St. Basil’s: No Need to Invent Mysteries

© RIA Novosti . Grigory SysoyevCathedral of St. Basil the Blessed
Cathedral of St. Basil the Blessed - Sputnik International
St. Basil's the Blessed (Protection Veil of Our Lady) Cathedral, better known as St. Basil's (Intercession) Cathedral, is an architectural symbol of Moscow and Russia. The church, now a museum, is celebrating its 450th anniversary on July 12.

St. Basil's the Blessed (Protection Veil of Our Lady) Cathedral, better known as St. Basil's (Intercession) Cathedral, is an architectural symbol of Moscow and Russia. The church, now a museum, is celebrating its 450th anniversary on July 12.

The museum’s director, Tatyana Saracheva, told about preparations for the festivities as well as about some of the legends and mysteries surrounding the country’s most famous cathedral. She spoke to RIA Novosti’s Natalia Popova.

Q.: This year is an anniversary year for St. Basil's (Intercession) Cathedral on Red Square, isn’t it?  How are you preparing for the festivities?

A.: We’ve been celebrating since late 2010, actually. Last November, we opened an exhibition at St. Basil's (Intercession) Cathedral former vestry. This display, called “Golden Vestry,” was staged with the anniversary in mind. And we planned all subsequent events in such a way that the celebrations continue all year through.

At the beginning of 2011, St. Basil’s took part in a national ice sculpture contest for the first time. We hosted the finals of this year’s event, with the earlier stages held in Murmansk and St. Petersburg. An ice sculpture was built outside St. Basil’s to recreate the cathedral’s 16th -17th century look, as shown in an etching by the German writer and] traveler Adam Olearius (Oelschlager). The cathedral has been rebuilt more than once over the centuries, and its present appearance is quite different from what it was then.

We also staged a children’s contest for the best story about St. Basil’s; we launched it last December and announced the results on April 18, the Cultural Heritage Day.

A month later we held a drawing contest for children and adults. Works by the participants will be displayed at an exhibition at the State History Museum on July 12, at the peak of the festivities.

Q.: What events will be held on the big day, July 12?

A.: We celebrate July 12 as the cathedral’s birthday as it was consecrated on that day, the day its construction was completed 450 years ago.  We know the exact date from an inscription in the cathedral’s Church of the Intercession of the Holy Virgin. The inscription reads, “… the Cathedral of the Intercession was consecrated on the Day of Sts. Peter and Paul the Apostles.”

The centerpiece of the July 12 festivities will be a morning service, to be celebrated by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia. At a subsequent news conference, we will tell about the events we have prepared for the cathedral’s anniversary, including the launch of the permanent display and the presentation of newly restored interiors in two churches. Later that day, a photo exhibition will open in the nearby GUM department store. It will feature forty photos showing some of the cathedral’s details, which are hard to see on one’s first visit.

The cathedral’s paintings, icons, and architectural decorations are so remarkably rich that they often overshadow its elaborate details.

On that day, visitors will be greeted at the entrance by a guard dressed to resemble Tsar Ivan IV the Terrible’s Streltsy.  Members of the guard will explain the day’s importance to the visitors. On July 12, the museum will stay open longer than usual, until 10 pm, and admission will be free.

We’ve prepared a few surprises, but let us keep the public in suspense for now.

The day will culminate with a bell-ringing gala, where bell ringers of the Moscow Kremlin will show their art.

Festivities will resume in October. October 14 is Intercession Day, after which the cathedral and its central church have been named. A variety of events have been planned for that period, with the main one being an international symposium “St. Basil’s Cathedral in Russian History.” Colleagues will come to the conference’s opening ceremony to greet us.

An international festival of spiritual singing will open on that day. It will open at the cathedral’s central church to then continue at the State History Museum.

Q.: Getting back to the date of July 12 and the inscription, has the meaning of this date been known all along?

A.: It was long believed that the cathedral had been completed in 1560; this date was indicated in all official documents, monograms and scholarly works until the middle of the 20th century.

A construction chronicle (an inscription inside the tent roof) was inscribed by architects in the mid-16th century. The paintings and inscriptions made inside the tent roof faded over time.  Also, the interiors suffered from several devastating fires in the 16th-17th centuries, and had to be restored. By the late 18th century, the inscription became so obscured that during repairs in the 1780s it was covered with a thick layer of oil, along with all the surviving 16th-century fresco paintings. The inscription remained covered for a long time. Serving as the only reminder was a metallic memorial plaque, made in the late 18th century, which told about Empress Catherine the Great having allocated 10,000 rubles, a handsome sum  by  that time,  for the cathedral’s repairs and renovation. A fragment from that chronicle was engraved on the plaque.

The removal of the oil layers began during restoration works in the autumn of 1957.  After 18th-century repairs these oil layers were repeatedly repainted and renovated, but restorers discerned an earlier layer of fresco paintings underneath and they sought to understand how much of the original painting had survived. In September 1957, an inscription was discovered. It took several years to open it up as the works could be performed only during warm weather. So the inscription was not fully opened until 1961, exactly 400 years after its appearance. This was perhaps the greatest scholastic discovery to have been made at the cathedral in the 20th century. Now this inscription can be seen in the cathedral’s central church tented roof.

Discrepancies in construction dating stemmed also from the fact that it had been built in two stages: the central church was completed in 1561, two years after all surrounding churches had been built.

Q.: Now the cathedral is again under renovation; when do you plan to complete it?

A.: That’s one of our visitors’ favorite questions: “When will your restoration be over?” We say that we'll be happy if the restoration goes on forever.

The current stage began in 2001. Of course, we’ve tried to complete as much as possible for July 12, so most of the cathedral’s churches will have been completed by July 12. That kind of work takes a lot of time and effort, so no more than two or three side transepts can be restored per year. Also, large-scale works are underway on the façades, where the paintings have been renovated using innovative materials and technology.

During the current renovation, our exterior gallery has been restored to its original appearance. It was an open space originally, but multi-pane windows were installed here in the 19th century, making the sense of openness disappear. Now we have replaced those windows with new ones, without muntins, so as to recreate the effect of an open exterior gallery. So yet another step has been made toward restoring the cathedral to its 16th-17th century appearance.

The restorers’ painstaking efforts led to yet another discovery last year. The original painting on the vault of the northern porch overlooking Red Square had been covered with a layer of gray paint in the 1950s. The oldest of the surviving layers, datable to the first half of the 18th century, was unveiled during restoration works in 2010.  There are no known analogues of the gold stars and empyreal background that adorn the cathedral. As some visitors are already aware, the stars symbolize Our Lady, while the celestial dome representing the Intercession of the Virgin alludes to the cathedral’s name.

Q.: Is it hard to maintain the cathedral?

A.: The main difficulty is that restorers are trying as best as they can to preserve the oldest layers of painting and flooring, and work of that kind takes a lot of time and effort. Finding appropriate materials is also time-consuming.  This year, for the first time ever, the restoration work continued into the winter.

Of course, we’re happy with the large number of visitors coming in. On the other hand, increased visitor attendance means that we have more restoration work to do because the stairs get worn down and the walls and paintings get chipped.

The building also suffers from its proximity to frequent concerts and parades on Red Square and Vasilyevsky Spusk. The tanks riding by and the jet fighters flying overhead create powerful vibrations that cause cracks in the cathedral’s walls.
Proper maintenance of the cathedral is both labor-intensive and costly.

Q.: Do you have enough money to cover the costs of maintenance?

A.: Fortunately, there’s no problem with that. We are extremely grateful to the Ministry of Culture, which provides most of the funding for the restoration. Also, some of the works have been supported by Russian Railways and the Moscow International Currency Exchange. Incidentally, Russian Railways is an official partner of our anniversary events.

Q.: Are there any new or upcoming surprises for visitors to the cathedral?

A.: We’re planning to provide every visitor with an audio guide, the cost of which will be included in the admission fee. The ordinary guided tours that we offer are also free of charge, but such tours are available to groups only.

We are also contemplating the introduction of a tour of the belfry. It’s an old idea of ours, and we hope that we’ll be able to translate it into reality during this year’s festivities.

Many of our visitors have asked if they can climb up to the belfry. This prospective tour will give them an opportunity to go to the top and attend a master class on bell ringing.

Traditionally, we arrange a wide variety of activities for children, and we intend to carry on with that work.  Each year, we organize special programs for schoolchildren during their school holidays. Such programs usually include quizzes that are intended to call the attention of children and their parents to spots in the cathedral that they would normally overlook.

There are also master classes on medieval orthography. An experienced scribe explains the tools and materials employed in the time of Tsar Ivan IV the Terrible. Each of the young pupils can then try to write his or her name the way it would have been written in the Middle Ages.

Q.: Do you plan to expand museum activities beyond the tours?

A.: One other big project we’re currently developing is an interactive game called “Building St. Basil’s.” The idea was inspired by cooperation with a children’s studio.  We invited to St. Basil’s a group of kids from the studio to build a cardboard model of St. Basil’s during their school holiday last autumn.

Now we’d like to turn that pilot project into a full-fledged program. Ordinary tours of the cathedral are too hard for children to follow, however competent the guide. Kids, especially young ones, have a rather short attention span, you know. Our interactive game will enable every child to learn about the cathedral by putting on the hat of a medieval architect.

As we learned the other day, our museum has been awarded a Changing Museum in the Changing World grant from the Potanin Foundation. So, with the foundation’s support, we’ll be able to start developing this new program for children in September.

As for adults, we plan to give them access to the gallery, which curves around the main church at the dome level. The realization of this project doesn’t depend entirely on us, but if we manage to see it through, then our visitors will be able to enter the gallery and enjoy a bird’s-eye view of Moscow.

Q.: Every old place has its legends and stories that are known only to insiders. Does St. Basil’s have any such stories?

A.: All the legends related to the cathedral are widely circulated, and they generate a lot of speculation. For instance, it’s believed that St. Basil’s has some secret cellars. We have to explain that it was built on the ground level, that there are no cellars underneath, and that there’s no point in looking for Ivan IV the Terrible’s library down there.

People wonder if it’s true that the tsar’s treasury was stored in the cathedral. Indeed, there are alcoves in the basement where some treasures may have been stored. And, according to the Chronicles, treasury coffers were stored here at one point. But the theory that Ivan IV the Terrible would have kept his treasury outside the Kremlin walls just doesn’t seem particularly credible.

The old masters’ craftsmanship, by contrast, is a real mystery. The domes, which appear on so many postcards of Moscow, seem to be of a single piece if looked at from afar. But close up, we can see that they consist of many separate components, brought together with the help of special tools.

The cathedral’s biggest legend, I think, has to do with its numerous paintings, which have come down to us from a period spanning four centuries (the mid-16th century to the early 20th century).

The cathedral has objects unique to the 16th century, such as the coffered ceilings in our western gallery. Most of the gallery’s vaults are arched, and only one section is flat, consisting of square panels formed with small bricks. In world architecture, this method didn’t come into use until the 19th century. It’s amazing that such a ceiling could have appeared in a mid-16th century structure; there are no known analogues either in medieval Russian architecture or in European architecture of the period.

So, rather than searching for invented mysteries, we should look around and admire the mysterious beauty of the cathedral’s interiors, I think.

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