The Eccentric, Colorful Domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral
St. Basil’s Cathedral was constructed in 16th century Russia during the reign of Tsar Ivan IV. The cathedral commemorates a military victory against Mongol forces, in which Kazan was captured by the Russians. The layout of the cathedral consists of a central church surrounded by eight smaller chapels. Each of the chapels is associated with an important day during the battle for Kazan. In addition, the cathedral was designed to resemble an eight-pointed star, with each tower on one of eight compass points. It has been speculated that this is an allusion to three eight-pointed stars that decorate the veil of the Virgin Mary in early iconographic images. The number eight has added religious significance, often associated with the eighth day of creation. At a later date, a ninth chapel was added over the tomb of St. Basil.
The architectural design of the church is unique without any known predecessors. Its influences may include Byzantine, Muslim and possibly, Italian Renaissance architectural styles. It incorporates many East meets West elements.
Domes and Spires
The cathedral has four octagonal towers and four square towers, all built with red brick, an innovation at the time. The towers themselves are richly and elaborately decorated; however, the main focal point is the roof of the cathedral with its colorful, vibrant domes and spires. Each of the towers, as well as the central church, is capped with an onion dome, thought to evoke in its imagery the curving flame of a candle. The central church also features a lofty tented roof, which was a popular roofing style for churches in 16th century Russia.
Originally, the cathedral was painted white, and the domes were made of tin covered by a layer of fine gold leaf or powder. In the 1670s, the church was revamped, and the gilded domes were replaced with the present day multicolored domes. Providing structure and support to the inside of the domes was a wooden or metal framework resembling a birdcage. During construction, this framework was built first to give the dome its basic shape. A temporary center pole also may have been used for support. Then the dome was covered with sheets of colorful metal.
The metal pieces were of various sizes that were bent and shaped to create interesting patterns on the dome. The pieces were then riveted together. There were hundreds of different pieces that fit together, some overlapping others, some rounded, some coming out at sharp angles, some bent to form ridges. The onion domes were placed on cylindrical drums which formed the top part of the towers. Finally, rising from the top of each dome was a golden cupola and cross.