St Basil's Cathedral

sights / Religious

St Basil's Cathedral information

Moscow , Russia
Getting there
metro Ploshchad Revolyutsii
adult/student R250/50
Opening hours
11am-5pm Wed-Mon
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Lonely Planet review

At the southern end of Red Square, framed by the massive facades of the Kremlin and GUM department store, stands the icon of Russia: St Basil’s Cathedral. This crazy confusion of colours, patterns and shapes is the culmination of a style that is unique to Russian architecture. Before St Basil’s, this style of tent roofs and onion domes had been used to design wooden churches. In 1552 Ivan the Terrible captured the Tatar stronghold of Kazan on the feast of Intercession. He commissioned this landmark church, officially the Intercession Cathedral, to commemorate the victory. From 1555 to 1561 architects Postnik and Barma created this masterpiece that would become the ultimate symbol of Russia. The cathedral’s apparent anarchy of shapes hides a comprehensible plan of nine main chapels: the tall, tent-roofed one in the centre; four big, octagonal-towered ones, topped with the four biggest domes; and four smaller ones in between. Legend has it that Ivan had the architects blinded so they could never build anything comparable. This is a myth, however, as records show that they were employed a quarter of a century later (and four years after Ivan’s death) to add an additional chapel to the structure. The misnomer St Basil’s actually refers only to this extra northeastern chapel. It was built over the grave of the barefoot holy fool Vasily (Basil) the Blessed, who predicted Ivan’s damnation. Vasily, who died while Kazan was under siege, was buried beside the church that St Basil’s soon replaced. He was later canonised. Only in the 1670s were the domes patterned, giving St Basil’s its multicoloured appearance. Between 1772 and 1784 the cathedral received a metal roof and a whitewashing; its domes were gold-leafed in keeping with the fashion of the time. Although Napoleon ordered it to be destroyed in 1812, his troops did not have enough time to complete the task. In 1817 the cathedral returned to its present colourful appearance, the cemetery was closed and the houses and moat surrounding the cathedral were removed. The interior is open to visitors. Besides a small exhibition on the cathedral itself, it contains lovely frescoed walls and loads of nooks and crannies to explore. A collective ticket with the State History Museum is available. Out front of St Basil’s is the statue of Kuzma Minin and Dmitry Pozharsky , one a butcher and the other a prince, who together raised and led the army that ejected occupying Poles from the Kremlin in 1612. Up the slope is the round, walled Place of Skulls , where Peter the Great executed the Streltsy.