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St. Basil’s Cathedral: history, mysteries, legends

St. Basil’s Cathedral

St. Basil’s Cathedral

An ancient Moscow legend has it, that when in an ambulatory church near Kazan during a liturgy a deacon proclaimed the Gospel verses, “So may the flock be united and may there be one shepherd,” a section of the enemy’s fortress wall, under which a sap was dug, exploded, and the Russian troops entered Kazan.

Most likely, at that time Ivan the Terrible made a decision to build a temple in honor of the victory near Kazan. The city was captured in 1552, and in 1554 this great sanctuary was founded near the Frolovskiye (Spasskiye) Gates on the site of a wooden Trinity church by the Kremlin ditch. Since Kazan was conquered on October 1, on the day of the festival of the Intersession of the Holy Virgin, so the new cathedral was after that day called the Cathedral of Intersession. There was a widely spread rumor that Ivan the Terrible allegedly built this temple in honor of his father, Great Prince Vasily III: “People will remember me a thousand years without any churches; yet I want my parent to be remembered as well.”

The temple was dedicated by Metropolitan Macarius on July 29 of 1557 in the presence of the Tsar; however, the construction was continued by Ivan the Terrible’s son, Tsar Fyodor, at the time of whose reign the hallows of St. Basil Fool for Christ were attained, and by the following monarchs of the Romanov dynasty. Each new ruler added a certain detail to the temple, and that’s what made it so unique. But officially the building of the Cathedral was finished on June 29 of 1561.

Barma and Postnik. One or two?

It is still unknown who built the temple. The legend holds it that it was constructed by Russian architects Barma and Postnik, although some historians believe that it was one person – Ivan Yakovlevich Barma, who was called Postnik because he kept a strict fast (post). The temple became so popular partially thanks to the legend that almost every school pupil knows. When the architect presented a miniature of the Cathedral to Ivan the Terrible the latter was delighted by the building’s beauty and asked the master if he could build another temple even more beautiful than this one. “I can,” answered the architect. “You’re lying!” shouted Ivan the Terrible and ordered the man be blinded so that the St. Basil’s Cathedral would remain the only one of its kind in the Russian Kingdom.

Their bright looking eyes with an awl of iron were pierced,
So that never again would they see the broad light of the world;
They were branded with brands; they were beaten with rods till they ceased;
Poor blind men were cast to the earth’s cold indifferent mould.

D. Kedrin, 1938

Historians say that this legend can be refuted by the fact that Postnik’s name is mentioned in the future in Chronicles in relation to other significant architectural constructions.

The temple could be a mosque

There are many legends about the Cathedral of Intersession. According to one of them, the temple is an inexact copy of the Qol Sharif Mosque in Kazan. When Ivan the Terrible’s army stormed the city, the Tsar was angry with the local residents’ resistance and ordered the beautiful mosque be demolished right after a successful storm. Gilded domes of the mosque, as the legend has it, were brought to Moscow on twelve carts. The St. Basil’s Cathedral erected in honor of the subdual of Kazan bears in itself an enciphered image of the ruined mosque. Eight cupolas of the Moscow temple duplicate eight minarets of Qol Sharif, while a ninth one as a symbol of victory rises above them. Historians cannot totally deny this legend because the architect presumably worked at the same time both on the Red Square and in Kazan where he rebuilt the walls of the Kremlin.

Researchers of the architecture of the Cathedral of Intercession more than once emphasized that it was not just a vow temple (that is, built based on a given vow) and its purpose was not limited to thankfulness for the victory in Kazan.

The Cathedral was supposed to become a temple of glorification of Moscow Russia’s victory; it was supposed to immortalize memory of those fallen by the walls of Kazan “for the friends of theirs,” and, lastly, the Cathedral symbolized at the same time the highest reward “in the kingdom of the heavens,” which according to the church’s teaching was to be received by the killed ones, and embodied the concept about Moscow as “the New Jerusalem” (the world center bringing salvation to the Orthodox world). That is, the Cathedral of Intercession, on the one hand, was conceived as a symbol of the heavenly city – the above Jerusalem, which was embodied in it through images of enthusiastic, festive, “paradisal” architecture, while, on the other hand, as an image of earthly Jerusalem that was joined to the image and fundamentals of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It is nothing but “Jerusalem” that this temple is called in the records of foreigners who visited Moscovia in 16th century.

Unique architecture of the Temple

The Cathedral of Intercession was originally different from how it looks like right now. First a wooden “model” was built that was later “transformed” into stone. This characteristic is reflected in the temple’s architecture, which by its levels of towers and domes and passages resembles northern wooden little churches in Karelia, Vologda and Kostroma regions.

None of the domes of this cathedral repeats another. One of them is densely studded with golden cones that are like stars in the sky in a dark night; on another one there are scarlet stripes running as zigzags on a bright background; a third one resembles a peeled orange with yellow and green segments. Each dome is decorated by cornices, kokoshniks, windows and niches. As a whole, the Cathedral leaves an impression of festivity and elegance. Until the end of 17 century, when Ivan the Great Belfry was built on the territory of the Kremlin, the St. Basil’s Cathedral was the highest building in Moscow. The Cathedral is 60 meters high. The side-chapels are connected to one another by a system of passes. Each church was dedicated in relation to the holy days, during which important events of the march to Kazan occurred. The central temple with pillars crowned by a hipped roof is named after the Intersession of the Holy Virgin. Eight side-temples surrounding the central pillar were dedicated in honor of the Holy Trinity, the Lord’s Entry into Jerusalem, Nicholas the Wonderworker, Saint Cyprianus and Ustinia, the Three Patriarchs of Alexandria, Saint Bishop Gregory of Armenia, venerable Barlaam of Khutyn and Alexander Svirsky.

Its today’s multicolored looks the temple attained in the second half of XVIII century under Catherine the Great. At that time it was reconstructed: 16 small domes around the towers were removed, yet octal symbolism was for the most part preserved, while the hip roof belfry was connected to the temple’s building. It was at that time that the temple received it’s today’s colors and became a real wonder.

The temple is famous for its underpasses. A large-scale survey of the temple was carried out in 1924 by D. P. Sukhovov and I. Y. Stelletsky. Under the John the Merciful side-chapel they found an immured room, in the floor of which there was a deep hole (hastily filled up).
The gun-slot windows of the found room were walled up with bricks. “On the lower level of the church there are firing slits instead of usual windows facing both the side of the river and the side of the Red Square [...]. In a labyrinth of underground rooms of the Cathedral there are the same approach routes leading to the firing slits as in the towers of Kitay-gorod or any of the monasteries” – I. Y. Stelletsky wrote.
This discovery made Stelletsky think that in XVI century the lower part of St. Basil’s Cathedral was designed for fighting.
A tenth church – St. Basil’s temple – was built in 1588. In this way the temple became ten-domed and received its second, unofficial name – St. Basil’s Cathedral.

Basil – a fool for Christ

As the legend has it, Basil, the most honored in Russia fool for God’s sake, used to collect money for the future Intersession temple into his flap, then brought it to the Red Square and threw them over his right shoulder, and nobody, even thieves, dared to touch those coins. Before dying, in August of 1552 he gave them to Ivan the Terrible who soon ordered to build a temple on this site.

Basil was born in 1469 in a village Yelokhovo near Moscow. His parents, peasants, gave him into a shoe maker’s apprenticeship. A hardworking and God-fearing youth, as the legend tells us, Basil was granted a gift of foresight that manifested incidentally. A person came to Basil’s master to order shoes and asked to make the kind that would serve several years. Basil smiled at that. When the master asked him what that smile meant Basil replied that the person who ordered shoes for several years would die tomorrow. And it actually happened.

Basil, being 16 years old, left his master and apprenticeship and began an exploit of living a life of a fool for God, which he continued for 72 years, without shelter and clothing, exposing himself to great hardships, burdening his body by chains that are still lying on his coffin. The fool’s hagiography describes how he by word and personal life taught people to live a moral life.

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