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Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Saint Basil's Cathedral, Moscow

Cathedral of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat (St. Basil's Cathedral)
St. Basil's at night
Virtually every country on earth has at least one iconic architectural masterpiece that is instantly recognizable as symbolizing that nation. Some nations, such as the United States. have several such structures, but probably the White House or the U.S. Capitol would top our list. Great Britain has Big Ben, France the Eiffel Tower, Italy the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Germany its Brandenburg Gate, Australian its Sydney Opera House, Egypt its Pyr-amids, Greece the Acropolis, etc. Russia's most iconic edi-fice would undoubtedly be St. Basil's Cathedral in Red Square. St. Petersburg has several lovely, beautiful palaces and the like. Moscow has the Kremlin, which is an ugly medieval fortress, and in any case, not just one, but several buildings. Even Muscovites don't much care for it. None of them come even close to matching St. Basil's, which is probably the strangest looking, and thus the most identifiable cathedral in the world.

St. Basil's Cathedral is, today, actually a museum, used to draw tourists, rather
than worshipers. Communist state atheism has seen to it that it's been
almost ninety years since a congregation worshipped within its walls.
St. Basil's seems designed to
accommodate nine congregations
at the same time.
It's hard to describe St. Basil's. In overall shape it's said to have been inspired by a bonfire--not hard to imagine. There's little new or different about it's distinctive, brightly-colored "onion" domes. Russian Orthodox churches have been instantly identifiable by this feature ever since they borrowed it from India's Hindus close to a thousand years ago. As cathedrals go, the layout, at first glance, seems a little weird, though in fact, it's little more than a traditional Greek cross with four square, secondary chapels to create an overall diamond-oriented square shape (right). In essence, it is unlike any other work of Russian architecture, while having nothing remotely similar in Byzantine architecture either. Strangely, it's a cathedral without a nave, its exterior far more asym-metrical than its floor layout would suggest. It's also a case in which the fussy details that might otherwise ruin the look of a great building, in this case, actually combine to enhance its characteristic beauty. As for the colorful (dare we say gaudy) paintjob, that's purely a Russian architectural penchant. They love their bright colors.

Trinity Church (St. Basil's) under construction, 1755-61.
Russian Tsar Ivan IV
The Russians can thank Tsar Ivan IV (right, better known as Ivan the terrible), a ruler they're not otherwise particular fond of, for their iconic national symbol. In the autumn of 1554 Ivan ordered construction of the wooden Church of Intercession "on the moat". A year later, he ordered construction of a new stone cathedral on the site of nearby Trinity Church that would commemorate his victorious military campaigns. Dedication of a church to a military victory was a major innovation for Moscow. Construction (above) began in 1755 and took six years. The church was notable too for its placement outside the Kremlin walls, making it a church for commoners and peasants, rather the nobility. The identity of the architect is unknown, though tradition has it that the church was built by two architects, Barma and Postnik, probably Barma and Postnik Yakovlev. Many researchers suggest that the two names refer to the same person, Postnik Yakovlev, or possibly Ivan Yakovlevich Barma. Legend also has it that Ivan blinded the architect so that he could not re-create the masterpiece elsewhere. Indication are that construction involved stonemasons from the Baltic area and Germany.

St. Basil's cutaway illustration depicting the cathedral/museum's major features.
Inside, the composite church is a labyrinth of narrow, vaulted corridors and slender, vertical cylinders of the various chapels. The largest, is the central one, the Church of the Intercession. Though it is some 150 feet in height, it has a floor area of less than 700 square feet. The foundations of the cathedral are of stone, yet most of the rest of St. Basil's is red brick, which may account for the colorful paintjob outside. Inside, there's little paint but lots of dark, varnished woodwork often heavily adorned with gold leaf (another great love of the Russians). Overall, the effect inside is nothing like the soaring, extravagant spaces of the European Gothic cathedrals built around the same time. The wealth of adornment and details, which the exterior scale of the church is able to mitigate; the interior, with its modest sized spaces, tends toward claustrophobic. Inside St. Basil's, the eyes grow tired. The effect is not spiritually inspiring but bewildering.

The emphasis is upon height and endless, iconographic decoration.
Vasily Gryaznov--St. Basil

Incidentally, the church's nickname comes from the highly venerated local, Saint, Vasily Gryaznov. "Basil" is the Anglicization of the Russian name "Vasily." In case you might still be wondering why we refer to the Cathedral as St. Basil's, it was named for Basil the Fool, sometimes called Basil the Blessed. The saint was also known as Basil, Fool for Christ. He was contemporary of Ivan the Terrible, who built the church and who much admired him. St. Basil is also buried within church.

St. Basil's, Moscow, 1933,  as seen by the
American artist, Gerald Harvey Jones.


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