The Charming Onion Domes

This post is part of my Russia travel series: Travel stories | Photo gallery

The riot of color and shapes that is St. Basil’s Cathedral is unmatched anywhere else in the world.


St. Basil’s Cathedral at night

What’s the building about?

Until very recently, I thought that this colorful fairytale-like building was called Kremlin and its like the Taj Mahal of Russia. This building is actually a cathedral and houses a number of tiny chapels inside. The cathedral was commissioned by Tsar Ivan IV to commemorate the capture of the Khanate of Kazan, and built from 1555 to 1561.

A chapel filled with icons, medieval painted walls, and varying artwork

The building is known by many names. The Cathedral of Intercession of the Virgin on the Moat (RU: Собор Покрова что на Рву – The Cathedral of the Protection of the Mother of God, or simply Pokrovskiy Cathedral – RU: Покровский Собор; better known as the Cathedral of Saint Basil the Blessed , Saint Basil’s Cathedral – RU: Храм Василия Блаженного) is a multi-tented church on the Red Square in Moscow that also features distinctive onion domes. St. Basil, after whom the cathedral is named, was a preacher who roamed the streets of Moscow trying to win converts during the reign of Tsar Ivan IV.

Spiraling stairway

Although the towers and domes appear chaotic, there is symmetry and symbolism in its design. There are eight domed chapels symbolizing the eight assaults on Kazan: four large and octagonal and four small and square. In the center is a tent-roofed spire topped with a small golden dome.

Bells. Russian orthodox churches play wonderful music by ringing bells of various sizes. These look like decommissioned ones.

The cathedral had a nice cosy, intimate feel, as opposed to most other cathedrals that are grand structures.

Onion Domes

Spiraling onion dome

Some scholars postulated that onion domes were borrowed by Russians from Muslim countries, probably from the Khanate of Kazan, whose conquest Ivan the Terrible commemorated by erecting St. Basil’s Cathedral. The Kazan Qolsharif mosque had been the principal symbol of the Khanate and some elements from there were said to be incorporated into the cathedral. Others state that the elongated, or onion, domes were part of the same proto-Gothic trend aimed at achieving pyramidal, vertical emphasis.

Secret Tips!

The cathedral is located at the south-eastern end of the Red square and is a convenient point to either start or end your tour of the Red Square.

Secret tip #1: Entrance ticket for foreigners is expensive (I think RUR 300 / USD 15), but for locals its RUR 100 (USD 5). I asked for a student discount ticket in Russian, and I got in for RUR 50 (USD 2.5). Awesome!

Secret tip #2: Entering the Red Square from this end is not very popular, hence there are few chances of getting checked or bothered by the police. The other entrance is very crowded, filled with souvenir shops and policemen who pry on foreign-looking people checking random passports. So be wiser. 😉

…and you are welcome. 🙂

Saint Basil’s Cathedral and statues commemorating the leaders of Russia’s volunteer army against the Polish invaders

This post is part of my Russia travel series: Travel stories | Photo gallery