If you do a search on the web for images of the Kremlin in Moscow, almost half the photos that pop up on search engines actually show the colourful, multi-domed St. Basil’s Cathedral. It is common for tourists to mistake the cathedral for the Kremlin, probably because they are so close to one another on the impressive Red Square. And no tour of Moscow would be complete without a visit to St. Basil’s.
Scores of people admire the cathedral from Red Square, taking photos from dusk until dawn; the cathedral is particularly impressive when the sun goes down, when the ice cream-like domes are lit up in all their splendour. But it would be a shame to make a visit to St. Basil’s and not see the wonders of the cathedral’s interior. Putting time aside to see both the inside and outside is highly recommended. And what a feast for the eyes it is!
St Basil’s, which dates back to 1561, is actually made up of nine small churches, with a labyrinth of corridors and stairways. Everywhere you look there is exquisite religious artwork from various periods in the cathedral’s history. It is hard to believe that during Soviet times there was even talk of demolishing St. Basil’s, reportedly as part of a plan by Stalin to have more space for mass parades on Red Square. The cathedral is now a museum.
St Basil’s was built on the orders of Ivan the Terrible, to mark the capture of the city of Kazan from Mongolian forces. But the bright colours on the domes, which have made the cathedral such an international landmark, were actually added centuries later. When it was first completed, the cathedral was the same white-stone colour as the nearby Kremlin and the domes were gold.
It is also interesting to note that St. Basil’s is not actually the official name of the cathedral, but is more an affectionate name that became popular over the years. St. Basil refers to St. Vasily the Blessed, a Muscovite who was canonised and buried on the site where the cathedral stands. The official name is in fact quite long: The Cathedral of the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God upon the Moat.
With a bit of luck during your visit you will come across the group Doros, a male ensemble that adds to the experience inside the cathedral by performing religious songs and chants from days gone by. During our visit they sang some beautiful unaccompanied chants every five minutes and their voices echoed around the different churches. CDs are also on sale to the public.
During your visit, also check out the secret wooden spiral staircase that remained hidden for hundreds of years before being uncovered during renovation work in the 1970s.
You can even see traces of the cathedral’s war wounds. In the Church of the Entry into Jerusalem there are traces of the damage left by artillery shells that hit the cathedral in October 1917, during bombardment of the Kremlin by Bolshevik forces.
Also, inside St Basil’s there are many places where you can snap wonderful photographs of Red Square, images that would otherwise be quite difficult to get. The cathedral is part of the Kremlin and Red Square UNESCO World Heritage Site, announced in 1990.
St Basil’s Cathedral opens daily at 11am and closes at 5pm, but in the summer months the opening times are 10am to 7pm. It costs 250 rubles (about €5 and $US 7) for an adult and 50 rubles for children, students and pensioners. If you want to take photos or videos, an extra charge might apply.
Text and photos by Seamus Kearney.
St. Basil’s Cathedral: