Season 2 – Episode 12: St Basil’s Cathedral

For the final episode of season 2 we’re heading to Moscow on suggestion of a listener to learn about the history of the famously colourful St Basil’s Cathedral.

St Basil’s Cathedral is a monument of many colours and many names, with Vivan describing it as “a Disneyland looking castle with colourful vaguely onion shaped domes”, and John describing it as “the Sean ‘Puff Daddy’ Combs” of churches. Located in Moscow’s Red Square along with the Kremlin, St Basil’s Cathedral is actually a combination of 10 churches including what was originally known as the “Trinity Cathedral”

The Trinity Church was originally built out of wood in 1555 under direction of Russia’s first Tsar, Ivan IV, also knows as Ivan The Terrible. He would commission the building of a new church after each war he won, and by the end of his rampage the Trinity Church had been enclosed with 7 other churches, at which time he ordered the construction of the wooden Church Of Intersession, followed by orders a year later to replace the original wooden Trinity Church with a stone cathedral.

A number of legends surround Ivan IV and the cathedral, such as the cathedral being dedicated to his fourth son, the first who did not die within a year of birth and so was to be his heir, although it is said that living up to his name he later beat this son to death over a disagreement. Other myths or legends include the story a missing ninth church appearing by a miracle when Ivan touched the cathedral during its consecration ceremony in July of 1561, or the story of Ivan IV blinding the architect so that he could never recreate it or build anything so beautiful again. But since Yakovlev is later credited with more architectural work, it’s fairly likely this was just a big authoritarian brag.

As with any large scale monument a great deal of maintenance is required for it to stand the test of time. In the case of St Basil’s it was burned down in 1583, rebuilt 10 years later, and burned down once again in 1737 before being restored a second time in 1812. Later in 1812 Napoleon invaded and looted the church and ordered its demolition which was ultimately unsuccessful.

Yet another round of restorations were ordered in the early 1900s, but this were interrupted by the First World War and the communist revolution. While Vladimir Lenin quite liked the cathedral and ordered it to become a museum rather than be torn down, Stalin did not hold the same view and wanted it demolished so he could parade tanks through the Red Square. As dictators are known for terrible urban planning decisions, Petr Baranovsky, the man responsible for the surveying the site just prior to demolition, would refuse to complete this work, even threatening suicide to stop Stalin from moving forward. Ultimately he was successful in preventing the destruction of this monument, and by 1990 it was declared a UNESCO world heritage site, and following the fall of the USSR it now operates as both a museum and church, with ongoing restoration work being completed today.

Image Gallery

Exterior | Interior 1 | Interior 2 | The Kremlin | Elevation/Plan Drawings | History of The Layouts |

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Music by: John Julius –

Edited by: Astronomic Audio

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