St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow, Russia

The world-famous St Basil's Cathedral on Moscow's Red Square impresses with its colourful façade, playful onion domes and unique hidden symmetry.

St. Basil's Cathedral in the Russian capital Moscow is the undisputed highlight on the world-famous Red Square. With its colourful façade and the colourful onion domes, it is a fantastic, internationally known postcard motif as Moscow's landmark. Since 1990, it has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site together with Red Square and the Kremlin and is also on our list of the top 10 sights in Russia.


PICTURES: St Basil's Cathedral in Moscow

Photo gallery: Basil's Cathedral in Moscow

St. Basil's Cathedral on the southern edge of Red Square is actually called "Pokrovsky Sobor Vasilyia Blashenovo" ("Mary's Protection and Intercession Cathedral on the Moat"). It was built in 1555 on the site of the wooden church of the Holy Trinity, which had been built only three years earlier in honour of the victory over the Tatars in the Moscow-Kazan Wars. It was commissioned by the infamous Tsar Ivan IV, first Tsar of Russia and also known as "Ivan the Terrible".

The creators of St Basil's Cathedral

The architects of St Basil's Cathedral were Postnik Yakovlev and Barma. According to legend, Ivan the Terrible asked the two masters, after the basilica was completed, if they could create a more beautiful building. When they answered in the affirmative, he is said to have gouged out their eyes so that they could never again create anything more beautiful than the Basilica on Red Square. This story remains a legend, however, because four years after the tsar's death, Postnik Yakovlev built the Chapel of Basil the Blessed at the cathedral - a fool of God after whom the cathedral is named today.

Chaotic Basil's Cathedral?

In front of St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow, Russia, there is a monument to Minin and Posharsky, the two leaders of the popular uprising against the Polish intervention in 1611 - © Viacheslav Lopatin/Shutterstock
© Viacheslav Lopatin/Shutterstock

At first glance, St. Basil's Cathedral appears like a colourful jumble of rotundas, onion domes, stairways and galleries. It is not even at right angles to Red Square. When it was built, the entire cathedral was white and its nine domes all gleamed in gold leaf. It was only during the restorations in the 16th and 17th centuries that the colourful redesigns and asymmetrical outbuildings were added.

One of these, in 1588, was the chapel over the tomb of Basil the Blessed, to whom the cathedral is dedicated. All the domes except that of the highest tower were replaced by the colourful patterned ones we know today, none of which are the same as the others. The snow-white walls were painted brick-red and decorated with white patterns and ornaments.

Indeed: Perfect symmetry

View into the highest tower of the famous Basilius Cathedral in Moscow, Russia - © Pavel L Photo and Video/Shutters
© Pavel L Photo and Video/Shutters

The winding interior of St Basil's Cathedral was also richly decorated with numerous ornaments, the floral patterns being images of paradise. Inside St Basil's Cathedral, however, its symmetrical structure is clearly visible. In reality, the beautiful sacred building is a quadrangle with an attached octagon that leads into the golden dome at the top.

Around the large tower, four octagonal towers rise in all directions, with small square towers in between. If you look at the basilica from the west, this hidden symmetry also becomes clear from the outside.

Churches in the church

The seemingly confused architecture of St Basil's Cathedral is actually based on a hidden symmetry, Moscow, Russia - © E. O. / Shutterstock
© E. O. / Shutterstock

What is absolutely unique is that a separate church extends under each of the nine domes. In the centre under the golden dome is the original church of the Holy Trinity. Within its perimeter are the Church of Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker, the Church of the Entry into Jerusalem, the Church of Saints Cyprian and Justina, the Church of the Three Patriarchs of Constantinople, the Church of Alexander Svirski, the Church of Varlaam Chutynski and the Church of Gregory the Illuminator. These churches represent the eight most important battles for the Tartar-Mongol capital of Kazan.


Attempts to destroy St Basil's Cathedral

St Basil's Cathedral was to be destroyed several times in the course of history.

Napoleon is said to have been so impressed by the "Christian Mosque" that he wanted to take it with him to Paris. When this did not work, he wanted to blow it up shortly before the French troops fled. However, a sudden rain extinguished the fuses to the powder kegs.

When the communists wanted to redesign Red Square in 1936, St Basil's Cathedral was in the way and was to be demolished again, but Stalin prevented this.

When it came to demolishing the cathedral again, the architect and restorer Petr Baranowsky locked himself inside the cathedral and said that if this unique building had to be destroyed, he wanted to be blown up with it. This determination forced even the communists to abandon their plans.

And so the fascinating building can still be admired by the whole world today. 


Today, St Basil's Cathedral functions as part of Moscow ' s historical museum and, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, masses are also held again at irregular intervals. In addition to the fantastic frescoes and icons, as well as Russia's largest collection of bells with 19 examples, historical weapons from the time of Ivan the Terrible can be seen in St Basil's Cathedral.

Related links:

Official website of St Basil's Cathedral in Moscow