The site of the church had been, historically, a busy marketplace between the St. Frol's (later Saviour's) Gate of the Moscow Kremlin and the outlying posad. The centre of the marketplace was marked by the Trinity Church, built of the same white stone as the Kremlin of Dmitry Donskoy (1366–68) and its cathedrals. Tsar Ivan IV marked every victory of the Russo-Kazan War by erecting a wooden memorial church next to the walls of Trinity Church; by the end of his Astrakhan campaign, it was shrouded within a cluster of seven wooden churches. According to the report in Nikon's Chronicle, in the autumn of 1554 Ivan ordered construction of the wooden Church of Intercession on the same site, "on the moat". One year later, Ivan ordered construction of a new stone cathedral on the site of Trinity Church that would commemorate his campaigns. Dedication of a church to a military victory was "a major innovation" for Muscovy. The placement of the church outside of the Kremlin walls was a political statement in favour of posad commoners and against hereditary boyars.
Contemporary commentators clearly identified the new building as Trinity Church, after its easternmost sanctuary; the status of "katholikon" ("sobor", large assembly church) has not been bestowed on it yet:
On the Trinity on the Moat in Moscow.
In the same year, through the will of czar and lord and grand prince Ivan began making the pledged church, as he promised for the capture of Kazan: Trinity and Intercession and seven sanctuaries, also called "on the moat". And the builder was Barma with company.
The identity of the architect is unknown. Tradition held that the church was built by two architects, Barma and Postnik: the official Russian cultural heritage register lists "Barma and Postnik Yakovlev". Researchers proposed that both names refer to the same person, Postnik Yakovlev or, alternatively, Ivan Yakovlevich Barma (Varfolomey). Legend held that Ivan blinded the architect so that he could not re-create the masterpiece elsewhere, although the real Postnik Yakovlev remained active at least throughout the 1560s. There is evidence that construction involved stonemasons from Pskov and German lands. According to the legend, Ivan had ordered Postnik Yakovlev's eyes removed.
Because the church has no analogues, in preceding, contemporary, or later architecture of Muscovy and Byzantine cultural tradition in general, the sources that inspired Barma and Postnik are disputed. Eugène Viollet-le-Duc rejected European roots for the cathedral; according to him, its corbel arches were Byzantine, and ultimately Asian. A modern "Asian" hypothesis considers the cathedral a recreation of Qolsharif Mosque, which was destroyed by Russian troops after the siege of Kazan.
Nineteenth-century Russian writers, starting with Ivan Zabelin, emphasized the influence of the vernacular wooden churches of the Russian North; their motifs made their ways into masonry, particularly the votive churches that did not need to house substantial congregations. David Watkin also wrote of a blend of Russian and Byzantine roots, calling the cathedral "the climax" of Russian vernacular wooden architecture.
The church combines the staggered layered design of the earliest (1505–08) part of the Ivan the Great Bell Tower, the central tent of the Church of Ascension in Kolomenskoye (1530s), and the cylindric shape of the Church of Beheading of John the Baptist in Dyakovo (1547), but the origin of these unique buildings is equally debated. The Church in Kolomenskoye, according to Sergey Podyapolsky, was built by Italian Petrok Maly, although mainstream history has not yet accepted his opinion. Andrey Batalov revised the year of completion of Dyakovo church from 1547 to the 1560s–70s, and noted that Trinity Church could have had no tangible predecessors at all.
Dmitry Shvidkovsky suggested that the "improbable" shapes of the Intercession Church and the Church of Ascension in Kolomenskoye manifested an emerging national renaissance, blending earlier Muscovite elements with the influence of Italian Renaissance. A large group of Italian architects and craftsmen continuously worked in Moscow in 1474–1539, as well as Greek refugees that arrived in the city after the fall of Constantinople. These two groups, according to Shvidkovsky, helped Moscow rulers in forging the doctrine of Third Rome, which in turn promoted assimilation of contemporary Greek and Italian culture. Shvidkovsky noted the resemblance of the cathedral's floorplan to Italian concepts by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger and Donato Bramante, but most likely Filarete's Trattato di architettura. Other Russian researchers noted a resemblance to sketches by Leonardo da Vinci, although he could not have been known in Ivan's Moscow. Nikolay Brunov recognized the influence of these prototypes but not their significance; he suggested that in the mid-16th century Moscow already had local architects trained in Italian tradition, architectural drawing and perspective, and that this culture was lost during the Time of Troubles.
Andrey Batalov wrote that, judging by the number of novel elements introduced with Trinity Church, it was most likely built by German craftsmen. Batalov and Shvidkovsky noted that during Ivan's reign, Germans and Englishmen replaced Italians, although German influence peaked later, during the reign of Mikhail Romanov. German influence is indirectly supported by the rusticated pilasters of the central church, a feature more common in contemporary Northern Europe than in Italy.
The 1983 academic edition of Monuments of Architecture in Moscow takes the middle ground: the church is, most likely, a product of the complex interaction of distinct Russian traditions of wooden and stone architecture, with some elements borrowed from the works of Italians in Moscow. Specifically, the style of brickwork in the vaults is Italian.
Instead of following the original ad hoc layout (seven churches around the central core), Ivan's architects opted for a more symmetrical floor plan with eight side churches around the core, producing "a thoroughly coherent, logical plan" despite the erroneous latter "notion of a structure devoid of restraint or reason" influenced by the memory of Ivan's irrational atrocities. The central core and the four larger churches placed on the four major compass points are octagonal; the four diagonally placed smaller churches are cuboid, although their shape is barely visible through later additions. The larger churches stand on massive foundations, while the smaller ones were each placed on a raised platform, as if hovering above ground.
Although the side churches are arranged in perfect symmetry, the cathedral as a whole is not. The larger central church was deliberately offset to the west from the geometric center of the side churches, to accommodate its larger apse on the eastern side. As a result of this subtle calculated asymmetry, viewing from the north and the south presents a complex multi-axial shape, while the western facade, facing the Kremlin, appears properly symmetrical and monolithic. The latter perception is reinforced by the fortress-style machicolation and corbeled cornice of the western Church of Entry into Jerusalem, mirroring the real fortifications of the Kremlin.
Inside the composite church is a labyrinth of narrow vaulted corridors and vertical cylinders of the churches. The largest, central one, the Church of the Intercession, is 46 meters tall internally but has a floor area of only 64 square meters. Nevertheless, it is wider and airier than the church in Kolomenskoye with its exceptionally thick walls. The corridors functioned as internal parvises; the western corridor, adorned with a unique flat caissoned ceiling, doubled as the narthex.
The detached belfry of the original Trinity Church stood southwest or south from the main structure. Late 16th and early 17th century plans depict a simple structure with three roof tents, most likely covered with sheet metal. No buildings of this type survived to date, although it was then common and used in all of the pass-through towers of Skorodom. August von Meyerberg's panorama (1661) presents a different building, with a cluster of small onion domes.
The foundations, as was traditional in medieval Moscow, were built of white stone, while the churches themselves were built of red brick (28×14×8 centimeters), then a relatively new material (the first attested brick building in Moscow, the new Kremlin Wall, was started in 1485). Surveys of the structure show that the basement level is perfectly aligned, indicating use of professional drawing and measurement, but each subsequent level becomes less and less regular. Restorers who replaced parts of the brickwork in 1954–55 discovered that the massive brick walls conceal an internal wooden frame running the entire height of the church. This frame, made of elaborately tied thin studs, was erected as a life-size spatial model of the future cathedral and was then gradually enclosed in solid masonry.
The builders, fascinated by the flexibility of the new technology, used brick as a decorative medium both inside and outside, leaving as much brickwork open as possible; when location required the use of stone walls, it was decorated with a brickwork pattern painted over stucco. A major novelty introduced by the church was the use of strictly "architectural" means of exterior decoration. Sculpture and sacred symbols employed by earlier Russian architecture are completely missing; floral ornaments are a later addition. Instead, the church boasts a diversity of three-dimensional architectural elements executed in brick.
The church acquired its present-day vivid colors in several stages from the 1680s to 1848. Russian attitude towards color in the 17th century changed in favor of bright colors; icon and mural art experienced an explosive growth in the number of available paints, dyes and their combinations. The original color scheme, missing these innovations, was far less challenging. It followed the depiction of the Heavenly City in the Book of Revelation:
And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald.
And round about the throne were four and twenty seats: and upon the seats I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold.
The 25 seats from the biblical reference are alluded to in the building's structure, with the addition of nine small carrot domes around the central tent, four around the western side church and four elsewhere. This arrangement survived through most of the 17th century. The walls of the church mixed bare red brickwork or painted imitation of bricks with white ornaments, in roughly equal proportion. The domes, covered with tin, were uniformly gilded, creating an overall bright but fairly traditional combination of white, red and golden colors. Moderate use of green and blue ceramic inserts provided a touch of rainbow as prescribed by the Bible.
While historians agree on the color of the 16th-century domes, their shape is disputed. Boris Eding wrote that they most likely were of the same onion shape as the present-day domes. However, both Kolomenskoye and Dyakovo churches have flattened hemispherical domes, and the same type could have been used by Barma and Postnik.
The original Trinity Church burnt down in 1583 and was refit by 1593. The ninth sanctuary, dedicated to Basil Fool for Christ (1460s–1552), was added in 1588 next to the north-eastern sanctuary of the Three Patriarchs. Another local fool, Ivan the Blessed, was buried on the church grounds in 1589; a sanctuary in his memory was established in 1672 inside the south-eastern arcade.
The vault of the Saint Basil Sanctuary serves as a reference point in evaluating the quality of Muscovite stonemasonry and engineering. As one of the first vaults of its type, it represents the average of engineering craft that peaked a decade later in the church of Trinity in Khoroshovo (completed 1596). The craft was lost in the Time of Troubles; buildings of the first half of the 17th century lack the refinement of the late 16th century, compensating for poor construction skill with thicker walls and heavier vaults.
The second, and most significant, round of refit and expansion took place in 1680–83. The nine churches themselves retained their appearance, but additions to the ground-floor arcade and the first-floor platform were so profound that Nikolay Brunov considered the rebuilt composite church a "new" building and an independent work that incorporated the "old" Trinity Church. What once was a group of nine independent churches on a common platform became a monolithic temple.
The formerly opened ground-floor arcades were filled with brick walls; the new space housed altars from thirteen former wooden churches erected on the site of Ivan's executions in Red Square. Wooden shelters above the first-floor platform and stairs (the cause of frequent fires) were rebuilt in brick, creating the present-day wraparound galleries with tented roofs above the porches and vestibules.
The old detached belfry was demolished; its square basement was reused for a new belltower. The tall single tented roof of this belltower, built in the vernacular style of the reign of Alexis I, significantly changed the appearance of the cathedral, adding a strong asymmetrical counterweight to the church itself. The effect is most pronounced on the southern and eastern facades (as viewed from Zaryadye), although the belltower is large enough to be seen from the west.
The first ornamental murals in the cathedral appeared in the same period, starting with floral ornaments inside the new galleries; the towers retained their original brickwork pattern. Finally, in 1683 the church was adorned with a tiled cornice, in yellow and blue colours, featuring a written history of the church in Old Slavic typeface.
In 1737 the church was damaged by a massive fire and later restored by Ivan Michurin. The inscriptions made in 1683 were removed during the repairs of 1761–84. The church received its first figurative murals inside the churches; all exterior and interior walls of the first two floors were covered with floral ornament. The belltower was connected with the church through a ground-floor annex; the last remaining open arches of the former ground-floor arcade were filled during the same period, erasing the last hint of what was once an open platform carrying the nine churches of Ivan's Jerusalem.
Paintings of Red Square by Fedor Alekseev, made in 1800–02, show that by this time the church was enclosed in an apparently chaotic cluster of commercial buildings; rows of shops "transformed Red Square into an oblong and closed yard." In 1800 the space between the Kremlin wall and the church was still occupied by a moat that predated the church itself. The moat was filled in preparation for the coronation of Alexander I in 1801.
The French troops who occupied Moscow in 1812 used the church for stables and looted anything worth taking. The church was spared by the Fire of Moscow (1812) that razed Kitai-gorod, and by the troops' failure to blow it up according to Napoleon's order. The interiors were repaired in 1813, and the exterior in 1816. Instead of replacing missing ceramic tiles of the main tent, the Church preferred to simply cover it with a tin roof.
The fate of the immediate environment of the church has been a subject of dispute between city planners since 1813. Scotsman William Hastie proposed clearing the space around all sides of the church and all the way down to the Moskva River: the official commission led by Fyodor Rostopchin and Mikhail Tsitsianov agreed to clear only the space between the church and Lobnoye Mesto. Hastie's plan could have radically transformed the city, but he lost to the opposition, whose plans were finally endorsed by Alexander I in December 1817 (specific decision on clearing the rubble around the church was issued in 1816).
Nevertheless, actual redevelopment by Joseph Bove resulted in clearing the rubble and creating Vasilyevskaya (St. Basil's) Square between the church and Kremlin wall by shaving off the crest of the Kremlin Hill between the church and the Moskva River. Red Square was opened to the river, "St. Basil thus crowned the decapitated hillock." Bove built the stone terrace wall separating the church from the pavement of Moskvoretskaya Street; the southern side of the terrace was completed in 1834. Minor repairs continued until 1848, when the domes acquired their present-day colours.
Preservationist societies monitored the state of the church and called for a proper restoration throughout the 1880s and 1890s, but it was regularly delayed for lack of funds. The church did not have a congregation of its own and could only rely on donations raised through public campaigning; national authorities in Saint Petersburg and local in Moscow denied financing from state and municipal budgets. In 1899 Nicholas II reluctantly admitted that this expense was necessary, but again all involved state and municipal offices, including the Holy Synod, denied financing. Restoration, headed by Andrey Pavlinov (died in 1898) and Sergey Solovyov, dragged on from 1896 to 1909; in total, preservationists managed to raise around 100,000 roubles.
Restoration began with replacing the roofing of the domes. Solovyov removed tin roofing of the main tent installed in the 1810s and found many original tiles missing and others discoloured; after a protracted debate the whole set of tiles on the tented roof was replaced with new ones. Another dubious decision allowed use of standard bricks that were smaller than the original 16th-century ones. Restorators agreed that the paintwork of the 19th century must be replaced with a "truthful recreation" of historic patterns, but these had to be reconstructed and deduced based on medieval miniatures. In the end Solovyov and his advisers set upon a combination of deep red with deep green that is retained to date.
In 1908 the church received its first warm air heating system, which did not work well because of heat losses in long air ducts, and heated only the eastern and northern sanctuaries. In 1913 it was complemented with a pumped water heating system serving the rest of the church.
During World War I, the church was headed by protoiereus Ioann Vostorgov, a nationalist preacher and one of the leaders of the Union of the Russian People. Vostorgov was arrested by Bolsheviks in 1918 on a pretext of "embezzling" nationalized church properties and was executed in 1919. The church briefly enjoyed Vladimir Lenin's "personal interest"; in 1923 it became a public museum, though religious services continued until 1929.
Bolshevik planners entertained ideas of demolishing the church after Lenin's funeral (January 1924). In the first half of the 1930s, the church became an obstacle for Joseph Stalin's urbanist plans, executed through Moscow party boss Lazar Kaganovich, "the moving spirit behind the reconstruction of the capital". The conflict between preservationists, notably Pyotr Baranovsky, and the administration continued at least until 1936 and spawned urban legends of the "Lazar, put it back" ilk. Stalin's master planner, architect Vladimir Semyonov, reputedly dared to "grab Stalin's elbow when the leader picked up a model of the church to see how Red Square would look without it" and was replaced by pure functionary Sergey Chernyshov. In the autumn of 1933, the church was struck from the heritage register. Baranovsky was summoned to perform a last-minute survey of the church slated for demolition, and was then arrested for his objections. While he served his term in the Gulag, attitudes changed and by 1937 even hard-line Bolshevik planners admitted that the church must be spared. In the spring of 1939, the church was locked, probably because demolition was again on the agenda; however, the 1941 publication of Dmitry Sukhov's detailed book on the survey of the church in 1939–40 speaks against this assumption.
In the first years after World War II renovators restored the historical ground-floor arcades and pillars that supported the first-floor platform, cleared up vaulted and caissoned ceilings in the galleries, and removed "unhistoric" 19th-century oil paint murals inside the churches. Another round of repairs, led by Nikolay Sobolev in 1954–55, restored original paint imitating brickwork, and allowed restorators to actually dig inside old masonry, revealing the wooden frame inside it. In the 1960s, the tin roofing of the domes was replaced with copper.
The last round of renovation was completed in September 2008 with the opening of the restored sanctuary of St. Alexander Svirsky. The building is still partly in use today as a museum but since 1991 is occasionally used for periodic services by the Russian Orthodox Church.
The building, originally known as "Trinity Church", was consecrated on 12 July 1561, and was subsequently elevated to the status of a sobor (similar to Roman Catholic ecclesiastical basilica, but usually and incorrectly translated as "cathedral"). "Trinity", according to tradition, refers to the easternmost sanctuary of Holy Trinity, while the central sanctuary of the church is dedicated to Intercession of Mary. Together with the westernmost sanctuary of Entry into Jerusalem, these sanctuaries form the main west–east axis (Christ, Mary, Holy Trinity), while other sanctuaries are dedicated to individual saints.
The name "Intercession Church" came into use later, coexisting with Trinity Church. From the end of the 16th century to the end of the 17th century the cathedral was also popularly called Jerusalem (noun), in reference to its church of Entry into Jerusalem as well as to its sacral role in religious rituals. Finally, the name of Vasily (Basil) the Blessed, who died during construction and was buried on-site, was attached to the church in the beginning of the 17th century.
Current Russian tradition accepts two coexisting names of the church: the "Church of Intercession on the Moat" (full name: "Church of Intercession of Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat"), which is official, and the "Temple of Basil the Blessed". When these names are listed together, (as in ), the latter name, being informal, is always mentioned second. The common Western translations "Cathedral of Basil the Blessed" and "Saint Basil's Cathedral" incorrectly bestow the status of cathedral on the church of Basil, but are nevertheless widely used even in academic literature.
On the day of consecration the church itself became part of Orthodox thaumaturgy. According to the legend, its "missing" ninth church (precisely, sanctuary) was "miraculously found" during a ceremony attended by Tsar Ivan IV, Metropolitan Makarius and divine interference of Saint Tikhon. Piskaryov's Chronist wrote in the second quarter of the 17th century:
And the czar came to dedication of said church with tsaritsa Nastasia and with father Metropolitan Makarius and brought the icon of miraclemaker Nicholas that came from Vyatka. And they began to offer a prayer service and to make sanctified water. And the tsar touched the base with his own hands. And the builders saw that another sanctuary appeared, and told the tsar. And the tsar, and metropolitan, and all the clergy were surprised by the finding of another sanctuary. And the tsar ordered to dedicate it to Nicholas ...
Construction of wraparound ground-floor arcades in the 1680s visually united the nine churches of the original cathedral into a single building. Earlier, the clergy and the public perceived it as nine distinct churches on a common base, a generalized allegory of the Orthodox Heavenly City similar to fantastic cities of medieval miniatures. At a distance, separate churches towering over their base resembled towers and churches of a distant citadel rising above the defensive wall. The abstract allegory was reinforced by real-life religious rituals where the church played the role of biblical Temple in Jerusalem:
The capital city, Moscow, is split into three parts; the first of them, called Kitai-gorod, is encircled with a solid thick wall. It contains an extraordinary beautiful church, all clad in shiny bright gems, called Jerusalem. It is the destination of an annual Palm Sunday walk, when the Grand Prince must lead a donkey carrying the Patriarch, from the Church of Virgin Mary to the church of Jerusalem which stands next to the citadel walls. Here is where the most illustrious princely, noble and merchant families live. Here is, also, the main muscovite marketplace: the trading square is built as a brick rectangle, with twenty lanes on each side where the merchants have their shops and cellars ...
Templum S. Trinitatis, etiam Hierusalem dicitur; ad quo Palmarum fest Patriarcha asino insidens a Caesare introducitur.
Temple of Holy Trinity, also called Jerusalem, to where the tsar leads the Patriarch, sitting on a donkey, on the Palm Holiday.
The last donkey walk (Russian: хождение на осляти) took place in 1693. Mikhail Kudryavtsev noted that all cross processions of the period began, as described by Petreius, from the Dormition Church, passed through St. Frol's (Saviour's) Gate and ended at Trinity Cathedral. For these processions the Kremlin itself became an open-air temple, properly oriented from its "narthex" (Cathedral Square) in the west, through the "royal doors" (Saviour's Gate), to the "sanctuary" (Trinity Cathedral) in the east.
Tradition calls the Kremlin the center of Moscow, but the geometric center of the Garden Ring, first established as the Skorodom defensive wall in the 1590s, lies outside the Kremlin wall, coincident with the cathedral. Pyotr Goldenberg (1902–71), who popularized this notion in 1947, still regarded the Kremlin as the starting seed of Moscow's radial-concentric system, despite Alexander Chayanov's earlier suggestion that the system was not strictly concentric at all.
In the 1960s Gennady Mokeev (born 1932) formulated a different concept of the historical growth of Moscow. According to Mokeev, medieval Moscow, constrained by the natural boundaries of the Moskva and Neglinnaya Rivers, grew primarily in a north-easterly direction into the posad of Kitai-gorod and beyond. The main road connecting the Kremlin to Kitai-gorod passed through St. Frol's (Saviour's) Gate and immediately afterward it fanned out into at least two radial streets (present-day Ilyinka and Varvarka), forming the central market square. In the 14th century the city was largely contained within two balancing halves, Kremlin and Kitai-gorod, separated by a marketplace, but by the end of the century it extended further along the north-eastern axis. Two secondary hubs in the west and south spawned their own street networks, but their development lagged behind until the Time of Troubles.
Tsar Ivan's decision to build the church next to St. Frol's Gate established the dominance of the eastern hub with a major vertical accent, and inserted a pivot point between the nearly equal Kremlin and Kitai-gorod, into the once amorphous marketplace. The cathedral was the main church of the posad, and at the same time it was perceived as a part of Kremlin thrust into posad, a personal messenger of the Tsar reaching the masses without mediation by the boyars and clergy. It was complemented by the nearby Lobnoye mesto, a rostrum for the Tsar's public announcements first mentioned in chronicles in 1547 and rebuilt in stone in 1597–98. Conrad Bussow, describing the triumph of False Dmitriy I, wrote that on 3 June 1606 "a few thousand men hastily assembled and followed the boyarin with [the impostor's] letter through the whole Moscow to the main church they call Jerusalem that stands right next to Kremlin gates, raised him on Lobnoye Mesto, called out for the muscovites, read the letter and listened to the boyarin's oral explanation."
A scale model of Saint Basil's Cathedral has been built in Jalainur of Inner Mongolia, near China's border with Russia. The building houses a science museum.