Legends and history of St. Basil’s Cathedral

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The visiting card of Belokamennaya, the temple that has become the brightest and most memorable decoration of the Moscow Kremlin, a cult, truly popular building that has survived a lot of events and wars – all this can rightfully be said about St. Basil’s Cathedral.

This cathedral is one of the most famous monuments of ancient Russian architecture, already in the 16th century it admired travelers from Europe and guests of Moscow, and for Russians it is a symbol of national character and national history..

Officially, the building has a completely different name – the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos, which is on the Moat, but better known under the name of St. Basil’s Cathedral, which was given to the building by ordinary Muscovites immediately after its erection. This is an Orthodox cathedral located on Red Square in Kitay-gorod, in Moscow, its bright domes can be seen not only on numerous postcards and photographs, but also in some films set in the Russian capital, in particular, “Yolki-2” “New Year’s Tariff”, “Phantom”, and the film “Life After People” shows how Vasily the Blessed would have looked 125 years after the disappearance of human civilization.

Legends and history of St. Basil's Cathedral St. Basil’s Cathedral against the background of the Kremlin’s Spasskaya Tower

It was the Intercession Cathedral in Moscow that became the model for the construction of the Church of the Resurrection of Christ (better known as the Savior on Spilled Blood) in St. Petersburg. This cathedral was completed in 1907 in memory of the Emperor Alexander II and has much in common with the Moscow one..

Legends and history of St. Basil's Cathedral Cathedral of the Savior on Spilled Blood, St. Petersburg

A bit of history

The history of the cathedral has more than 450 years – the decision to build it was made by Ivan the Terrible in 1554. Initially, in 1552, a church was erected on the site of the cathedral in honor of the victory of the Russian troops in the long war for the conquest of the Astrakhan and Kazan khanates. This temple was consecrated in honor of the Holy Trinity, which is why, back in the 17th century, the new cathedral was called Trinity.

Two years later, Ivan the Terrible ordered to build a larger cathedral on the site of a small church, in honor of the Intercession of the Mother of God with side-chapels, each of which would glorify the victory over the Tatars. Among the townspeople, it was called the Pokrova na Moat, as it was built next to a rather deep ditch that ran along the entire eastern wall of the Kremlin.

The construction of the cathedral was carried out from 1555 to 1561, and in 1588 the church of St. Basil the Blessed was added to the main building, for its construction in the northeastern part of the temple high arched openings were laid. This new church was architecturally an independent temple with its own separate entrance and porch..

At the end of the 16th century, the unique figured chapters of the cathedral were decorated – originally a gold covering was used, which was badly damaged during the next Moscow fire.

Legends and history of St. Basil's Cathedral 16th century engraving depicting a service at St.Basil’s Cathedral

Already in the second half of the 17th century, significant changes were made to the external appearance of the cathedral, for example, the open gallery-gulbische surrounding the upper churches was covered with a vault, and porches were erected above the wide white-stone staircases, the main decoration of which were tents.

At the same time, the inner and outer galleries, parapets and porch platforms were painted with floral, or rather, herbal ornaments. All these changes were completed only in 1683, information about this is contained in the ceramic tiles that adorned the facade of the temple.

Fires, which so often became a real disaster in wooden Moscow, caused great harm to the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Virgin, therefore, since the end of the 16th century, repair work has been carried out regularly. In 1737 the architect Ivan Michurin carried out work on the restoration of the church after the strongest “Trinity Fire”, at the behest of Catherine II in 1784-1786 under the leadership of Ivan Yakovlev, the reconstruction of the interiors and facades of the cathedral was again carried out. Then, in 1900-1912, a new restoration of the temple was carried out by the architect Soloviev.

In 1918, the Moscow Cathedral of the Intercession of the Virgin became one of the first cultural monuments that were taken under state protection, as a monument of world and national importance. It was from this moment that the history of St.Basil the Blessed as an Orthodox church was interrupted – it gradually became one of the most famous museums in the capital..

In the 1920s, the cathedral was in the most deplorable state – the roof leaked, the windows were broken, many valuable icons were lost. In 1923, it was decided to create a historical and architectural museum in the church, its first head was E.I. Silin, at the same time the museum fund began to be completed.

In 1928, the “Pokrovsky Cathedral” (already as an ordinary historical and architectural monument) became one of the branches of the State Historical Museum. The following year, the bells of the cathedral were removed and worship was completely prohibited. It is interesting that the restoration work in the temple has been carried out almost continuously since the 1920s – the interior or the facade of one or the other limit is being updated, but it is always open to visitors. The only time the museum was closed completely was during the Great Patriotic War. In 1947, to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Moscow, the cathedral again opened its doors to Muscovites and guests of the capital..

Legends and history of St. Basil's Cathedral View of the cathedral from Red Square

In 1991, St. Basil’s Cathedral was returned to the Russian Orthodox Church again, and although it remains a branch of the State Historical Museum and is also included in the UNESCO World Heritage List, it, like hundreds of years ago, hosts divine services, and the Museum and the Orthodox Church jointly manage the complex.

The structure and composition of the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Virgin

The bright, immediately eye-catching St. Basil’s Cathedral is famous for its unique domes, among which it is impossible to find not only the same, but even just similar ones. In fact, there are eleven domes in the temple, they all have their own names:

  1. Central dome – Protection of the Virgin.
  2. Southwest – Varlaam Khutynsky.
  3. Eastern – Holy Trinity.
  4. Northwest – Gregory of Armenian.
  5. Western – the Entry of the Lord into Jerusalem.
  6. Southeast – Alexander Svirsky.
  7. North-east – John the Merciful (formerly named after Paul, John and Alexander of Constantinople).
  8. Southern – Nicholas the Wonderworker.
  9. North – Natalia and Adriana (formerly Justina and Cyprian).
  10. St.Basil’s dome.
  11. The dome crowning the bell tower of the temple.

Legends and history of St. Basil's Cathedral Domes of the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat

Such a large number of domes is due to the fact that the cathedral is a single complex uniting several churches, the thrones of which were at one time consecrated in honor of the holidays that fell on the days of the decisive battles with the Kazan Khanate:

  • the Church of Alexander Svirsky – on the day of the memory of this saint, the Russian army defeated the cavalry of Tsarevich Yapanchi in the battle on the Arsk field;
  • the Church of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, in honor of his Velikoretskaya icon from Vyatka;
  • Trinity Church – built on the site of an ancient temple, previously the entire cathedral was called Trinity;
  • the Church of Gregory the Armenian, the enlightener of Armenia, who did a lot for the formation of Orthodoxy in this country. On the day of the memory of the saint, the most important event of the war with the Kazan Khanate took place – the explosion of the Arskaya tower;
  • the Church of Varlaam Khutynsky – known for its separately hanging icon “The Vision of the Sexton Tarasiy”, which described the disasters that threatened Novgorod at the end of the 16th century;
  • the Church of the Entry of the Lord into Jerusalem – apparently, the construction of this limit is associated with the triumphant return of the army led by Ivan the Terrible to the capital after the victory over part of the former Golden Horde – the Kazan Khanate;
  • the Church of the Martyrs Natalia and Adrian (originally named after Saints Justina and Cyprian, renamed in 1786 in honor of the heavenly patrons of a wealthy investor who donated a significant amount for the reconstruction of the cathedral) – on the day of remembrance of the saints, the troops of Ivan the Terrible stormed the capital of the khanate, the city of Kazan;
  • the Church of St. John the Merciful (until the 18th century it was named in honor of Saints Paul, John and Alexander of Constantinople) – on the day of the holy patriarchs, a significant battle took place between the Russian troops and the cavalry of the Tatars who came to the aid of the Kazan Khanate.

Four axial churches are large, the other four, smaller, are located between them. All eight churches of the Intercession Cathedral on Red Square are crowned with onion domes and grouped around the higher Church of the Intercession of the Mother of God. These nine churches are united by a single base, a bypass gallery, which was glazed only in the second half of the 17th century, and internal vaulted passages.

Separately added is the Church of St. Basil the Blessed, consecrated in honor of the Moscow saint (1469-1552), whose relics were located at the construction site.

The tent-roofed bell tower, which was erected on the site of the ancient belfry in 1680, as well as the basement – the base of the cathedral, which has no basements, deserve special mention..

Legends and history of St. Basil's Cathedral Bell tower of the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Holy Virgin

It is in the basement, where a special microclimate was created thanks to the construction technology unique for that time and the use of “breathing” bricks, that the ancient icon of St. Basil the Blessed of the end of the 16th century, painted especially for the cathedral, is kept, as well as the icons “Our Lady of the Sign” and “Protection of the Most Holy Theotokos” (both – XVII century). Earlier, the parishioners did not even suspect the existence of this secret room, where the royal treasury and property of especially important and wealthy citizens were kept, only during the reconstruction in the 1930s was a secret passage found and now the basement of the Cathedral of St. Basil the Blessed has become part of the museum exposition. The thickness of the walls of the basement reaches 3 meters, the main building materials were stone and thin bricks used for decoration.

The height of the cathedral is 65 meters, until the end of the 16th century, when Boris Godunov completed the construction of the bell tower of the Kremlin Church of John Climacus, it rose to 81 meters, and Ivan the Great appeared in the capital, the temple remained the tallest building in Moscow.

Legends and history of St. Basil's Cathedral Basement of the Cathedral of St. Basil the Blessed with the icon “Our Lady of the Sign”

Cathedral legends

The first legend of this Moscow temple is associated with the decision to build it by Ivan the Terrible. As you know, the harsh tsar was distinguished by earnest religiosity, so that executions and cruel punishments alternated with periods of repentance. Also, Ivan the Fourth was distinguished by his superstition, so that when in a marching church, hastily erected near Kazan, at a regular lunch service, the deacon exclaimed stanzas from the Gospel: “May the flock and one shepherd be one,” and at the same time a large piece of the fortress wall of the enemy city flew into the air, thanks to which the Russian troops were able to enter Kazan, the tsar decided to build a temple in Moscow to thank the heavenly patrons.

There is another version of the start of construction, which is associated with the most famous Moscow holy fool – Vasily the Blessed. He began to collect money for the construction of the cathedral long before the construction of the temple began, brought the collected pennies to Red Square and threw it over his right shoulder – “a penny to a penny, penny to penny”, and even the most notorious thieves did not touch these coins. Ivan the Terrible talked with the elder and even visited him personally with the queen during his illness, it was the revered holy fool who showed him a place for construction. By the way, many legends of the Moscow temple are associated with St. Basil the Blessed – his relics became one of the main relics of the cathedral, and healings often happened at the burial site. However, the Church of St. Basil the Blessed itself was erected on the site of the saint’s burial already during the reign of Fyodor Ioannovich, at the same time a silver shrine was erected for his relics.

Legends and history of St. Basil's Cathedral Silver cancer and a canopy over the grave of Basil the Blessed

There is also a legend that Ivan the Terrible gave a decree to blind the architects – Russian architects Barma and Postnik, who, to his question – “Will you be able to build something else just as beautiful”, boldly answered – “Yes, and even better.” Historians, however, believe that the main architect of the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Virgin was one man – Ivan Yakovlevich Barma, who had the nickname Postnik, as he always adhered to a strict fast. And he was not blinded at all – after the completion of the work in Moscow, he took part in the construction of the Annunciation Cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin, the Kazan Kremlin and other significant buildings, which are mentioned in the annals.

Another legend says that an Italian supervised the construction of the temple on Red Square, which is why the cathedral is somewhat similar to the buildings of the European Renaissance, but this version has not been confirmed.

It is interesting that many mystics call the Church of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos “an icon engraved in stone.” Its shape – eight churches united by two squares at the base, is not accidental – the number 8 symbolizes the date of the Resurrection of Christ, in addition, if you wish, you can see how squares rotated at an angle of 45 degrees at the base of the cathedral form an eight-pointed star, which became a reminder of the Star of Bethlehem that rose on the birthday of Christ.

Another interesting detail – for all its magnificent decoration and beauty, the Cathedral of St. Basil the Blessed is not at all large and already in the XVI could not accommodate all the believers who came to the festive services. Then a lectern was placed on the Execution Ground, the clergy conducted the service, and the cathedral itself became a real altar of a huge Temple, stretched out in the open air.

Legends and history of St. Basil's Cathedral Cathedral of the Intercession of the Virgin on Red Square

Many legends are associated with the fortune of the temple – it was repeatedly threatened with destruction and each time it was miraculously saved. So, during the war of 1812, when Napoleon managed to occupy Moscow, the Emperor liked the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Virgin so much that he decided to move it to Paris. Of course, the technology of that time did not allow to realize the idea of ​​Napoleon Bonaparte. Then the French simply laid explosives into the foundation of the cathedral and lit the fuse. The gathered Muscovites prayed for the salvation of the temple, and a miracle happened – a pouring rain began, which extinguished the wick.

Once again, the temple miraculously survived during the October Revolution – traces of shells hit on its walls for a long time. In 1931, a bronze monument to Minin and Pozharsky was moved to the cathedral – the authorities freed the square from unnecessary buildings for parades. Lazar Kaganovich, who was so successful in destroying the Kazan Cathedral of the Kremlin, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior and a number of other churches in Moscow, proposed to completely demolish the Intercession Cathedral in order to additionally clear a place for demonstrations and military parades. Legend has it that Kaganovich ordered to make a detailed model of Red Square with the removed temple and brought it to Stalin. Trying to prove to the leader that the cathedral interferes with cars and demonstrations, he unexpectedly for Stalin tore the model of the temple from the square. Surprised Stalin allegedly at that moment uttered the historical phrase: “Lazarus, put it back in place!”, So the question of demolishing the cathedral was postponed – the leader did not back down.

According to the second legend, the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Mother of God owes its salvation to the famous restorer P.D. Baranovsky, who sent telegrams to Stalin with an appeal not to destroy the temple. Legend has it that Baranovsky, who was invited to the Kremlin on this issue, knelt in front of the assembled members of the Central Committee, begging to preserve the cult building, and this unexpectedly worked. True, then Baranovsky went to the GULAG for a considerable period.

At one time, the historian Ivan Zabelin said: “The Cathedral of St. Basil the Blessed is the same, if not more, Moscow, moreover, a national wonder, like Ivan the Great, the Tsar Bell and Tsar Cannon.” Indeed, it is simply impossible to imagine Red Square without the bright, always festive domes and walls of the Church of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos, it is easily recognizable and not so long ago was one of the most popular contenders for the title of the new seven wonders of the world.

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