The Cathedral of the Protection of Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat, popularly known as Saint Basil's Cathedral, is a Russian Orthodox church erected on the Red Square in Moscow in 155561. Built on the order of Ivan the Terrible to commemorate the capture of Kazan and Astrakhan, it marks the geometric center of the city and the hub of its growth since the 14th century. It was the tallest building in Moscow until the completion of the Ivan the Great Bell Tower in 1600.
The original building, known as "Trinity Church" and later "Trinity Cathedral", contained eight side churches arranged around the ninth, central church of Intercession; the tenth church was erected in 1588 over the grave of venerated local saint Vasily (Basil). In the 16th and the 17th centuries the church, perceived as the earthly symbol of the Heavenly City, was popularly known as the "Jerusalem" and served as an allegory of the Jerusalem Temple in the annual Palm Sunday parade attended by the Patriarch of Moscow and the tsar.
The building is shaped as a flame of a bonfire rising into the sky, a design that has no analogues in Russian architecture. Dmitry Shvidkovsky, in his book Russian Architecture and the West, states that "it is like no other Russian building. Nothing similar can be found in the entire millennium of Byzantine tradition from the fifth to fifteenth century ... a strangeness that astonishes by its unexpectedness, complexity and dazzling interleaving of the manifold details of its design." The cathedral foreshadowed the climax of Russian national architecture in the 17th century.
As part of the program of state atheism, the church was confiscated from the Russian Orthodox community as part of the Soviet Union's anti-theist campaigns and has operated as a division of the State Historical Museum since 1928. It was completely and forcefully secularized in 1929 and, as of 2012, remains a federal property of the Russian Federation. The church has been part of the Moscow Kremlin and Red Square UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1990. It is often mislabelled as the Kremlin owing to its location on Red Square in immediate proximity of the Kremlin.
Because the church has no analogues, in preceding, contemporary or later architecture of Muscovy and Byzantine cultural tradition in general, the sources that inspired Barma and Postnik are disputed. Eugène Viollet-le-Duc rejected European roots for the cathedral; according to him, its corbel arches were Byzantine, and ultimately Asian. A modern "Asian" hypothesis considers the cathedral a recreation of Qolsharif Mosque, which was destroyed by Russian troops after the siege of Kazan.
Nineteenth-century Russian writers, starting with Ivan Zabelin, emphasized the influence of the vernacular wooden churches of the Russian North; their motifs made their ways into masonry, particularly the votive churches that did not need to house substantial congregations. David Watkin also wrote of a blend of Russian and Byzantine roots, calling the cathedral "the climax" of Russian vernacular wooden architecture.
Instead of following the original ad hoc layout (seven churches around the central core), Ivan's architects opted for a more symmetrical floor plan with eight side churches around the core, producing "a thoroughly coherent, logical plan" despite the erroneous latter "notion of a structure devoid of restraint or reason" influenced by the memory of Ivan's irrational atrocities. The central core and the four larger churches placed on the four major compass points are octagonal; the four diagonally placed smaller churches are cuboid, although their shape is barely visible through later additions. The larger churches stand on massive foundations, while the smaller ones were each placed on a raised platform, as if hovering above ground.
The foundations, as was traditional in medieval Moscow, were built of white stone, while the churches themselves were built of red brick (28×14×8 centimeters), then a relatively new material (the first attested brick building in Moscow, the new Kremlin Wall, was started in 1485). Surveys of the structure show that the basement level is perfectly aligned, indicating use of professional drawing and measurement, but each subsequent level becomes less and less regular. Restorers who replaced parts of the brickwork in 1954–55 discovered that the massive brick walls conceal an internal wooden frame running the entire height of the church. This frame, made of elaborately tied thin studs, was erected as a life-size spatial model of the future cathedral and was then gradually enclosed in solid masonry.
The church acquired its present-day vivid colors in several stages from the 1680s to 1848. Russian attitude towards color in the 17th century changed in favor of bright colors; icon and mural art experienced an explosive growth in the number of available paints, dyes and their combinations. The original color scheme, missing these innovations, was far less challenging. It followed the depiction of the Heavenly City in the Book of Revelation:
"And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald.
And round about the throne were four and twenty seats: and upon the seats I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold."
1947 to present
In the first years after World War II renovators restored the historical ground-floor arcades and pillars that supported the first-floor platform, cleared up vaulted and caissoned ceilings in the galleries, and removed "unhistoric" 19th-century oil paint murals inside the churches. Another round of repairs, led by Nikolay Sobolev in 1954–55, restored original paint imitating brickwork, and allowed restorators to actually dig inside old masonry, revealing the wooden frame inside it. In the 1960s, the tin roofing of the domes was replaced with copper. The last round of renovation was completed in September 2008 with the opening of the restored sanctuary of St. Alexander Svirsky. The building is still partly in use today as a museum.
The building, originally known as "Trinity Church", was consecrated on 12 July 1561, and was subsequently elevated to the status of a sobor (similar to Roman Catholic ecclesiastical basilica, but usually and incorrectly translated as "cathedral"). "Trinity", according to tradition, refers to the easternmost sanctuary of Holy Trinity, while the central sanctuary of the church is dedicated to Intercession of Mary. Together with the westernmost sanctuary of Entry into Jerusalem, these sanctuaries form the main west–east axis (Christ, Mary, Holy Trinity), while other sanctuaries are dedicated to individual saints.