History Traveller, part 2: St Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow

In the second part of our new History Traveller series, exploring some of the most spectacular stories and sights from the global past, Paul Bloomfield visits the chapels, towers and domes of St Basil's Cathedral

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Explore the chapels and domes of St Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow…

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Ivan’s emblem of victory

The domes and spires of St Basil's Cathedral in Moscow stand against an overcast sky
(Image by Shutterstock)

The Cathedral of the Intercession on the Moat – better known as St Basil’s – was commissioned by Ivan the Terrible, first tsar of Russia, to commemorate his victory over the ‘Tatar infidels’ of Kazan in 1552. It’s believed to have been designed by architect Postnik Yakovlev, who was – according to legend, though probably not fact – blinded on Ivan’s orders so that he could never create another building to rival the beauty of St Basil’s. Completed in 1561 on the site of an earlier Trinity Church, the original edifice comprised eight chapels ranged around a central church of intercession with a tented spire. It creates the form of a fire reaching to the heavens, and was probably white, its red hue being added in a later century.

Don’t miss part 1, in which we explored the tombs and temples of Meroë, Sudan

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Stars and stripes

The onion-shaped domes of St Basil's Cathedral, resplendent in kaleidoscopic patterns and colours
(Image by AWL Images)

When first built, the towers of St Basil’s were probably topped with less-bulbous helmet cupolas that were replaced with tin onion domes after a fire in the late 16th century. The domes were originally gilded, and didn’t attain their kaleidoscopic patterns and colours till later renovations. The origins of onion domes in Russia is disputed; some believe they were adopted here following Ivan’s victory over the Muslim Khanate of Kazan, while others suggest they were already prevalent in Russia in earlier centuries. Similarly, though some believe the shape represents a burning candle (Jesus being the ‘light of the world’), the symbolism remains a subject of debate.

If walls could speak

The walls and ceiling of the Church of Saints Cyprian and Justina, covered with beautiful paintings of saints and Biblical stories
(Image by Shutterstock)

The walls of the Church of Saints Cyprian and Justina are covered with beautiful 17th- or 18th-century paintings of early saints and Biblical stories; the ceiling image depicts Our Lady of the Unburnt Bush. Ivan launched his final decisive attack on Kazan on 2 October, the feast day of Saint Cyprian in the Russian Orthodox Church.

Wall of icons

A baroque screen displaying images of icons stands in the central Church of the Intercession
(Image by Dreamstime)

The impressive baroque iconostasis (screen of separate icons) in the central Church of the Intercession was moved here in 1770 during large-scale renovations following a devastating fire in 1737. Much of the floral decoration of the cathedral’s interior dates from this restoration, though some elements – including individual icons within this iconostasis – are much older.

Saint among saints

The Cathedral of Basil the Blessed in St Basil's Cathedral, Moscow
(Image by Alamy)

One of 33 scenes from the life of St Alexander Nevsky that make up a 17th-century icon in the Church of the Entry of the Lord into Jerusalem. Most of the icons in this chapel were painted in the 18th century during major restorations, but this earlier work was moved here in 1770. Also visible in this chapel is a scar in a wall left when a shell hit the cathedral during the October Revolution of 1917.

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Paul Bloomfield is a travel and heritage writer and photographer, co-author of Lonely Planet’s Where to Go When (Lonely Planet, 2016)

This article was first published in BBC World Histories Magazine