Pathways To Play: St. Basil's Cathedral

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The Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed, commonly known as Saint Basil's Cathedral, is a church in Moscow, Russia's Red Square. The building, now a museum, is officially known as the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat or Pokrovsky Cathedral. It was built from 1555–61 on orders from Ivan the Terrible and commemorates the capture of Kazan and Astrakhan. A world-famous landmark, it has been the hub of the city's growth since the 14th century and was the city's tallest building until the completion of the Ivan the Great Bell Tower in 1600.

The building is shaped as a flame of a bonfire rising into the sky, a design that has no analogues in Russian architecture. Dmitry Shvidkovsky, in his book "Russian Architecture and the West," states that "it is like no other Russian building. Nothing similar can be found in the entire millennium of Byzantine tradition from the fifth to fifteenth century...a strangeness that astonishes by its unexpectedness, complexity and dazzling interleaving of the manifold details of its design." The cathedral foreshadowed the climax of Russian national architecture in the 17th century.

front view of st. basil's

Fun Facts

  • St. Basil's Cathedral was primarily built by 'Ivan the Terrible', to commemorate the capture of the Tartar stronghold of Kazan, in 1552, which occurred on the Feast of the Intercession of the Virgin. The cathedral, thus, was officially named as 'Cathedral of the Intercession of the Virgin by the Moat'.
  • The cathedral was given the nickname "St. Basil's" after the "holy fool" Basil the Blessed (1468-1552), who, at that time, was hugely popular with the Muscovites masses and even with Ivan, the Terrible, himself.
  • The design of St. Basil's Cathedral comprises of nine individual chapels. Each of the nine chapels has a unique onion dome, reflecting a victorious assault on the city of Kazan.
  • Tsar Fyodor Ivanovich added the ninth chapel of St. Basil's Cathedral in 1588. It was added on the eastern side to house the grave of St. Basil.
  • The cathedral was designed in such a way that it would reflect an architectural representation of the New Jerusalem - the Heavenly Kingdom described in the Book of Revelation of St. John, the Divine. The design is based on deep religious symbolism.
  • The eight-point star of St. Basil's Cathedral is symbolical of the Christian Church, as a guiding light to mankind, showing us the way to the Heavenly Jerusalem. It also represents Virgin Mary, depicted in Orthodox iconography with a veil, decorated with three eight-pointed stars.
  • The cathedral is the most recognizable symbol of Russia. Its colorful onion domes are instantly recognizable around the world as emblems of Moscow.
  • It is believed that after the construction work of Saint Basil's Cathedral was complete, Ivan blinded Postnik Yakovlev - the architect, to prevent him from constructing a more splendid building for anyone else.
  • The design of the cathedral is based on contemporary tented churches, mainly those of Ascension in Kolomenskoye (1530) and of St John the Baptist's Decapitation in Dyakovo (1547).
  • Each of the chapels of Saint Basil's Cathedral stands adorned by beautiful icons, medieval painted walls, and varying artwork, on the top inside of the domes.
  • The garden at the front of the cathedral houses a bronze statue honoring Dmitry Pozharsky and Kuzma Minin, who led Russia's volunteer army against the Polish invaders, during the Time of Troubles, in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.