A Gentleman in Moscow - Part Two

Saint Basil's Cathedral in Moscow's Red Square (LEO Design)

Let's start with a bang: Saint Basil's Cathedral at the South end of Red Square.

Standing like an illustrated children's fairytale—or any fanciful stage production of Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker—this Sixteenth Century cathedral is the undisputed star of Moscow's rectangular Red Square. It was commissioned by Tsar Ivan IV (known as "Ivan the Terrible") in 1552 to commemorate his capture of the city of Kazan, a Mongol territory 500 miles east of Moscow. Despite Ivan's deservedly ruthless reputation (he massacred much of the Kazan population, destroyed the mosques and forcibly Christianized the populace), 8,000 Russian slaves were freed after the invasion, bringing an end to slavery within Ivan's empire (70 years before African slavery began in America).

The cathedral, finished in 1561, understandably, impressed Ivan. Legend has it that Ivan blinded the architect, that he may never build anything as beautiful in the future. The architect used traditional "Russian timber" construction and each chapel houses an "iconostasis," a wall assembled of painted icons either made expressly for the Cathedral or collected from other places and installed into the "new" building. The Cathedral is actually a cluster of nine small chapels which are connected with a maze of passageways—all hand-painted with scrolling botanical motifs and traditional "folk" graphics (shown below).

Hand-Painted Decoration in the Corridors of Saint Basil's Cathedral, Moscow (LEO Design)

The original structure had smooth "helmet-shaped" domes, finished in gold and the main church structure was painted white.  When the cathedral was 22 years old, a fire destroyed the original domes. They were rebuilt in the 1580's with scrolling, twisting and faceted onion domes. In 1670, the Cathedral exterior and domes were painted in the fanciful manner we see today.

Hand-Painted Woodwork in the Forecourt of Saint Basil's Cathedral, Moscow (LEO Design)

The Cathedral derives its name from the Russian Orthodox saint and prophet, "Basil the Blessed," who is interred within. Basil was born to a large serf family near Moscow in 1468. He developed a holy and eccentric manner and was soon called "A Fool for Christ." He denounced wrong where he found it and prayed for those who misguidedly displayed false or conspicuous piety. Basil even publicly criticized Ivan the Terrible for his ruthless ambition, his murderousness and his (at times) distracted mindset while attending religious services. Nevertheless, Ivan helped to carry Basil's coffin after the saint's funeral.

By the way, the name "Red Square" refers to the the red brick-, stone- and paintwork that surrounds the plaza. The word "red" does not refer to Communism or the country's former incarnation as the Soviet Union.

More from Moscow tomorrow.


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