Loading the Canon #17 by Helena-Anne Hittel
St. Basil’s Cathedral
I’m a huge Olympics fan. I wait as patiently as I possibly can to hear that opening theme and see the athletes of the world push themselves to the breaking point-some, unfortunately, literally do just that. This year, the Olympics call their stage Sochi, Russia. However, things haven’t gone as smoothly as we’d hoped. Hotels are unfinished, bobsledders got stuck in bathrooms (and an elevator), a ring malfunctioned at the Opening Ceremony, and the temperature is a bit too warm, melting skiing trails and half pipes into slush.
There are high points to these games, too. There are cultural segments presented throughout these events where we get to see a little bit about this massive host country. Siberia! Vodka! The Moscow Police Choir covering Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky”–in uniform!
Today though, I cover what is, to me, the most iconic building in Russia-The Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed, more commonly known as St. Basil’s Cathedral. Or, if you like long names, Cathedral of the Protection of the Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat.
Construction began on this marvel of Russian architecture in 1555, under Ivan IV to commemorate his victorious military campaigns. The actual architect of St. Basil’s is unknown, but it is said to have been designed by Barma and Postnik Yakovlev. This cathedral features nine domes and two spires, all brightly painted, and is approximately 156 feet high. May I remind you-this was built in 1555. This was the tallest building in what would become modern-day Moscow, until the building of the Ivan the Great bell tower.
In 16th century Russia. In the snow. With no cranes. Yeah, I know. I still have trouble wrapping my head around it, too.
The cathedral features eight smaller chapels arranged around a central core, though slightly asymmetrical to accommodate the apse attached to the main church. These chapels are dedicated to different saints and events in the Bible, and commemorate different campaigns. Each of these is topped with an onion-shaped, tin-covered dome, which may or may not have been the original shape. The originals were thought to have been simple, hemispherical domes. The cathedral, as a whole, was essentially a large wooden model encased in masonry. Decorative brickwork made up the outside of the cathedral, and, where this wasn’t possible, stucco painted to look like brickwork.
Then, there’s color. Oh, the color. From the 1680s to the late 19th century, St. Basil’s was painted, gilded, and decorated to the point where it started to look almost Seussian. The original color palate, in fact, was inspired by a passage referring to Heaven in the Book of Revelations. The Russian love for color exploded in the 17th century thanks to the availability of countless paints and dyes. It’s almost got the appearance of a big, impossible gingerbread castle. The insides are no less colorful, covered with countless motifs and murals. And not a stained-glass window in sight. Not bad, Russia, not bad at all.
One thing to remember about Russian art and architecture is that although Russia is a big part of Eurasia, it was essentially in isolation compared to the rest of Europe. Influences of the Renaissance and Gothic architecture never reached this part of the continent. From St. Basil’s, we’ve learned a great many things. Not everything needs stained glass and flying buttresses and westwork towers, and not every holy building needs to be cruciform. You don’t always need to improve on the current trends to make something innovative. Sometimes, all you need is a little imagination.
Helena-Anne Hittel (Episode 35, essay) earned a B.A. in Art History at the University of Central Florida.