St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow cover

St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow


One of the visually most surprising buildings in the world is Saint Basil’s Cathedralin Moscow, Russia. This amazing church was built 450 years ago next to the Moscow Kremlin.
The history of this church dates back to Ivan the Terrible - the tsar of Russia who reigned from 1533 to 1584.

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St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow

Ivan The Terrible

One of the visually most surprising buildings in the world is Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, Russia. This amazing church was built 450 years ago next to the Moscow Kremlin.

The history of this church dates back to Ivan the Terrible - the tsar of Russia who reigned from 1533 to 1584. In his time, the area governed by Moscow expanded mainly in southern and easterly directions, reaching the Caspian Sea and stepping over the Urals into Western Siberia.

The troops of Ivan the Terrible won many significant victories and one of the most important was the capture of Kazan in 1552.

St. Basil’s Cathedral

St. Basil’s Cathedral

Image by D.Wine


Early History

It had been very important for rulers to mark their achievements and victories at all times and in all countries. Ivan the Terrible was no an exception to this rule.

In the 1550s the first church was built: Trinity Church, built of white stone and commemorating the capture of Kazan. At the end of Astrakhan campaign (1556) seven more wooden churches were built around and next to the Trinity Church. These churches commemorating military victories were seen as something new, and their planning and outer look were highly original.

The churches were located outside the walls of the Kremlin – which was also something new, and was seen as a bow to the populace of Moscow.

1552 - 1555: "Churches of Triumph"

The church is named after Basil the Blessed (in Russian - Василий Блаженный, lived from 1469 – 1552) – an eccentric Russian Orthodox saint.

He devoted himself to a specific kind of servitude to God – yurodstvo – where the devotee pretends to be a fool and refuses any comforts. Thus Basil the Blessed lived without a permanent residence, walked naked with chains, and deliberately subjected to humiliations from the cruel crowd (although in general he was much respected).

Basil the Blessed gained respect through his candid and fair conduct and opinion – and his contemporaries considered that he might be the only person truly respected by Ivan the Terrible. He was buried in the site of the future St. Basil’s Cathedral. Saint Basil is not the only "sacred fool" buried here – Ivan the Blessed was also buried in the church grounds in 1589.

St. Basil’s Cathedral At Night

St. Basil’s Cathedral At Night

Image by Asguskov


1555 - 1561: Stone Churches Are Built

In 1555 Ivan the Terrible ordered the churches rebuilt.

New stone churches were built on the site of Trinity Church and the surrounding eight wooden churches. Church of Trinity was consecrated on 12 July 1561.

According to the popular tradition, the architects of this amazing structure were Barma and Postnik Yakovlev. Now many researchers consider that this was actually one person, an artisan from Pskov.

Legend tells that Ivan the Terrible ordered the piercing of the eyes of architect so that nothing similar would be built elsewhere. Such conduct might be in the style of Ivan the Terrible, but it seems that that legend was not correct this time. The name of Postnik appears in connection with some other beautiful Russian churches elsewhere (also Kazan Kremlin), that were built in later times.

1561 - 1593: "Jerusalem Temple"

St. Basil's Cathedral was by all accounts a very impressive and very well known building.

The central church - Trinity Church was the tallest structure in Moscow until 1600, when the Ivan the Great Bell Tower inside the Kremlin was raised up to its present height –of 81 m.

The church gained great importance in the life of the city. The dense group of nine churches resembled a mythical citadel and was called "Jerusalem". The structure served as an allegory of the Jerusalem Temple in the annual parade, attended by the Patriarch of Moscow and the tsar. As the years passed, the church was rebuilt numerous times. In 1588 one more church was added to the complex - the tenth one. In 1583, the Trinity church burned down and was rebuilt in 1593.

St. Basil’s Cathedral

St. Basil’s Cathedral


Public Domain

1683 - 1918: Wars and Restoration Works

From 1680 - 1683 the former complex of ten churches were united by a ground floor. The newly built galleries were adorned with frescoes with rich floral ornamentation.

In 1737, the church again suffered a fire. Extensive repairs were done between 1761 and 1784, when the walls of the first two floors were again adorned with frescoes.

The church was looted in 1812 by the French troops. Napoleon wanted to destroy it, but happily it did not happen. The cathedral was restored back to its former glory in 1816. More restoration works were carried out in 1896 – 1909.

An outstanding personality was the last keeper of the cathedral for the Orthodox church – Ivan Vostorgov. This socially active, tireless clergyman was executed by Bolsheviks in 1918.

Bolsheviks and the Museum

Bolsheviks initially were obsessed with an idea to demolish the church.

In 1933, it was even removed from the heritage register in order to start the demolition, but fortunately the mood of the Soviet leaders soon changed, and the value of the church was recognized. Since then, there have been several sets of restoration.

During the Soviet times, the cathedral was seized from the Russian Orthodox community and has been used as a branch of the State Historical Museum since 1928. It remains a property of the Russian Federation up to this day. Since 1991 church service here has been renewed.

Bolsheviks and the Museum (Cont.)

From 1957 to 1961 meticulous work was undertaken to remove the top oil layers, added in 18th century over the old frescoes.

The multiple layers of frescoes pose a challenge to restorers, and it is not always clear which one of them is the one to be exposed.

Nowadays the cathedral is one of symbols of world architecture, and a very popular landmark.

It has been noted though that the building has suffered adverse impacts from another important Russian tradition – the military parades on Red Square. The heavy tanks and jet fighters create cracks in the walls of cathedral.

Moscow Victory Day Parade

Moscow Victory Day Parade

(CC BY 3.0)

Architectural Style and Influence

There has been no similar building, either before or after. The complexity and amazing mix of details had no analogues in Russian architecture, and it had a huge impact on the development of Russian national architecture.

Some researchers speculate that this design had its roots in Byzantine and Muslim architecture; some, that it had been influenced by the wooden vernacular architecture. It is also seen as an expression of a specific, indigenous Russian Renaissance style. There might be truth in this, especially if we note that there Italian and Greek artisans working in Russia during this time, bringing new thinking with them.

Some art historians consider the planning of such a complex of closely located churches was inspired by the Quolsharif Mosque in Kazan. This once beautiful structure was destroyed when Russian troops invaded Kazan. It is also known that the same builders who built St. Basil's Cathedral, worked also in Kazan and could have brought influence from there.

Location and Planning

The cathedral was built in the geographical center of Moscow City – the city developed around this location since the 14th century.

The Cathedral is located close to the Kremlin, but outside it. Originally a busy marketplace was located there.

St. Basil's Cathedral is shaped like flames in a bonfire. The building consists of a central church with eight side churches. The central church and four surrounding churches are octagonal in plan. The four diagonally placed churches are cuboid.

The eight smaller churches are placed in a symmetrical circle, while the central church is offset to the west to accommodate its apse.

Eight side churches have onion domes, while the central one has a low spire with smaller onion dome over it. In total there are 10 cupolas. Onion domes were added in the end of the 16th century.

St. Basil’s Cathedral Plan

St. Basil’s Cathedral Plan


CC BY 2.0

List of Churches

• The central church is named after the Intercession of the Theotokos (церковь Покрова Пресвятой Богородицы);

• Eastern – Trinity (церковь Св. Троицы);

• Western – Palm Sunday (церковь Входа Господня в Иерусалим);

• North-western – Saint Gregory the Illuminator (церковь святителя Григория Армянского);

• South-eastern – Alexander Svirsky (церковь Александра Свирского);

• South-western – Barlaam of Khutyn (церковь Варлаама Хутынского);

• North-eastern – John the Merciful (церковь Иоанна Милостивого, former церковь Иоанна, Павла и Александра Константинопольских);

• Southern – Saint Nicholas of Velikoretsk (церковь Николая Чудотворца Великорецкого). The adornment with frescoes was done in the late 18th – early 19th century after the devastating fire in 1737;

• Northern – Adrian and Natalia of Nicomedia (церковь Адриана и Наталии, former церковь Киприана и Иустины). Adorned with frescoes since 1780ies;

• Tenth cupola is rising over the bell tower – another beautiful structure built in 1680ies.


Fundament of the buildings is made of white stone – with some secret chambers. The churches themselves are built of red brick, which was laid around an intricate wooden structure – a spatial pattern of the future church.

The exterior of the church is very ornate – but at the same time it is devoid of any sculpture or ornamentation of a living nature. All the amazing ornamentation is achieved by purely architectural techniques accomplished with brick.

Currently the church is very colourful – the original one was less garish. The current color scheme gradually developed from the 1680s through1848 – primarily in the times of Catherine the Great.

The design of the church mirrors the nearby Kremlin in some ways. Each of the onion domes has a distinctive design. The central church is 65 m high, with very small floor area – 64 m².

Look Inside

Look Inside

Alessio Damato

(CC BY-SA 1.0)


The interior of the cathedral is a maze of labyrinths. The chapels are surprisingly small, with opulent decoration.

Especially interesting is the western corridor with its unique caisson ceiling. A notable achievement of engineering is the vaults - a brilliant example of the skills of stonemasonry. Unfortunately. this skill was lost in the later Times of Troubles.

Renowned are the frescoes covering the walls of chapels and other premises. There are numerous valuable icons and other art values in the chapels.

Main Characteristics

Coordinates: 55.7525 N 37.6231 E

No: 246 of the list of all attractions

Category: Churches

Values: Architecture

Rank: 1

Address: Europe, Russia, Central region, Moscow, Red Square

Alternate names: Cathedral of the Protection of Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat, Cathedral of Intercession

Name in Russian: Собор Василия Блаженного, Собор Покрова пресвятой Богородицы, что на Рву, Покровский собор на Красной площади

Architecture style: unique, in its approach – Renaissance

Year of construction: 1555 - 1561

Branch of Christianity: Eastern Orthodox

UNESCO World Heritage status: Part of "Kremlin and Red Square, Moscow", 1990, No.545