, which he wouldn’t have been able to do if he had been blind.

Saint Basil's Cathedral_architecture_Red Square in Moscow_Russia_Kenny Slaught
Image courtesy of ruscow at

Where did the cathedral’s name come from?

At the time it was being built, there was a man named Vasily (Basil), who was a “blessed”, as fervent believers are sometimes called in Russia. He had a reputation of being a saint and was highly respected and revered by the people, as did many others similar to him throughout Russia. From a young age he had a special gift of clairvoyance, he refused to sleep indoors, he was nude and barefoot all through the year.

It was said that the only person who feared the ferocious Ivan the Fearsome was the “holy fool” Vasili. When the saint died, he was buried in the churchyard of Holy Trinity. The Tsar and his boyars personally carried the coffin and the Patriarch of Moscow officiated the ceremony.

As the new church was being built, word spread about the miracles that occurred around the tomb of Vasili.

Finally, in 1588, a chapel attached to the church of the Mantle of the Virgin, where they transferred the remains of Vasili, in a silver casket, was built; and the Patriarch Job beatified him, assigning the day of his death on August 2 , for his veneration and memory.

The symbology of the first building: The new Rome and the heavenly Jerusalem

The building that tourists admire today acquired its present look in the 18th century, when after a big fire, it was restored and welcomed the altars of 15 other small churches that burned in the Red Square. In the fire, the 16 smaller domes were lost. It was during this restoration that the temple acquired its characteristic polychromy.

But during the sixteenth and seventeenth century, the building was bigger. Actually, first, Ivan the Fearsome built several wooden temples dedicated to the saints whose days he had obtained considerable victories over the Tartars. Later, the Metropolitan Macarius proposed building a single temple with eight chapels crowned by the spire of the Mantle of the Virgin, which is what was actually done.

In the composition of the cathedral, the entire deep plot of Salvation is collected: from the entrance of the Lord to Jerusalem, where he will redeem humanity, reunite it in a Holy Church founded by him, under the protection of the Blessed Virgin who intercedes before the throne of the Holy Trinity, and through the Church the way will open to the Kingdom of the Holy Trinity, the Heavenly Jerusalem.

The aim was to capture the national idea of Moscow as a Third Rome (after the one in Italy and Constantinople), represented in the architectural image of the new Jerusalem, the Kingdom of God described in the Apocalypse of St. John. It wasn’t just a place to worship, it was an icon itself made out of stone.

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