St. Basil’s Cathedral

The onion domes and spires of St. Basil’s Cathedral rise above Moscow’s Red Square, and captivate our collective imagination of Russia, in a manner quite undefinable, perhaps a “colorful toy resting in the palm of this cobblestone field” or a majestic icon of grandeur and power. St. Basil’s, known more officially as the Cathedral of the Intercession on the Moat, is certainly a spectacle of wonder and as such invites a vast array of symbolic interpretations rooted in equally ambiguous, folkloric tales of origin. The Cathedral is recognizable by its “nine multi-hued onion domes” of various sizes and distances from one another, and by the “gold-plated garlic dome that crowns the lofty central spire.”  Despite the uneven positioning of the domes from a horizontal perspective, the Cathedral is actually perfectly symmetrical from above. The Cathedral is also actually nine separate chapels of different styles and names, one of which contains the tomb of St. Vasily (Basil) the Blessed, a “yurodivy” or fool in Christ, from whom the popular name of the structure originates. In accordance with the strictly hierarchical nature of the time in which it was constructed, the inside spaces of the Cathedral are small and could accomodate only the most elite. It is unclear where the inspiration for the odd onion domes originated, since the Cathedral predates the similar domes of the Mughal empire. St. Basil’s was built by order of Tsar Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible) to commemorate the capture of the Tatar stronghold Kazan in 1552.  Barma and Postnik Yakovlev may have been the architects of the Cathedral, but the reality of their identities is disputed by scholars- it may have been a single architect, or another individual whose name is a combination of the two. Legend holds that the architects were blinded by Ivan the Terrible after they completed the Cathedral so that they could not replicate such a beautiful structure.

The cultural association and connotation of St. Basil’s Cathedral within Russian culture is a general concept of power, solidarity and continuity- but to whom exactly these concepts apply or who they include are questions with no straightforward answers or uncomplicated interpretations. The record of the battle of Kazan, the event which supposedly precipitated the Cathedral’s construction, is obscured by its folkloric quality in which Ivan the Terrible, the soldiers and even the Tatars are dramaticized and exaggerated. According to Andrei Yurganov, the “seizure of Kazan came to symbolize the growing power of Moscow, the vanquishing of the ‘infidels’ and the confirmation of Ivan IV’s righteousness.” As indicated by the ‘Intercession’ in the Cathedral’s original title, Ivan would have sought confirmation from the higher powers for the legitimacy of his rule, appropriating the ‘divine right’ concept of the monarchy to defend and protect his position. The Cathedral appeared as a public announcement of these symbolic intentions and would have instilled national pride in Russians as a representation of victory and power. As Yurganov notes however, the Cathedral appears more in popular association to be a commemoration of the ‘holy fool’ St. Basil than the epic, fairy-tale like battle of Kazan. St. Basil was known for many saintly predictions and acts, but was notably a respected critic of Ivan IV’s cruel practices. It is possible then that Russians find it more fitting to revere the Cathedral as the mausoleum of a popular, saintly critic than as the victory monument of a cruel monarch. Interestingly, hundreds of years after it was built, the Cathedral was saved from destruction by the self-sacrifice of Konstantin Baranovsky, the architect who had been ordered to prepare the Cathedral for demolition and who, according to some tales, defended the structure from Stalin by “barricading himself in the church with a machine gun.” Stalin was attempting to purge the Soviet Union of the remants of imperialism. Again, the heroization of Baranovsky indicates that the Cathedral is not associated with the power and continuity of government or political system, but the determination of the Russian people to find solidarity in cultural representations that outlast such fickle, sometimes oppressive institutions.

Regardless of popular interpretation, the urge to monumentalize the symbolic achievements of governmental entities did not dissappear when Russia became the secular Soviet Union. When divine authority could not be called upon to deify the achievements and personage of the ruler, such deification was sought through the majesty and authority of moderninity, technological and architectural achievement. The Palace of Soviets was to be such a monument in the tradition of structures like St. Basil’s Cathedral, symbolic of achievement and power. Time magazine declared in March 1934 that the structure was “Russia’s latest and greatest monument” which would be “the world’s largest and tallest building.”  The Palace was a replacement for the monuments of antiquity, built on the ground once occupied by another monumental cathedral, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, which was blown up to make room for the new structure. As William McDonaugh explains, “A cathedral is a representation of both our longings and intentions.”  Especially as a manifestation of the human desire to worship and the need or purpose in appropriating God-like authority, cathedrals and cathedral-like structures fulfill this dual role. Truly, whether a cathedral or monument be that of a holy fool and a tsar or communist administration, it is intended to invite public worship of the persons, events and achievements it symbolizes.

The portrait of Ivan the Terrible in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral indicates the representations he would have intended for the structure, with himself as the primary focus of deification. The portrait, Tsar Ioann Vasilevich Groznyi, by Aleksandr Vasilevich Viskovatov was created in the 1800s, long after Tsar Ivan IV actually ruled, but commemorates the elevated status his monument, and subsequent personal monumentalization, conferred on him. He is pictured in his coronation garb, the splendor and majesty of the monarchy, as a large, dominant patriarch- occupying the entire foreground of the portrait. Behind him, bathed in heavenly rays, is Moscow with the towering onion domed spires of St. Basil’s, the site of his coronation and the permanent memorial to his achievements and righteousness.


– Carolyn McBride, November 2009


Ford, Peter. “St. Basil’s Cathedral.” Christian Science Monitor 91.169 (1999): 12.

McDonough, William. “Essay: A Centennial Sermon: Design, Ecology, Ethics, and the Making of Things.” Perspecta 29 (1998): 78-85.

Yurganov, Andrei. “St. Basil’s the Stuff of Legend.” Russian Life 44.6 (2001): 34.

“Art: Soviet Palace.” Time 19 March 1934: n. pag. Web. 6 Nov 2009. <,9171,747172,00.html>.

“Tsar Ioann Vasilevich Groznyi.” NYPL Digital Gallery. Web. 6 Nov 2009. <>.

McDonough, William. “Essay: A Centennial Sermon: Design, Ecology, Ethics, and the Making of Things.” Perspecta 29 (1998): 78-85.