St. Basil's Cathedral was built during the period 1555-1561, and so in 2021 it will be 460 years old! The church was built on the orders of Ivan the Terrible to commemorate his conquest of the Khanate of Kazan and its annexation to the Tsardom of Russia. This happened the day after an important Orthodox holiday, the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos. It was to this feast that the church was dedicated.
Despite being famous throughout the world as St. Basil's Cathedral, its official name is in fact the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat, or, in Russian, Prokrovsky sobor (Intercession Cathedral).
A side chapel dedicated to the holy fool St. Basil the Blessed was added later. Since this was the only section of the church with heating, and services were held there every day, the name began to refer to the entire cathedral.
Adding up all the side chapels and the central core (the original Church of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos), we get eleven, which essentially means eleven independent churches, each with its own iconostasis. Likewise, the cathedral is crowned by eleven domes: ten atop the side chapels (including that of St. Basil the Blessed) and one more above the bell tower.
The architects are commonly believed to have been called Ivan Barma and Postnik Yakovlev, whom, according to legend, Ivan the Terrible later had blinded so they could never build anything more beautiful.
Having been ravaged by fire on numerous occasions, in the 17th-18th centuries the cathedral underwent several facelifts. The building was reconstructed, and the parvis, porch and side chapels were added. Even the roof of the cathedral was altered – here’s how old engravings depict the cathedral when it had a prominent high-hipped dome (since lost).
The cathedral miraculously survived the anti-religious Soviet years, although there were plans to demolish it. Thankfully, the country’s leading architects and historians championed its preservation, so it was turned into a historical and architectural museum instead.
Lest visitors felt spiritually moved, the entire exposition reminded them that religion is evil. Even the door was adorned with a quote from Karl Marx: “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness."
A Soviet exhibition devoted to communists' attitude to religion used to be placed in the cathedral's basement. Now there is a 18th-century icon 'Our Lady of the Sign', a copy of the one used to decorate the church's facade.
In Soviet times, the building was properly restored with plans to recreate its historical appearance. This involved removing the layers of paint, exposing the brickwork and white stone decorative elements. As a result, many ancient murals were lost.
Today, the cathedral is once more a place of worship, yet it remains a branch of the State Historical Museum and hosts regular guided tours. One of the main symbols of Moscow and Russia, it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The exhibition “Time of Change. St. Basil’s Cathedral in the 1920s–1930s” is on at the State Historical Museum from July 28, 2021, to Jan. 24, 2022.
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