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12 Facts About Saint Basil’s Cathedral

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Originally constructed in the mid-16th century, Saint Basil’s Cathedral looms majestically near the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, and has stood watch over countless historical and political events in the country’s history.

1. IT WAS BUILT BY IVAN THE TERRIBLE.

The first Tsar of Russia, Ivan Vasilyevich—also known as Ivan Grozny (a nickname meaning “sparking terror or fear,” or "stern"), Ivan IV, and the Grand Prince of Moscow—ordered the construction of the cathedral in 1554. Ivan, grandson of Ivan the Great, saw the cathedral’s completion in 1561, but upon his death was interred at the nearby Archangel Cathedral.

2. THE CATHEDRAL WAS CONSTRUCTED IN HONOR OF A MILITARY CONQUEST.

Ivan’s goal of military dominance over a central Russian state led to numerous conflicts during his reign. In the 1550s, his armies defeated the independent Tatar khanates of Kazan and Astrakahn, and the church was built in honor of those victories.

3. IVAN ALLEGEDLY BLINDED THE CATHEDRAL'S ARCHITECT.

Stories and myths abound of Ivan’s raging temper, one of which involves him purposefully blinding the cathedral’s (unnamed) Italian architect so that its design could never be replicated. Other legends state that the architects were a pair of Russians named Barma and Posnik, or that they may have been one person.

4. MANY NAMES HAVE GRACED THE CATHEDRAL.

Dedicated to the protection of the Virgin Mary, the church is officially known as the Church of the Intercession, or the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Virgin on the Moat. It has also been called Pokrovsky Cathedral, Pokrovsky Sobor, and Svyatoy Vasily Blazhenny.

5. IT WAS EVENTUALLY NAMED FOR A RUSSIAN 'FOOL.'

Born in 1468, Basil (also called the Blessed, the Beatific, and the Wonderworker of Moscow) was the son of commoners and was trained to be a cobbler. He became known for his prophetic powers and for being a “fool for Christ,” and following his death in 1557 was buried in the cathedral that would take its name after him.

6. THE CATHEDRAL IS MADE UP OF NINE CHAPELS.

Built around the 156-foot high central nave are nine small, separate chapels that are aligned to points on the compass, four of which are raised to designate their position between heaven and earth. The chapels are dedicated to the Protecting Veil of Mary; the Entry into Jerusalem, Saints Kiprian and Ustinia, the Holy Trinity, St. Nicholas Velikoretsky, St. Gregory of Armenia, St. Barlaam Khutynsky, St. Alexander Svirsky, and the Three Patriarchs. The ninth chapel was added in honor of Saint Basil.

7. THE BRILLIANT COLORS WEREN'T ADDED FOR OVER 200 YEARS.

The cathedral’s original color was said to be white to match the white stone of the Kremlin, while the domes were gold. Starting in the 17th century, the façade and domes began to be painted in the remarkable colors that are seen today, and the pigment is said to be taken from a Biblical description, in the Book of Revelation, of the Kingdom of Heaven.

8. IT IS ONE OF THE CENTERPIECES OF RED SQUARE.

The large open square and market area in Moscow has been the geographic and metaphorical center of Russian life since the 15th century. The square, called Krasnaya Ploschad in Russian, measures 800,000 square feet and houses, at its western end, the historic fortress and government building known as the Kremlin. A number of beautiful cathedrals, including the Assumption Cathedral, are situated in Cathedral Square, and at the southern end stands Saint Basil’s. Other historic buildings and monuments in Red Square are the State Historical Museum; a white stone platform called the Lobnoye Mesto; the former State Department Store called GUM; and Lenin’s Tomb.

9. IT IS NOW MOSTLY A SECULAR BUILDING.

Confiscated by the state after the Bolshevik Revolution, Saint Basil’s has been a museum and tourist attraction since 1929. Occasional church services have been held there since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990, and every October the cathedral hosts a service in honor of the Day of Intercession.

10. A REPLICA STANDS NEAR THE RUSSIA-CHINA BORDER.

In the city of Jalainur, situated in northeastern Inner Mongolia about 3200 miles west of Moscow and nearly 700 miles north of Beijing, a scale model of the cathedral was built but has never been used as a church. Photographer Davide Montoleone documented the strange sight of the building, which houses a children’s science museum and sells fake fossils, during a 2015 visit and noted the beautiful turrets and domes are actually just a shell and, like the fossils, are not real.

11. A SOVIET ARCHITECT WENT TO A GULAG TO SAVE IT.

Upon Joseph Stalin’s ascent to the head of the Soviet Union, Saint Basil’s fell out of favor and was in danger of being destroyed in order to make room on Red Square for larger demonstrations and marches. Architect Pyotr Baranovsky supposedly sent a telegram to Stalin saying he would rather kill himself than demolish the historic cathedral, and subsequently spent five years in prison. During that time the state’s attitude changed and Saint Basil’s was spared.

12. IT IS A UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE.

In 1990, the Kremlin and Red Square were named a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. It is one of 16 UNESCO cultural sites in Russia.

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