St. Basil's Cathedral

Ivan the Terrible's wonderful fantasy

If you did not know that St. Basil's Cathedral stood at one end of Moscow's Red Square, and were asked to guess the nature of the building, you could be forgiven for thinking it a fabulist's invention.

Nowhere does Russian church architecture flower into such mad fantasy.

Nowhere does a cathedral challenge you with such daring to find it absurd, and then force you to conclude that it is simply magnificent.

Each of its nine multi-hued onion domes is a different size, a different shape, a different height from every other.

One green and yellow candy-twisted cupola resembles an extravagant oriental potentate's turban. Another, spiked with Jurassic protuberances, suggests a prehistoric beast. A third, in a shade of faded cabbage, looks like nothing so much as an unusual garden vegetable.

St. Basil's colors and contours may be riotous, but they are not chaotic. From their interplay, the church draws its energy, drawing the eye harmoniously to the gold-plated garlic dome that crowns the lofty central spire.

The cathedral was built on the orders of Ivan the Terrible in the mid-16th century to commemorate a great victory over the Mongol hordes.

But it took its popular name from Basil, a holy fool who foretold the great fire of Moscow in 1547, and who is buried in the church.

So extraordinary an edifice has naturally developed a patina of legend over the centuries. It is said, for example, that when Czar Ivan saw the cathedral for the first time he ordered the architect blinded, so that never could he build anything so marvelous for anyone else.

Local storytellers also have it that Napoleon ordered St. Basil's to be blown up as he retreated from Moscow in 1812, and that only divine intervention, in the shape of a last-minute cloudburst that extinguished the burning fuses, saved the cathedral.

Human efforts have also spared St. Basil's. Josef Stalin, who had a penchant for massive military parades in Red Square, once pondered the possibility of tearing the cathedral down because it blocked the way to serried ranks of soldiers.

Only the courage of the architect who was ordered to prepare St. Basil's for destruction thwarted the plan. His dramatic threat to cut his throat on the steps of the church rather than obey his instructions made Stalin reconsider. The architect served five years in the Gulag for his courage.

Not everybody who has set eyes on St. Basil's would have gone to such lengths.

The Marquis de Custine, a French diplomat who wrote acidly of his journey through Russia in the early 19th century, wondered whether "the men who go to worship God in this box of confectionery work" could really be Christians.

In fact, few enough people ever could worship in St. Basil's, because not many would fit.

Inside, the church is a warren of corridors linking nine separate chapels, each in a different style. Some have been restored to their early purity, where simply whitewashed walls lend the tiny space an airy lightness.

Others retain the cramped and claustrophobic decorations favored by church authorities 100 years ago.

But the inside is not really the point.

Ivan the Terrible built St. Basil's to stun the populace milling around Red Square with his power and grandeur. And it does as good a job today on camera-toting tourists as it ever did on a medieval mob.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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