St Basil's Cathedral
The Cathedral of St Basil; from Russian Pictures by Thomas Mitchell.
We were at once struck by the eccentric appearance of the Cathedral of St Basil the Beatified. It justifies the description of it given by Theophile Gautier:
It is without doubt the most original monument in the world: it recalls nothing that one has ever seen, and belongs to no known style. One would imagine it to be a gigantic madresore, a crystallized colossus, a stalactite grotto turned upside down; a thing which has neither prototype nor similitude. It might be taken for a Hindoo, Chinese, or Thibetan pagoda. In looking at this impossible church, one is tempted to ask if it is not a whimsical will-o'-the-wisp, an edifice formed of clouds fantastically coloured by the sun, which the movement of the air will presently cause to change in form, or vanish into nothingness.
Ivan the Terrible, after conquering Kazan, built on this site (anciently a cemetery in which was buried Basil, 'a prophet and miracle-worker, idiotic for Christ's sake'), with the treasure he had taken from the Tartars, a wooden church dedicated to the Intercession of the Holy Virgin. It was rebuilt in stone Al) 1335, in commemoration of the additional acquisition of Astrakhan .
It was pillaged and defiled by the Poles early in the seventeenth century, and in 1626 a fire which broke out in the dome of one of its chapels spread over the whole of Moscow. Again in 1668, the great fire that devastated the Kitaigorod destroyed all the cupolas of Basil the Beatified. In 1737 another great conflagration destroyed the church, with its domes and eighteen chapels and all the vessels and treasures within it. Restored seven years later, and again thoroughly renovated in 1784, in strict accordance with ancient drawings, Napoleon, in 1812, found it in its present form, and ordered 'that Mosque' to be destroyed.
Fortunately for later visitors not of iconoclastic temperament, his orders, in the confusion and danger of the French occupation of Moscow, were not carried out, although the edifice suffered to the extent of being robbed and used as a stable ...
In one of the lower chapels, Basil, the tutelary saint, reposes in a costly shrine little in harmony with the equally venerated emblems of his austerity, in the form of heavy iron chains and crosses which he wore for penance. Another chapel is famed for the relics and the penitential weights of cast iron of 'Ivan the Idiot', who acquired also the epithet of `Big-cap', from the heavy iron head-piece on which he was wont to carry buckets of water as an exercise of charity; this curio disappeared in 1812. The Protestant reader must bear in mind that idiocy is a form of mendicancy very common in Russia and the innate compassionate feelings of the people are much moved by it. Another common, perhaps more painful appeal to charity, consists in the exhibition of sores resulting from accidents by fire, and it is not unusual even to see beggars going about barefooted in winter.