St Basil’s Cathedral In Moscow: History, Interiors, Interesting Facts

by Anna de Nord
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St Basil’s Cathedral is one of the most recognizable tourist attractions in Moscow. This colourful church is the symbol of the capital of Russia. Let’s discover the fascinating history of St Basil’s Cathedral and take a tour of its interiors.

Model of St Basil's Cathedral in Moscow

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Saint Basil’s Cathedral is temple-monument from the 16th century. The construction of the cathedral began in 1555. Russian tsar Ivan the Terrible ordered the erection of a temple in honour of the annexation of the Kazan Khanate to the Russian state.

The construction took only six years. The cathedral became the symbol of Moscow and the whole of Russia. At present, it is a historical monument that hides a lot of secrets. 


LOCATION

St Basil’s Cathedral is situated in the heart of Moscow — on Red Square. Undoubtedly, everyone who visits the capital of Russia wants to see this candy-like church. Whenever you come to Red Square, during daytime or at night, you will see many people taking photos of this iconic sight of Moscow.

• READ ALSO: GUM — TOUR OF THE HISTORICAL SHOPPING MALL ON RED SQUARE

St Basil's Cathedral and the Monument to Minin and Pozharsky, Russian heroes of the 17th century war
St Basil’s Cathedral and the Monument to Minin and Pozharsky, Russian heroes of the 17th century war

HISTORY OF ST BASIL’S CATHEDRAL

Interesting Facts About St Basil’s Cathedral

  • St. Basil’s Cathedral is a popular name, not the official one. The official name is the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat.
  • Basil (or Vasily in Russian) the Blessed, who gave his name to the Cathedral, was a zealous Christian known for teaching people morality by his example. After his death, they decided to canonize Basil the Blessed. His relics are still kept in the cathedral.
  • The name of the architect of the cathedral is still not known. According to legend, Russian tsar Ivan the Terrible, after the completion of the construction, blinded the architect of the cathedral — so that the architect could never build anything better.
  • Officially, St Basil’s Cathedral does not belong to the Russian Orthodox Church. It belongs to the State Historical Museum. However, services are still held there.
  • In the 30s of the XX century, during the restoration, workers discovered a secret passage. Once, it led from the cathedral to the secret place where tsars kept the royal treasury.
  • In 1812, after the capture of Moscow, Napoleon turned St Basil’s Cathedral into… a stable. Later Napoleon ordered to blow up the cathedral. There is a legend that Muscovites prayed for the preservation of the church — and a miracle happened! A sudden rainfall began. Because of the rain, powder in canons became wet, and French soldiers couldn’t light the fuses. Wonderful St Basil’s Cathedral was saved!
"Moscow Holy Fool Vasily the Blessed" by contemporary Russian painter Vitaly Grafov
“Moscow Holy Fool Vasily the Blessed” by contemporary Russian painter Vitaly Grafov

The Story Of Vasily The Blessed

Vasily the Blessed (Basil the Blessed in English) was a famous miracle worker from Moscow. 

The legend says that Vasily was a holy fool who lived in the capital of Russia in the 16th century. He was famous for his gift of divination and miraculous deeds. Moreover, he entered prisons, taverns, supported and instructed even criminals and degraded people, and often helped people in need.

Even Russian tsar Ivan the Terrible honoured and feared Vasily the Blessed.

Vasily despised all the joys of earthly existence. He tortured himself with fasting, wearing chains, and always prayed for humanity. Vasily wandered without shoes and almost without clothes, even in frost. Muscovites began to call him Vasily the Naked. That is why on the icons Vasily the Blessed is usually naked.

Here is one of the holy deeds of Vasily:

One day, the Moscovites decided that the holy fool Vasily had fully lost his mind. Once He threw a stone at the icon of the Mother of God, one of the most venerated icons for the Orthodox church. The angry believers attacked the holy fool, scolded and beat him.

Vasily endured the beating. He only asked to remove the visible layer of paint from the icon. When the believers deleted the top painted layer from the icon, they discovered a hidden image — a devil! It was a hell icon. Without knowing, the believers worshipped the devil, and their prayers led not to the desired, but to the opposite result.

Vasily died in 1557 and was buried in St Basil’s Cathedral. Nowadays, visitors of the cathedral can admire the coffin with the relics of the holy fool.

Vasily the Blessed is a saint patron of Moscow. 

Repository of the remains of Basil the Blessed
Repository of the remains of Basil the Blessed

ARCHITECTS & ARCHITECTURE

Eleven Churches That Look Like One Single Church

St Basil’s Cathedral has an unusual composition. These are eleven independent churches

In the beginning, the cathedral consisted of nine separate churches. One church stands in the middle. The other eight surround the central church. Internal passages connect the central temple with other churches. The construction of the cathedral started in 1555 and finished in 1561.

Later, two more churches were added to the ensemble. The first of them venerates Vasily the Blessed (it was added to the ensemble in 1588). The second (built in 1672) venerates another Orthodox Saint — John the Blessed.

The interior decoration of the eleven churches differs in style, colours, and decoration.

But Who Was The Architect Of St Basil’s Cathedral?

Until now, the historians have not find out who built this legendary Russian church.

According to the most popular version, the cathedral was built by Moscow architects Ivan Barma and Postnik Yakovlev.

Other historians insist that Barma and Postnik were the names of one person.

In addition, there is also a third version. Some researchers believe that in fact, the author of the cathedral was a European master, presumably Italian. Hence the unique style, combining the traditions of both Russian architecture and European architecture of the Renaissance.

The legend says that whoever was the architect, Ivan the Terrible ordered to blind him after the end of the construction works. The terrible Russian tsar did not want the architect to build something better than St Basil’s Cathedral!

Interiors of St Basil's Cathedral in Moscow, Russia
Painted walls and ceilings in Saint Basil's Cathedral
Painted ceilings and walls of St Basil’s Cathedral

INTERIORS OF ST BASIL’S CATHEDRAL

St Basil’s Cathedral is one of the most significant monuments of ancient Russian architecture of the 16th century. It is a part on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

I have to mention that the cathedral was restored and repaired many times. The cathedral survived fires, the Times of Troubles, and wars. Besides, as it often happens in Russia, cold climate slowly ruins even robust buildings made of stone and bricks. 

However, today we can admire the beauty of this architectural masterpiece.

Travel Tip:
I highly recommend you to take a tour inside of Saint Basil’s Cathedral. There are not so many buildings of the 16th century in contemporary Moscow. Do not miss the chance to see this unique historical place!

The cathedral looks large if you look at it from outside. But when you enter it, you will be surprised how tiny the interior rooms are!

For me, the interiors of Saint Basil’s Cathedral resemble a labyrinth. When I was following the passages from one church to another, I felt that the goal of this planning was to get people lost! 

I suppose that the cathedral could serve as a fortress. When you wander inside, pay attention to the impressive thickness of the walls. If Russian tsars wanted to stow away, the cathedral would have been a perfect place for that!


ST BASIL’S CATHEDRAL NOWADAYS

At present, Saint Basil’s Cathedral is a part of the State Historical Museum in Moscow. 

The building with its colourful domes leaves nobody indifferent. You may explore the cathedral from outside. However, I suggest taking a tour inside the museum too. Even if you are not-believer or not a Christian, I am sure that it will be an unforgettable experience for you.

What surprised me the most was the inner planning of the cathedral. Sturdy painted walls, spiral staircases, and narrow metal doors fascinated me from the first sight!

Inside, each church looks like a bottle: a small room with a very high ceiling. The acoustics are just amazing! In one of the churches, there were short musical performances. A male choir sang Orthodox hymns and chants. They had no musical instruments, but the sound of their voices was divine!

While wandering in the labyrinth of rooms, you will discover ancient icons and books, coffers and coins, and plenty of other old stuff. There are plenty of artefacts that had been found during restorations and refurbishment works.

I am sure that you will love the picturesque view of Moscow from the windows of the cathedral. Besides, it is possible to see the colourful domes and roofs closer.

Historical exhibition in Saint Basil's Cathedral
Ancient book from the collection of Saint Basil's Cathedral

ADDRESS & TICKET INFO

Address: Red Square, 2, Moscow, Russia
Closest metro stations: Okhotny Ryad, Teatralnaya, Ploschad Revolutsii

Opening hours: daily from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
At temperatures below -15°С, the museum shortens opening hours.

Tickets cost 700-1000 Rub / ~10-15USD (depending on the season). There are audio guides in English, French, Chinese, and Spanish. More info on tickets
The ticket office is near the entrance to the cathedral.

If you want to avoid crowds, better come in the morning.


USEFUL LINKS

View of Moscow from St Basil's Cathedral
View of Moscow from one of the galleries of St Basil’s Cathedral
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St Basil's Cathedral in Moscow, Russia: History, Photos & Facts About the Legendary Russian Church
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