It’s the most recognizable icon in Russia, reproduced on millions of postcards, books, and websites. St. Basil’s in Moscow is a colorful cathedral that’s celebrating its 450th anniversary this year. As part of the celebration, the cathedral is opening an exhibition tomorrow dedicated to the mad holy man for whom the cathedral is named.
St. Basil lived during the time of Ivan the Terrible (reigned 1533-1584) and soon became a local celebrity by going naked even in winter and speaking out against the czar. For most people this would have led to a visit to one of Ivan’s overworked executioners, but mad saints have always been respected in Russian culture and Ivan was scared of Basil.
Basil was born a serf in 1468 or 1469 and developed a habit of going naked weighed down by chains. He was a bit of a Robin Hood figure, stealing from shops and giving his loot to the poor. He criticized Ivan the Terrible for killing thousands of innocent people and not giving enough money to the church. When he died, Ivan acted as pallbearer at his funeral.
Later, Ivan the Terrible built the cathedral in 1561 to celebrate defeating the Mongols. He decided to build it atop the grave of the Basil, in order to honor the man in death who had mocked him in life.
The cathedral has just finished a $14 million restoration in anticipation of the anniversary.
[Photo © by James G. Howes, 2009.]