You will hardly find a place in the world where people have not heard of Moscow, the capital of the first socialist state, and its Red Square, part and parcel of Russian history.
The Kremlin with its old hoary walls, tent-roofed towers and domed cathedrals is one with Red Square. Another indispensable feature of Red Square is Pokrovsky Cathedral (the Cathedral of the Intercession (St. Basil's), a world-famous monument of 16th century architecture, unsurpassed in its beauty and originality.
The cathedral is dear to our hearts not only as an architectural monument. It commemorates the heroic past of the Russian people, their struggle for national independence, hard toils of war and joy of victory over the Kazan Khannate, Russia's dangerous and perfidious enemy.
The aggressive policies of the Kazan khans had for more than a hundred years hindered Russia's political and economic development. Frequent Tartar raids spelled devastation and death to the population of the Moscow Principality. Relations between Moscow and Kazan worsened especially in the middle of the 16th century. Under Ivan the Terrible Russia mustered all its forces for decisive battle against Kazan.
In the summer of 1552, a 150,000-strong Russian army headed towards Kazan. After a long and wearisome siege the Russians began storming the Kazan fortress on October 1, 1552, the church feast of the Intercession. On the next day, October 2, they captured the city. This victory over the Kazan Khannate, a major event in the history of the 16th century Moscow state, was of tremendous consequence for the entire Russian nation.
The chronicler wrote: "...The Tsar and Great Prince Ivan Vasilievich ordered erecting the Cathedral of the Intercession with chapels to commemorate the Kazan Victory and thank God for subjugating the pagan Kazan Tartar race of the Tsar." The victory at Kazan was thus immortalized by this magnificent structure, the Pokrovsky Cathedral built in 1555-1561 by outstanding Russian architects Barma and Postnik.
The Pokrovsky Cathedral has witnessed many events over the four hundred years of its existence - the Crimean Tartar invasion in 1571; the triumphant entry into the Kremlin of the people's militia led by Minin and Pozharsky after driving the Polish and Swedish aggressors from Russia; people's riots and strelets mutinies in the 17th century; Napoleon's hasty departure from Moscow; the revolutionary battles for Soviet power waged by the Moscow proletariat in October, 1917; the countrywide grief over the death of the great Lenin; the sending of Red Army detachments into battle against the nazi aggressors straight from Red Square; the Victory Parade; the meeting Yuri Gagarin, the world's first spaceman, and also numerous rallies and demonstrations of Moscow's working people.
The cathedral did not only witness but suffered from the destructive fires that raged in Moscow in the 16th-18th centuries, it miraculously escaped destruction in 1812 when the fleeing French invaders attempted to blow it up. Over centuries the cathedral was enlarged and rebuilt, at times very clumsily, spoiling its magnificent architectural forms and unique frescoes.
In October 1918, the Ministry of Education put the cathedral, this outstanding work of early Russian architecture, in the list of protected monuments of art and antiquity. In 1923, it was transformed into an architectural and art museum and restoration work based on scientific principles was started. Thanks to the care shown by the Communist Party and the Soviet Government, the cathedral has regained in the main its original 16th—17th century aspect.
In 1929, the Pokrovsky Cathedral (the Cathedral of the Intercession), or St.Basil's, became a branch of the Order of Lenin State History Museum. Today it is one of the most popular sights in the Soviet Union.
An unparalleled architectural masterpiece, the cathedral has absorbed the more vivid and distinctive features of the 16th century Russian architecture. The tall basement carries eight pillar-like towers crowned with multicoloured figured heads. In the centre is the ninth tower with a tall tapering top. A covered gallery, so-called ambulatory, encircles the cathedral. The ambulatory divides the first and second storeys, accentuating the diversity of their architectural decor. The lower storey is much heavier and massive. But the presence of variously shaped elegant arches supporting the ambulatory landings and smart tent-roofed porches makes the transition to the openwork decor of the second storey quite natural.
The effect of lightness and ethereality of the second storey is achieved through the masterful combination and diversification of its decorative elements-variously shaped cornices, niches, decorative arches (so-called kokoshniks) and platbands on the towers and windows.
The glazed tile inserts of different colours and gilt iron coils and spirals of the roofs, as well as the bright painting of the main brick surfaces of the towers in combination with whitestone details lend the structure a smart and festive appearance.
The graceful tent-roofed bell tower standing apart makes a single whole with the ensemble. Even the considerable alterations of the eastern fagade with the addition of St. Basil's Church in 1588 did not disrupt the integrity and harmony of the monument.
Internally, just as externally, the cathedral consists of two storeys housing the museum exhibits which give one an idea of the cathedral as a 16th century historical, architectural and art monument.
The exhibits on the first floor introduce the visitor to the history of the cathedral, its predecessors and alterations made since its construction.
The showcase displaying unique specimens of side-arms and cannon, as well as 16th—17th century coat of mail give one an idea of the composition and equipment of the 150,000-strong Russian army which besieged and carried by storm the fortress of Kazan, one of the strongest 16th century fortresses.
The mail, helmets, sabres, bludgeons and mice belonged to the well-off core of the Russian force, i.e. the mounted nobility. The firelock guns and poleaxes were the weapons of the Russian regular army formed in the 16th century and known as strelets detachments. Spears, axes, clubs and other primitive arms were used by common folk mobilized during war.
The stand nearby is devoted to the siege and assault of Kazan. One of the more interesting exhibits is the plan of the siege. Although made at the end of the 19th century, the map shows in detail and with sufficient historical authenticity the battle arrays of the besieging Russian army, the fortifications of the besieged city and the place where fighting took place in August-October 1552.
The next section of the introductory exhibition features the history of the construction of the cathedral. On display are two replicas of 17th century chronicles from which the names of the Russian builders Barma and Postnik first became known. "Being wise and skilled in this wonderful art" they produced a compositionally intricate monumental structure. The assumption that Barma and Postnik were the names of one person was not confirmed.
Among the exhibits are excellent replicas of 16th century miniatures from the Illuminated Chronicles depicting celebrations on the completion of the construction of the Pokrovsky Cathedral. These miniatures give one an idea of the cathedral's 16th century appearance, albeit in a somewhat conventionalized iconographic manner. Closeby are pictures of 16th century wooden and stone architectural monuments distinguished above all by their sharp-pointed terminations and pillarlike bodies. These features are present in the composition of the Pokrovsky Cathedral.
The next exhibition area is in the basement, the fundamental part of the structure. Its intricately laid out rooms are spanned by strong vaults which support the towers and passages of the upper storey. The basement, up to six metres tall, with narrow pointed ventilation slits resembling loopholes and deep niche crypts was used as a storehouse. Until 1595 the great treasury was kept there.
In two crypts are 16th—17th century items, the remains of the treasures once preserved in the basement.
In the basement the visitor will see quite a number of pictures of the cathedral made in the 17th—19th centuries. Among them is an engraving from A. Olearius' "Description of the Journey to Moscow", published in Nuremberg in 1647. It is one of the first realistic depictions of the Pokrovsky Cathedral. Among other exhibits are an original picture by artist Fr. Gilferding and a replica of F. Alexeyev's picture showing the Pokrovsky Cathedral and Red Square as they were in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. At that time all kinds of structures sprang up around the cathedral, almost completely obstructing its view from Red Square. This continued until 1817 when neighbourhood improvement was started and all the alien buildings around the cathedral were pulled down, which is illustrated by the pictures by N. Podklyuchnikov and K. Rabus and 19th century engravings.
An interesting exhibit is the mock-up of the cathedral reproducing in miniature its appearance and the details of its compositional forms and architectural decor.
The exhibits on the next stand illustrate the process and results of the restoration work both inside and outside the cathedral started in 1918 and continuing today.
A steep white-stone stair built into the wall leads from the basement to the second floor. In the past it was used for domestic needs. The main entrances were through the earlier-mentioned porches.
Ascending the stair you find yourself in the room of the largest central tower. Its height is 47.5 m and area 49 sq.m. Once this tower housed the Church of the Intercession. It has been proved that the names of the cathedral's five churches are associated with the more significant events of the Kazan campaign that took place on the particular days of church feasts.
The interior of the central tower is noted for its well-balanced and rational architectural forms. The solid rectangular base carries tiers diminishing octahedrons ending an octahedral pyramidal tent. The decorative niches, engaged columns and cornices also have a constructional function. The absence of supporting pillars and vaults lends the interior of this actually small pillarlike structure a quality of vastness and soaring height.
The lower tier war painted in imitation of masonry. Higher up, the contours of the wall projections and decorative arches are outlined in black paint on a white ground. When uncovering the old frescoes in the tower the restorers found a text inscribed on the wall back in the 16th century. The study of this text made it possible to establish in 1961 the exact date of the completion of the cathedral as June 29,1561 (earlier it was believed to be 1560). The painted ornament is very attractive, with red ribbons twining into almond-shaped eights and framing individual architectural details on the white ground of the conical ceiling. Made by the fresco technique this painting has a secular rather than ecclesiastical quality.
On the walls and vaults of the gallery encircling the central tower and preserving its 16th century architectural forms, the restorers have revived a strikingly colourful and original 17th century ornament of intricately twined stalks and outlandish flowers of never repeating shapes and colours. In the eastern part of the gallery, 19th century oil painting has been preserved. Of special interest are the wall painting and design of the western part of the gallery which has regained its 16th century aspect thanks to restoration work. The colourful, albeit simple, painting of the unplastered brick walls and ceiling looks splendid in the light of the old multi-tiered chandeliers. The flat ceiling of this passage is an outstanding technical achievement of 16th century Russian builders. Such engineering solutions found application in Europe only in the 19th century.
The portals of the eight powers surrounding the central one open onto the inner gallery so that you can get into any tower and see its interior.
There are two types of towers here. The four bigger ones facing the four cardinal points (east, west north and south) do not differ much in size, shape or architectural decor. Internally they are tall and well-lit octahedrons with somewhat smaller octagonal clerestory drums. The tower walls are punctuated with deep recesses alternating with engaged columns. The tiers are divided by multi-figured cornices. The second tier has high elongated windows. At the base of the drum runs a row of small niches and resonators (clay jugs built into the wall). Each tower has three brick portals with decorative finish imitating carving in wood.
In the eastern and western towers restoration work has been completed. As a result, the towers have regained their original 16th century aspect. The southern and northern parts are as they were in the 19th century.
The four smaller, so-called diagonal towers sited between the bigger ones, face south-east, south-west, north-west and north-east. They also have many common features but differ markedly from the bigger towers. Rectangular at the base the diagonal towers turn into octahedrons supported by pendentives and terminated by cylindrical clerestory drums.
The south-eastern and north-eastern towers have three entrances each. Their architectural decor is very laconic. The walls of the lower tier are decorated with arches (archivolts) supported by low corner posts (pilasters). The archivolts have shallow niches. In 1980, restorers discovered in the south-eastern tower remains of 16th century frescoes painted over unplastered brick.
The decor of the other two diagonal towers is still more modest. They have no decorative archivolts while the corner pilasters run up the plain walls of the rectangular buildings. The walls whitewashed as in olden days are much taller.
All the towers surrounding the central one are indeed toy size (the south-eastern, the smallest, has a floor space of slightly over 12 sq.m), which makes one forget about their religious purpose. The architects evidently concentrated their efforts, talent and skill on the external decor of the structure, trying to make it as emotionally impressive as possible.
Now a few words about the restorers' efforts to return to the building its 16th—17th century appearance.
Clumsy facelifts and alterations to suit the needs of the church often hopelessly ruined the cathedral's architectural and artistic merits, causing a feeling of grief indignation among progressive and enlightened people who cherished early Russian art as a medium immortalizing great events in Russian history.
The beginning of the 20th century found the cathedral in a quite miserable state which was even described as disastrous at a sitting of the Russian Society for the Protection of Monuments of Art and Antiquity in 1912.
After the Great October Socialist Revolution, when the country was still in the grips of the civil war and economic havoc, the Communist Party and the Soviet Government found it possible to start restoration work. In 1918, the dome and the vault of the western tower damaged by shells during street fighting in October 1917, were repaired.
In the late '20s and early '30s extensive research was undertaken to establish and reconstruct the original forms of the sockle, supporting posts, arches, stairs and other structural elements of the lower tier of the cathedral fagade. Later alterations distorting the original view of the cathedral were removed. The arches supporting the porches and landings were freed of the brick filling. The entrance stairs were reconstructed on the basis of the remaining whitestone steps. In the mid-30s, individual decorative elements of portals, columns, windows and doors in many rooms were given their 16th—17th century appearance. Frescoes dating back to the 16th— 17th centuries were uncovered practically over the entire surface of the vaults and walls of the internal passages and landings. In five towers (the eastern, south-eastern, south-western, western and north-western) restorers discovered under later stucco layers, outlines of original cornices, rolls and other architectural elements, as well as old niches, windows, ornamental brick spirals on drum vaults and belts at their base.
Restoration work was resumed immediately after the end of the Great Patriotic War. In keeping with the government's decision it was given a truly impressive scale in 1954-1955. The brickwork and whitestone masonry were repaired, the worn iron on the decorative arches and cornices was replaced by sheet copper, the decor of the main tent roof was refurbished, the proches and the bell tower were roofed with new tiles, the crosses, the spheres and cones supporting them and also metal embellishments on the tent roof of the central tower were gilt anew. Modeling on the remains of the 16th century frescoes on the fagade, all the large surfaces of the structure were painted anew with individual elements brought out in white.
In 1956-1965, the 16th century monumental frescoes on the inner walls and ceiling of the central tower were restored.
In 1969, the replacement of the old iron roofing by a copper one was completed after two years of painstaking work. The multifigured parts of the domes were made by hand. The work required exceptional precision and skill in fitting the parts together and mounting on the roof. Simultaneously the crosses and the drum cornices were gilt. Just one figure will be enough to give you an idea of the amount of work done: nearly 32 tons of 1 mm sheet copper went into roofing the cathedral heads.
Restoration work is continuing. The flat roofs have been renovated. Along the entire length of the ambulatory the 19th century iron cornices have been replaced by copper ones made in 17th century style. The worn whitestone parts of the sockle have been replaced. Early frescoes are being investigated and brought back to life.
In the summer of 1980, the fagade was fully restored and all the paintings on the outer side of the ambulatory were reconstructed on the basis of the uncovered 17th remains.
In the restored churches the iconostatis of later periods were replaced by older ones consisting of icons dating back to the 15th—17th centuries, many of them the best specimens of the Novgorod and Moscow schools. Rid of later overpaint and soot, they fascinate one with the brightness of colours and elegance of lines testifying to the high level of icon-painting art in old Rus sia. Here one can also see excellent works of 16th—17th century Russian applied art, including mica lanterns, cast copper chandeliers and embroidered shrouds.
The great Russian writer, Nikolai Gogol, called architecture the world's chronicle in stone. One of its pages is the Pokrovsky Cathedral - a remarkable monument of Russian architecture ranking among the greatest assets of world culture.
A. A. Kapitokhin, Ye. I. Serebryakova