Saint Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow

The Cathedral Of Vasily The Blessed



The Cathedral of Saint Basil the Blessed: St. Basil’s Cathedral, located on Red Square beside the Moscow Kremlin, is the most recognizable church in Russia. St. Basil’s Cathedral was built in the 16th century by the order of Ivan the Terrible. Since then it has enthralled travellers coming to Moscow; while some find it uncanny, others are spellbound by its magnificence. It is a group of buildings, including a central church encircled by nine secondary churches, eight of which are devoted to Tsar Ivan IV’s (the first tsar of all Russia) eight victories over the Tatars, and a smaller church sanctified to Saint Basil.

St. Basil’s was built as an offering for Ivan’s military triumphs over the khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan. In the mid-1550s, the cathedral was commissioned with the name ‘the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Virgin’, as a dedication to the protection and intercession of the Virgin. However, it was renamed ‘St. Basil’s Church’ after a worker, who was one of the few men to openly chastise the tsar for his tyrannical actions. St. Basil was buried around 1557 in the church vaults during the reign (1584–98) of Tsar Fyodor I and was canonised in 1588.


       St. Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square



St. Basil’s Cathedral being one of the main churches in Moscow, has a very complicated history. The time of troubles for the Cathedral includes the siege by the Polish army and Napoleon’s attempted invasion of Moscow in 1812. Further, Napoleon admired the cathedral to the extent that he wanted to transfer it to Paris. But after he had found out that his idea was unrealistic, the cathedral was turned into stables.

While St. Basil’s Cathedral is a significant attraction in Moscow, it’s interesting that at a point in history, attempts were made to destroy the structure. It is nearly a miracle that St. Basil’s Cathedral is still standing today. Napoleon and his forces tried to detonate St. Basil’s Cathedral as they departed Russia, realizing he could not count it among his war spoils; the only thing that saved St. Basil’s Cathedral from the complete destruction was the fact that the French had to leave Moscow in a big rush and the fuses lit by his men were allegedly snuffed out by a sudden downpour.

Further, in the 20th century, Joseph Stalin developed plans to destroy the cathedral, apparently for not being stylistically embodiment of the Soviet Union. Engineering projects were initiated to demolish the building and expand the Red Square for military parades. The courage of preservationists, chiefly the architect Pyotr Baranovsky, who refused to organize it for demolition or maybe Stalin’s respect for Ivan the Terrible, ruined the plans. Stalin decided against pulling the cathedral down, although it would have opened Red Square for the more convenient presentation of political power displays.

Even though the passing centuries have caused deleterious effects gradually on St. Basil’s Cathedral, the restoration of the establishment has taken place. The decorations on the interior have been replaced where they were damaged by age and neglect, and the colourful exterior of the cathedral is also maintained with regular fresh coats of paint.


The cathedral was built in the geographical centre of Moscow City located close to the Kremlin, but outside it. Originally, the place of St. Basil’s construction was a busy marketplace and post-completion of construction, the city developed around this location. Built as a war memorial between 1555 and 1561, it was the city’s tallest building (47.5 m) until the Ivan the Great Bell Tower (81 m) was built in 1600.


Icon of St. Basil the Blessed, at St. Basil’s Cathedral


According to a theory, the church was designed by two Russian architects, Posnik and Barma. It has been further speculated that these two men may have in fact been just one person. The second theory is that it was built by an Italian architect, and Ivan the Terrible had the architect’s eyes put out after the cathedral was completed so that the architect would not be able to build an equally beautiful structure anywhere else.

It is not just one church inside; Saint Basil’s Cathedral is composed of nine separate chapels. Initially, there were only eight chapels surrounding the central church, and the expansion of the Cathedral of the Intercession began at the end of 16th century, with the addition of the Basil the Blessed Chapel and the onion domes. The iconic onion-shaped domes were not part of the original structure and were only added to the chapels following a fire in 1595.

In 1680, the large self-supporting bell tower was rebuilt in a 17th century ornamental style at the southeast corner of the cathedral, with polychromatic decoration and a tent roof of ceramic tile. In addition, the painted ornamentation on the exterior walls, particularly of the new gallery, was added. The cupolas were brightly painted in a renovation of the cathedral. This process reached its conclusion in the 17th century with the inclusion of the terrace.



One of the most familiar symbols and architectural treasure of Moscow and to an extent even Russia, St. Basil’s Cathedral represents Russia from the standpoint of the West. The architectural design of the church is unique without any known precursor. It incorporates many East-meets-West elements.

The architectural styles such as Byzantine, Muslim and possibly, Italian Renaissance influenced the architecture of St. Basil’s Cathedral. The architects took inspiration from Byzantine as well as Asian architecture and used open brickwork, which was a new technology at the time; this brick and wood church, and its onion-like vibrant domes and spires have endured centuries of war, fire and rebellion.


    Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, 1554



It is believed that only the churches that make up the complex on the interior reveal their elaborate complexity. The chapels consist of numerous valuable icons and other art values. The western corridor with a unique caisson ceiling is an interesting architectural aspect of the cathedral. In addition, the noteworthy achievem

ent of engineering is noticeable in the vaults, which is a brilliant instance of the skills of stone masonry. Further, the frescoes covering the walls of chapels and other premises are celebrated.

The interior of the larger Intercession tower (151 feet in height from the floor) has elaborate decoration and ends with a hardly noticeable image of Mary and the Christ Child. Moreover, although at least half of the St. Basil’s churches later acquired wall paintings, the original brick pattern still subsists in some of the interiors. The tops of the chapels generally conclude in a pinwheel spiral on the vaulting underneath the cupola.

The restoration of the interior also revealed a geometric decorative pattern. Most of the interiors of the component churches of the cathedral were painted brick red, with white seams limned to mirror the mortar, a technique known as ‘pod kirpich’, or ‘like brick’.



          St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, Interior


Interiors of St. Basil the Blessed, Red Square



The design of the church in some ways mirrors the nearby Kremlin. The exterior of the church is very complex but at the same time it is devoid of any sculptures and adornment taken from the living nature. The astounding ornamentation is achieved by solely architectural techniques accomplished with brick. The fundament of the building is made of white stone, while the churches themselves are built of red brick, which was laid around a complicated wooden structure, a spatial pattern of the future church.

The original colour of the church was white, to match the white stones of the Kremlin, whereas the domes made of tin were covered by a layer of fine gold leaf or powder. Further, an iconostasis, which is the screen that divides each chapel from the main sanctuary, gleamed with the rich gold of its many icons.

At present, the church is very colourful, while the original was less garish. As Russian preferences stirred towards the utilization of vivid colours during the 18th century, the onion-shaped domes were given garish individual colour schemes. The covering of onion domes is very interesting, as each of them has distinctive design.

The ‘pod kirpich’, or ‘like brick’ technique was also applied to the brick exterior. The paint not only protected the walls from moisture seepage but also improved the colour of the surface.

List Of Churches

  • The central church is named after the Intercession of the Theotokos;
  • Eastern – Trinity;
  • Western – Palm Sunday;
  • North-western – Saint Gregory the Illuminator;
  • South-eastern – Alexander Svirsky;
  • South-western – Barlaam of Khutyn;
  • North-eastern – John the Merciful;
  • Southern – Saint Nicholas of Velikoretsk;
  • Northern – Adrian and Natalia of Nicomedia;
  • Tenth cupola is rising over the bell tower – another beautiful structure built in the 1680s.


  Russia’s Most Beautiful Gem: St. Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow


The Structure

The establishment built from a new material- brick, which covers a timber frame, includes a central church with chapels constructed consecutively huddled around an incredibly tall central nave and connected via galleries and passageways like a labyrinth. Further, although the building looks colossal from outside, it is quite small inside; the chapels are surprisingly small, with magnificent decoration.

The cathedral has four octagonal towers and four square-towers, all built with red brick [28 x 14 x 8 cm (11.0 x 5.5 x 3.1 in)], an innovation at the time. The towers themselves are richly and elaborately decorated; however, the main focal point is the roof of the cathedral is its domes and spires.

The eight pillar-shaped churches are designed on one base, organizing seven of them around the central church, by domes, polygonal towers, bare arches and pointed spires to create the shape of bonfire flames rising into the sky. Four of the chapels are raised up on platforms to signify their place between heaven and earth. The largest church, central one, the Church of the Intercession, is 47.5 m (156 ft) tall on the inside but has a floor area of only 64 m2 (690 sq. ft). The central church also features a lofty tented roof, which was a popular roofing style for churches in 16th century Russia.


Front Elevation Drawing of the Cathedral’s Facade and Overhead View of Floor Plan.



The eight small chapels have onion domes, while the central one has a low spire with a smaller onion dome on top of it, thought to induce in its imagery the curving flame of a candle. In total, there are 10 cupolas. The ornate onion domes are based on the dome of the grand mosque in Kazan and these quickly became a fashion for all orthodox churches.

The metal pieces of various sizes were bent and shaped to create interesting patterns on the dome, which have been then riveted together. Hundreds of different pieces are fit together, some overlapping others, some rounded, some coming out at sharp angles, some bent to form ridges. Then, the onion domes are placed on cylindrical drums, which form the top part of the towers. Finally, rising from the top of each dome is a golden cupola and cross.

The vibrant colours of St. Basil’s Cathedral began to be added only during 1670s, and the entire painting process was completed in numerous stages. The church was refurbished, and the gilded domes were reinstated with the current vivid domes. The choice of colours has apparently derived from an account of the Kingdom of Heaven in the Book of Revelations. Strong pigments enclose the exterior in a rainbow of colour and inside, the bare brick walls are ornamented with floral designs.

The inside of the domes is provided structure and support through a wooden or metal framework resembling a birdcage. During construction, this framework was built first to give the dome its basic shape. A temporary centre pole also may have been used for support; following this, the dome was covered with sheets of colourful metal.

Also, St. Basil’s cathedral has a basement, which is made of bricks. The basement comprises a ‘depository’ where the tsar and some rich families kept their treasures to protect them from fire.


Iconic Coloured Domes, St. Basil’s CathedralCathedral



In 1990, St. Basil’s was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, along with the entire Kremlin. The building is still partly in use today as a museum and, since 1991, is occasionally used for periodic services by the Russian Orthodox Church. Every Sunday at Saint Basil’s church, a Divine Liturgy is performed with Akathist to Saint Basil. The cathedral on Red Square remains the most unusual church in Russia and has become an enigmatic symbol of Moscow itself, surviving the Revolution and Soviet times. St. Basil’s Cathedral is now a museum.

The outside of the cathedral with its beautiful colourful domes is visible from the Red Square. The garden on the front side of the cathedral has a bronze statue which honours Dmitry Pozharsky and Kuzma Minin, who organized a citizen’s army that fought against the Polish invaders during the ‘Time of the Riots’ between 1598 and 1613. The inside of the chapels, surprisingly small, is richly decorated and their windows offer unique views of the cathedral and the Red Square. The stone floors exhibit the wear marks of 500 years’ worth of steps taken by the religiously devoted.

The interconnected chapels, with their doors, nooks, artwork, and niches make the interior of St. Basil’s seem like something out of fantasy. Further, St. Basil’s Cathedral has varied opening hours that can be checked on their website (sometimes it’s closed for renovations or cleaning); the tickets to St. Basil’s can be bought at the cathedral or online.



Amrita Batra 
Associate Editor
Civil Engineering and Construction Review