The dramatic domes of Saint Basil the Blessed, which rise above Red Square, are the most familiar image most people from the West have of Moscow and Russia. Ivan IV, the Terrible (1530-1584), commissioned the building and dedicated St. Basil's to commemorate Russia's victory over the Tatars in Kazan, Kazan Khanate (1552-1554). At the time of the final victory over the Tatars, eight wooden churches had already been built. Each was named for the patron saint which was believed to have achieved the individual victories for Russia.
Wanting more permanent memorials, Ivan the Terrible had the wooden churches replaced by the stone and brick of St. Basil's eight domes.
St. Basil's is also known as Pokrovsky Cathedral or Pokrovsky Sobor. It was dedicated to the intercession of the Holy Mother and was originally called the Cathedral of the Intercession. Later, it became known as Cathedral of Vasily Blazhenny (St. Basil the Beatified). St. Basil, in this case, refers to Basil, idiot for Christ a popular prophet and miracle worker of the 1500s. He was buried in the cathedral's walls during the time of Tsar Fyodor I (1584 - 1598).
St. Basil's construction began in 1554 and was consecrated in 1560. It was designed by Russian architects Posnik and Barma (who may have been one person), but many believe that the original designer was Italian. Legend states that the Italian architect was blinded by the Tsar to prevent him for designing another structure of equal or great beauty again.
St. Basil's original construction involved a total of nine pillars or churches, replacing the former wooden churches, situated on a single foundation. A tenth pillar was added (1588) after the death of St. Basil and stands over his burial site. The center (ninth) and tallest pillar was dedicated to the Feast of the Intercession of Our Lady (celebrated on October 1). This was the day that the city of Kazan was taken. Each pillar is different in design and decoration. At the time, St. Basil's was the tallest building in Moscow. The cathedral was built of brick which was a fairly new construction material at the time. Wood and stone were more common. St. Basil's foundation was made of stone.
St. Basil's was designed to not have a well defined front or back. It is round and it was intended to be viewed from all sides. The observer can walk around the cathedral both on the outside as well as the inside. The structure is large and one would think the interior would be equally spacious. This is not the case. The inside is a maze of corridors with the tall pillars creating a cramped feeling. The tallest pillar rises 46 meters above the church's foundation. The interior of the Intercession of Our Lady church is 64 square meters.
After centuries of exposure to the elements, St. Basil's was restored in 1954-1955. During this process, the secret to the Russian architecture was revealed. How the architects had managed to build such a complex structure without benefit of design drawings had been a mystery. Restorers discovered that the walls of St. Basil had been outlined with thin timbers. This provided a three-dimensional image of what the completed structure would look like and a guide for the bricklayers.
Basil was known as an idiot or fool (yurodivi) for Christ. This is a distinction given to Christians who live outside the bounds of accepted social behavior. Anywhere else, these people would be locked up in mental facilities. Basil was a prophet who wore no clothing in both summer and winter. His survival in winter is one of the miracles credited to him. Holy fools are harmless and nonviolent. Everything they do and their personal presentation is intended to reflect the teachings of Christ. They are typically homeless and penniless.
Basil considered clothing to be nothing more than the trappings of society and an indication of ones position or lack thereof. God created man naked and equal, thus Basil simply went back to basics!
Uninhibited by the shackles of society, Basil could not be compromised and he soon became known for his prophecies and healing miracles. The most incredible aspect of Basil's life was his relationship with Tsar Ivan IV (the Terrible). Ivan was greatly feared. His opreichnina, a force of some 6,000 men, destroyed entire villages at the Tsar's command. The last thing anyone would intentionally do was challenge or contradict Ivan.
Basil was the exception. As the story goes, Basil gave Ivan a piece of uncooked meat during Lent. The Tsar, claiming to be a devout Orthodox Christian, refused the gift. Animal products of any kind were and are prohibited during the Orthodox Great Lent. Basil responded by asking the Tsar why he chose to follow the canon of Lent while he continued to spill the blood of Christians. Basil told Ivan that his murderous actions would doom him to hell if he did not repent.
Remarkably, Basil was the one person or thing that Ivan was scared of. Not only did the Tsar not have him beheaded, he sent him gifts instead and insured that no harm would ever come to the Holy Fool!
Basil was canonized not long after his death. Stories of his life are likely part legend and part truth. An old icon of St. Basil can be found in the cathedral. It shows the saint clad in only a loincloth and beard. He was quite popular during his lifetime and the faithful have prayed at the site of his grave ever since.
Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.
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