St. Basil’s Cathedral – Ivan the Terrible’s Moscow Fantasy

On  the  nightly  news,  whenever  reporters broadcast  stories  from  Moscow,  this  is where  they  stand:  on  Red  Square,  the city’s central plaza, with St. Basil’s Cathedral  in  the  background,  a  gaudy  riot  of exotic  bulbous  domes  and  towers.  Along with the solid red-brick wall of the Kremlin and the gray cobblestones of Red Square, on TV it looks like a psychedelic stage set. Who would ever build such a crazy candycolored  building?  But  that’s  just  what makes it appealing to children.
St.  Basil’s  is  essentially  a  union  of  nine different Byzantine churches, topped with nine distinct roofs (count them), arranged in an eight-pointed star, an important symbol  in  medieval  Christian  iconography. This  “tented”  style  of  architecture  was typically   Russian;   note   that   the   eight smaller  domes  are  onion-shaped,  a  common   silhouette   in   Orthodox   churches, clustered   around   one   central   unifying spire of a more European design. It’s like a visual  reminder  that  Russia  is  as  much Asian as it is European. Yet even the onion domes  have  subtle  differences  in  design, accentuated   by   their   contrasting   bold color  schemes.  Bring  a  sketch  pad  with you and let the kids have a go at drawing the domes.
St.  Basil’s—in  Russian,  Khram  Vasiliya Blazhennogo—was  originally  built  under Ivan the Terrible to honor Russia’s victory over   Mongol   Tatars   in   1555.   Moscow already had several beautiful cathedrals in the  Kremlin  across  the  Square,  but  Ivan wanted  to  surpass  them:  Legend  says  he had  the  architect’s  eyes  poked  out  afterward to keep him from ever again making anything to rival Moscow’s “stone flower.” Inside,  the  cathedral  has  a  much  more dour  character  than  you’d  expect.  Ivan’s idea  was  to  make  a  separate  chapel  for each  saint  upon  whose  feast  day  he  had won a battle, so instead of one main nave, like   the   Gothic   cathedrals   of   western Europe, St. Basil’s houses several dim and chilly  sanctuaries,  which  you  can  only reach  via  narrow,  winding  passages  and treacherously  worn  stairs.  There  aren’t  a lot of brochures or plaques around to help you sort it out, though stalls do sell icons and  souvenirs.  Surrender  to  its  irrational charm and wander around, soaking up the dank   medieval   atmosphere.   From   the upper-floor  windows,  you  get  a  close-up of  those  fantastic  pilasters  and  a  broad view of the Moscow River.