Thursday, July 21, 2011


(This is a long post with lots of pictures.  If you do nothing else, scroll down to the end and watch the video we took inside the Cathedral.)

It is hard to adequately convey the riot of color and shape that is St. Basil's Cathedral, also known as "The Cathedral of the Intercession of the Virgin by the Moat."  It was smaller than what I expected and rather abruptly placed at the end of Red Square, but it was, nevertheless, breathtaking.

In front of St. Basil's is a monument to Russian heroes Kuzma Minin and Dmitry Pozharsky, who led an army to chase out invading Poles in 1612.  I love how they appear to be regaling each other with their stories of conquest:

What St. Basil's lacks in size, it makes up for in originality.  Built in 1561, it had no architectural predecessors; it was a completely unique style. Historians point to possible Italian and German influences, but can find no direct link to any other structure.

No two of the nine onion domes are alike.  Actually, they were originally gold but were gradually restylized from 1680 to 1848, reflecting the growing Russian fascination with color, which can be seen in cathedrals all over the country.

Which dome is your favorite? (Sorry, but I only show seven of them here.  There is another red/green striped one you can see in the very first picture on the post, and another rather dull green striped small one that I don't have any good pictures of.)  I just can't decide which one I like best; it would be like singling out one of my children as my favorite.

There is also a separate bell tower:
We did not get to hear the bells ring, but here is a good recording of what they sound like:

The bell tower is on the right in this picture taken from behind the Cathedral
Not only are the domes wonderfully wild and complicated, but so is the rest of the exterior. There are several sets of steep, covered stairways, seen on both the right and left below:

The painting is colorful and intricate, and the eaves are bordered with a delicate gold filigree unlike anything I've ever seen anywhere else:

Inside, there are eight chapels arranged asymmetrically around a ninth chapel, known as "The Chapel of Intercession."  Each chapel is topped with one of the onion domes that can be seen outside. There are no large open spaces inside as there are in other cathedrals, although there are soaring ceilings. It is quite a maze, and I didn't feel like I really understood the layout at all.

Steps leading up to a viewing area inside one of the domes

(Photo by Scott Zimmerman)
One of my favorite experiences of the entire trip occurred in the chapel with the iconostasis pictured above. A male quartet with a box of CDs for sale and a donation jar prominently displayed just happened to start singing right after we walked into the room.  Their beautifully harmonizing voices (well, okay, except for that last note by the bass) reverberated through this small but lofty chapel.  I grabbed my camera and made this less-than-perfect video which doesn't quite capture the ethereal quality of their music, but it's good enough that re-watching it brings tears to my eyes as I remember the experience.  At the risk of being maudlin, let me just say that it was incredible to think that I was in Russia, in Red Square, in exquisite St. Basil's Cathedral, listening to these haunting voices that transcended time and place and religion and language.  I hope to never forget it.


  1. The singing in St. Basil's may be my favorite experience of the whole trip. I think it may be the time I started to feel a connection to the Russian people and to realize that the Russian language is beautiful. I'll probably never be able to think of St. Basil's without thinking of them. Their voices and the acoustics were hauntingly beautiful. I'm so glad you were able to capture the moment.

  2. I want a Russian to build my next house. I would never be bored. Incredible!

    The music at the end--amazing.

  3. Still kickin' myself for not buying one of their CDs.

  4. This is one of my dream destinations. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  5. Absolutely wonderful. I would love to go there with RICK!