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Saint Basil's Cathedral

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Places of interest in Russia - Moscow excursions
Saint Basil's Cathedral in Moscow

St. Basil's Cathedral

Address: Moscow, Red Square 1/2
Metro: Okhotny Ryad, Teatralnaya
Opening hours: Mon, Wed, Thu, Fri, Sat - 10.00 to 18.00 Last admission at 17.00
Sun - 11.00 to 20.00 Last admission at 19.00
New hall - 11.00 to 19.00 Last admission at 18.00
Closed:Tuesday
Notes:The first Monday of each month - sanitary day

The famous St. Basil's Cathedral was commissioned by Ivan the Terrible and built on the edge of Red Square between 1555 and 1561. Legend has it that on completion of the church the Tsar ordered the architect, Postnik Yakovlev, to be blinded to prevent him from ever creating anything to rival its beauty again. (He did in fact go on to build another cathedral in Vladimir despite his ocular impediment!) The cathedral was built to commemorate Ivan the Terrible's successful military campaign against the Tartar Mongols in 1552 in the besieged city of Kazan. Victory came on the feast day of the Intercession of the Virgin, so the Tsar chose to name his new church the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Virgin on the Moat, after the moat that ran beside the Kremlin. The church was given the nickname "St. Basil's" after the "holy fool" Basil the Blessed (1468-1552), who was hugely popular at that time with the Muscovites masses and even with Ivan the Terrible himself. St. Basil's was built on the site of the earlier Trinity Cathedral, which at one point gave its name to the neighboring square.
St. Basil's is a delightful array of swirling colors and redbrick towers. Its design comprises nine individual chapels, each topped with a unique onion dome and each commemorating a victorious assault on the city of Kazan. In 1588 the ninth chapel was erected to house the tomb of the church's namesake, Basil the Blessed. The church's design is based on deep religious symbolism and was meant to be an architectural representation of the New Jerusalem - the Heavenly Kingdom described in the Book of Revelation of St. John the Divine. The eight onion dome-topped towers are positioned around a central, ninth spire, forming an eight-point star. The number eight carries great religious significance; it denotes the day of Christ's Resurrection (the eighth day by the ancient Jewish calendar) and the promised Heavenly Kingdom - the kingdom of the eighth century, which will begin after the second coming of Christ. The eight-point star itself symbolizes the Christian Church as a guiding light to mankind, showing us the way to the Heavenly Jerusalem and it represents the Virgin Mary, depicted in Orthodox iconography with a veil decorated with three eight-pointed stars. The cathedral's star-like plan carries yet more meaning - the star consisting of two superimposed squares, which represent the stability of faith, the four corners of the earth, the four Evangelists and the four equal-sided walls of the Heavenly City.


The extravagant and brightly colored domes of the cathedral's exterior mask a much more modestly decorated and somewhat less spectacular interior. Small dimly lit chapels and maze-like corridors fill the inside of the church and the walls are covered with delicate floral designs in subdued pastel colors dating from the 17th century. Visitors can climb up a narrow, wooden spiral staircase, set in one of the walls and discovered only in the 1970s during restoration work, and marvel at the Chapel of the Intercession's priceless iconostasis, dating back to the 16th century. There was so little room inside the church to accommodate worshippers, that on special feast days services were held outside on Red Square where the clergy communicated their sermons to the milling masses from Lobnoye Mesto, using St. Basil's as an outdoor altar.
The church has narrowly escaped destruction a number of times during the city's tumultuous history. Legend has it that Napoleon was so impressed with St. Basil's that he wanted to take it back to Paris with him, but lacking to the technology to do so, ordered instead that it be destroyed with the French retreat from the city. The French set up kegs of gunpowder and lit their fuses, but a sudden, miraculous shower helped to extinguish the fuses and prevent the explosion.
Early in this century the cathedral almost fell prey to the atheist principles of the Bolshevik regime. In 1918 the communist authorities shot the church's senior priest, Ioann Vostorgov, confiscated its property, melted down its bells and closed the cathedral down. In the 1930s Lazar Kaganovich, a close colleague of Stalin and director of the Red Square reconstruction plan, suggested that St. Basil's be knocked down to create space and ease the movement of public parades and vehicle movement on the square. Thankfully Stalin rejected his proposal as he did a second plan to destroy the cathedral. This time the courage of the architect and devotee of Russian culture, P. Baranovsky, saved the church. When ordered to prepare the cathedral for destruction he refused and threatened to cut his own throat on the steps of the church, then sent a bluntly worded telegram to the leader of the party himself relating the above. For some reason Stalin cancelled the decision to knock the church down and for his efforts Baranovsky was rewarded with five years in jail.
An extensive program of renovation is still being carries out on both the exterior and interior of the church, but will not spoil that essential visit to St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow's moat famous and arguably most beautiful ecclesiastical building.
In the small garden outside St. Basil's stands an impressive bronze Statue to Minin and Pozharsky, who rallied Russia's volunteer army during the Time of Troubles and drove out the invading Polish forces. They were an interesting duo - Dmitry Pozharsky was a prince, while Kuzma Minin was a butcher from Nizhny Novgorod. The statue was designed by the artist I. Martos and erected in 1818 as the city's first monumental sculpture. It originally stood in the center of Red Square in front of what is now the GUM Department Store, with Minin symbolically indicating to Pozharsky that the Poles were occupying the Kremlin and calling for its liberation. The Soviet authorities felt that the statue had become an obstacle during parades and after the construction of the Lenin Mausoleum Red Square, its position was considered rather ambiguous and was eventually moved to the garden in front of St. Basil's in 1936.

Saint Basil's Cathedral in Moscow Saint Basil's Cathedral in Moscow

 


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