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1555 – 1561
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Article last edited by Maria Thuroczy on
February 21st, 2014
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The Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed (Russian: Собор Василия Блаженного), commonly known as Saint Basil's Cathedral, Kremlin, is a former church in Red Square in Moscow, Russia. The building, now a museum, is officially known as the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Blessed Virgin on the Moat (Russian: Собор Покрова пресвятой Богородицы, что на Рву) or Pokrovsky Cathedral (Russian: Покровский собор). It was built from 1555–61 on orders from Ivan the Terrible and commemorates the capture of Kazan and Astrakhan. It has been the hub of the city's growth since the 14th century and was the city's tallest building until the completion of the Ivan the Great Bell Tower in 1600.
The original building, known as Trinity Church and later Trinity Cathedral, contained eight side churches arranged around the ninth, central church of Intercession; the tenth church was erected in 1588 over the grave of venerated local saint Vasily (Basil). In the 16th and 17th centuries the church, perceived as the earthly symbol of the Heavenly City, as happens to all churches in Byzantine Christianity, was popularly known as the "Jerusalem" and served as an allegory of the Jerusalem Temple in the annual Palm Sunday parade attended by the Patriarch of Moscow and the tsar.
The building is shaped as a flame of a bonfire rising into the sky, a design that has no analogues in Russian architecture. Dmitry Shvidkovsky, in his book Russian Architecture and the West, states that "it is like no other Russian building. Nothing similar can be found in the entire millennium of Byzantine tradition from the fifth to fifteenth century ... a strangeness that astonishes by its unexpectedness, complexity and dazzling interleaving of the manifold details of its design." The cathedral foreshadowed the climax of Russian national architecture in the 17th century.
As part of the program of state atheism, the church was confiscated from the Russian Orthodox community as part of the Soviet Union's anti-theist campaigns and has operated as a division of the State Historical Museum since 1928. It was completely and forcefully secularized in 1929 and remains a federal property of the Russian Federation. The church has been part of the Moscow Kremlin and Red Square UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1990. It is often mislabelled as the Kremlin owing to its location on Red Square in immediate proximity of the Kremlin.
Red Square, early 17th century. Fragment from Bleau Atlas. The structure with three roof tents in foreground left is the original detached belfry of the Trinity Church, not drawn to scale. Trinity Church stands behind it, slightly closer to the road starting at St. Frol's (later Saviour's ) Gate of the Kremlin. The horseshoe-shaped object near the road in the foreground is Lobnoye Mesto.
Construction under Ivan IVThe site of the church had been, historically, a busy marketplace between the St. Frol's (later Saviour's) Gate of the Moscow Kremlin and the outlying posad. The centre of the marketplace was marked by the Trinity Church, built of the same white stone as the Kremlin of Dmitry Donskoy (1366–68) and its cathedrals. Tsar Ivan IV marked every victory of the Russo-Kazan War by erecting a wooden memorial church next to the walls of Trinity Church; by the end of his Astrakhan campaign, it was shrouded within a cluster of seven wooden churches. According to the sketchy report in Nikon's Chronicle, in the autumn of 1554 Ivan ordered construction of the wooden Church of Intercession on the same site, "on the moat". One year later, Ivan ordered construction of a new stone cathedral on the site of Trinity Church that would commemorate his campaigns. Dedication of a church to a military victory was "a major innovation" for Muscovy. The placement of the church outside of the Kremlin walls was a political statement in favour of posad commoners and against hereditary boyars.
Chronists clearly identified the new building as Trinity Church, after its easternmost sanctuary; the status of "sobor" (large assembly church) has not been bestowed on it yet:
In the same year, through the will of czar and lord and grand prince Ivan began making the pledged church, as he promised for the capture of Kazan: Trinity and Intercession and seven sanctuaries, also called "on the moat". And the builder was Barma with company.
The identity of the architect is unknown. Tradition held that the church was built by two architects, Barma and Postnik: the official Russian cultural heritage register lists "Barma and Postnik Yakovlev". Researchers proposed that both names refer to the same person, Postnik Yakovlev or, alternatively, Ivan Yakovlevich Barma (Varfolomey). Legend held that Ivan blinded the architect so that he could not re-create the masterpiece elsewhere, although the real Postnik Yakovlev remained active at least throughout the 1560s. There is evidence that construction involved stonemasons from Pskov and German lands.
Architectural styleBecause the church has no analogues, in preceding, contemporary, or later architecture of Muscovy and Byzantine cultural tradition in general, the sources that inspired Barma and Postnik are disputed. Eugène Viollet-le-Duc rejected European roots for the cathedral; according to him, its corbel arches were Byzantine, and ultimately Asian. A modern "Asian" hypothesis considers the cathedral a recreation of Qolsharif Mosque, which was destroyed by Russian troops after the siege of Kazan.
Nineteenth-century Russian writers, starting with Ivan Zabelin, emphasized the influence of the vernacular wooden churches of the Russian North; their motifs made their ways into masonry, particularly the votive churches that did not need to house substantial congregations. David Watkin also wrote of a blend of Russian and Byzantine roots, calling the cathedral "the climax" of Russian vernacular wooden architecture.
The church combines the staggered layered design of the earliest (1505–08) part of the Ivan the Great Bell Tower, the central tent of the Church of Ascension in Kolomenskoye (1530s), and the cylindric shape of the Church of Beheading of John the Baptist in Dyakovo (1547), but the origin of these unique buildings is equally debated. The Church in Kolomenskoye, according to Sergey Podyapolsky, was built by Italian Petrok Maly, although mainstream history has not yet accepted his opinion. Andrey Batalov revised the year of completion of Dyakovo church from 1547 to the 1560s–70s, and noted that Trinity Church could have had no tangible predecessors at all.
Dmitry Shvidkovsky suggested that the "improbable" shapes of the Intercession Church and the Church of Ascension in Kolomenskoye manifested an emerging national renaissance, blending earlier Muscovite elements with the influence of Italian Renaissance. A large group of Italian architects and craftsmen continuously worked in Moscow in 1474–1539, as well as Greek refugees that arrived in the city after the fall of Constantinople. These two groups, according to Shvidkovsky, helped Moscow rulers in forging the doctrine of Third Rome, which in turn promoted assimilation of contemporary Greek and Italian culture. Shvidkovsky noted the resemblance of the cathedral's floorplan to Italian concepts by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger and Donato Bramante, but most likely Filarete's Trattato di architettura. Other Russian researchers noted a resemblance to sketches by Leonardo da Vinci, although he could not have been known in Ivan's Moscow. Nikolay Brunov recognized the influence of these prototypes but not their significance; he suggested that in the mid-16th century Moscow already had local architects trained in Italian tradition, architectural drawing and perspective, and that this culture was lost during the Time of Troubles.
Andrey Batalov wrote that, judging by the number of novel elements introduced with Trinity Church, it was most likely built by German craftsmen. Batalov and Shvidkovsky noted that during Ivan's reign, Germans and Englishmen replaced Italians, although German influence peaked later, during the reign of Mikhail Romanov. German influence is indirectly supported by the rusticated pilasters of the central church, a feature more common in contemporary Northern Europe than in Italy.
The 1983 academic edition of Monuments of Architecture in Moscow takes the middle ground: the church is, most likely, a product of the complex interaction of distinct Russian traditions of wooden and stone architecture, with some elements borrowed from the works of Italians in Moscow. Specifically, the style of brickwork in the vaults is Italian.
LayoutInstead of following the original ad hoc layout (seven churches around the central core), Ivan's architects opted for a more symmetrical floor plan with eight side churches around the core, producing "a thoroughly coherent, logical plan" despite the erroneous latter "notion of a structure devoid of restraint or reason" influenced by the memory of Ivan's irrational atrocities. The central core and the four larger churches placed on the four major compass points are octagonal; the four diagonally placed smaller churches are cuboid, although their shape is barely visible through later additions. The larger churches stand on massive foundations, while the smaller ones were each placed on a raised platform, as if hovering above ground.
Although the side churches are arranged in perfect symmetry, the cathedral as a whole is not. The larger central church was deliberately offset to the west from the geometric center of the side churches, to accommodate its larger apse on the eastern side. As a result of this subtle calculated asymmetry, viewing from the north and the south presents a complex multi-axial shape, while the western facade, facing the Kremlin, appears properly symmetrical and monolithic. The latter perception is reinforced by the fortress-style machicolation and corbeled cornice of the western Church of Entry into Jerusalem, mirroring the real fortifications of the Kremlin.
Inside the composite church is a labyrinth of narrow vaulted corridors and vertical cylinders of the churches. The largest, central one, the Church of the Intercession, is 46 meters tall internally but has a floor area of only 64 square meters. Nevertheless, it is wider and airier than the church in Kolomenskoye with its exceptionally thick walls. The corridors functioned as internal parvises; the western corridor, adorned with a unique flat caissoned ceiling, doubled as the narthex.
The detached belfry of the original Trinity Church stood southwest or south from the main structure. Late 16th and early 17th century plans depict a simple structure with three roof tents, most likely covered with sheet metal. No buildings of this type survived to date, although it was then common and used in all of the pass-through towers of Skorodom. August von Meyerberg's panorama (1661) presents a different building, with a cluster of small onion domes.
StructureThe foundations, as was traditional in medieval Moscow, were built of white stone, while the churches themselves were built of red brick (28×14×8 centimeters), then a relatively new material (the first attested brick building in Moscow, the new Kremlin Wall, was started in 1485). Surveys of the structure show that the basement level is perfectly aligned, indicating use of professional drawing and measurement, but each subsequent level becomes less and less regular. Restorers who replaced parts of the brickwork in 1954–55 discovered that the massive brick walls conceal an internal wooden frame running the entire height of the church. This frame, made of elaborately tied thin studs, was erected as a life-size spatial model of the future cathedral and was then gradually enclosed in solid masonry.
The builders, fascinated by the flexibility of the new technology, used brick as a decorative medium both inside and outside, leaving as much brickwork open as possible; when location required the use of stone walls, it was decorated with a brickwork pattern painted over stucco. A major novelty introduced by the church was the use of strictly "architectural" means of exterior decoration. Sculpture and sacred symbols employed by earlier Russian architecture are completely missing; floral ornaments are a later addition. Instead, the church boasts a diversity of three-dimensional architectural elements executed in brick.
ColorThe church acquired its present-day vivid colors in several stages from the 1680s to 1848. Russian attitude towards color in the 17th century changed in favor of bright colors; icon and mural art experienced an explosive growth in the number of available paints, dyes and their combinations. The original color scheme, missing these innovations, was far less challenging. It followed the depiction of the Heavenly City in the Book of Revelation:
“And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald.
And round about the throne were four and twenty seats: and upon the seats I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold.”
The 25 seats from the biblical reference are alluded to in the building's structure, with the addition of eight small onion domes around the central tent, four around the western side church and four elsewhere. This arrangement survived through most of the 17th century. The walls of the church mixed bare red brickwork or painted imitation of bricks with white ornaments, in roughly equal proportion. The domes, covered with tin, were uniformly gilded, creating an overall bright but fairly traditional combination of white, red and golden colors. Moderate use of green and blue ceramic inserts provided a touch of rainbow as prescribed by the Bible.
While historians agree on the color of the 16th-century domes, their shape is disputed. Boris Eding wrote that they most likely were of the same onion shape as the present-day domes. However, both Kolomenskoye and Dyakovo churches have flattened hemispherical domes, and the same type could have been used by Barma and Postnik.