Several magnificently preserved historic cathedrals and churches stand within the Kremlin walls. Constructed at different times, by master craftsmen of the age, under varying historical circumstances, these magnificent churches have background stories which are at least as interesting as the monuments themselves.
On the crest of Borovitsky Hill, at the south end of Sobornaya Ploshad (Cathedral Square), stands the Cathedral of the Annunciation.
The first church was built on this spot as early as 1397 by order of Grand Duke Vassily I. The present building dates from 1484, when Ivan III (the Great), the great Muscovite empire-builder, ordered a new cathedral on the site. It was completed in 1489 by Krivtsov and Mishkin, masons from Pskov, who blended Greek and Russian styles in their design.
Generations of princes and tsars added to and altered the Cathedral. Ivan IV (the Terrible) had the cathedral rebuilt in the 16th century and added four small side chapels, each with a single dome, while two more domes were added at the rear of the building and all nine domes were gilded. The Tsar was put under church penance when he married for the fourth time (three was the maximum the church would tolerate), and not allowed inside. This led to the construction of a new porch for him to stand under during services.
The cathedral is famous for its magnificent iconostasis, shielding the sacred part of the church from view. Icons by various artists from the 14th to 19th centuries make up the screen. Icons on the diesis (prayer) tier are ascribed to the legendary Russian Painter Andrei Rublev, the greatest of the Russian icon-painters (whose work can also be seen in the State Tretyakov Gallery) and Theosofanus the Greek, possibly Rublev's mentor, with whom he frequently collaborated.
The Cathedral of the Annunciation was originally built as the domestic church of the Grand Dukes and tsars and was connected (along with the Cathedral of the Archangel) by passages to the private quarters of the royal family. The cathedral was used to celebrate name-days, weddings, baptisms and so forth. The Cathedral of the Annunciation was badly damaged during the Revolution, when the Kremlin came under attack from artillery fire. In 1918, the cathedral was closed as a place of worship and now it operates officially as a museum.
The Archangel Michael, a suitably war-like heavenly figure, was chosen as the patron saint of the rulers of Muscovy in the 14th Century. The Cathedral that bears his name was erected between 1505 and 1508 - the culmination of a grandiose building project begun by Ivan the Great to reflect the growing power of the state, and provide a fitting resting place for Russian Royalty.
The cathedral was built under the guidance of Italian architect, Alevisio Novi, (Alionzo Lamberti da Montanyano). Novi created a highly original structure by superimposing elements of architectural styles of the Italian Renaissance onto the traditional Russian form of five domes and six pillars. The facade is decorated with cornices, pilasters with capitals, a false arcade and many other decorative details unusual in Russian architecture, while inside, the enormous pillars dividing the interior into three naves emphasises the Russian origin of the building's structure.
Over the years the Archangel Cathedral has undergone several changes that have altered its initial appearance. Most significantly, two chapels were added to the sides of the cathedral in the late 1500s, and the central dome of the cathedral, which had previously been round, was replaced in the 18th century with a traditional onion-shaped dome.
The Cathedral of the Archangel contains the tombs (46 altogether) of all the rulers of Muscovy and Russia from the 14th Century until Peter the Great moved the capital to St Petersburg. The one exception is Boris Gudonov, whose tomb is in the Trinity Monastery of St. Sergei. The Ryurik Dukes are buried along the walls of the Cathedral. The southern wall is where the Grand Dukes and their close relatives were buried. The northern wall is where dukes who had been sentenced to death for misconduct were buried. The vaults of the Romanovs are located in the central part of the Cathedral. There the founders of the Romanov line are at rest: Tsar Michael Fyodorovich, Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich, Tsar Fyodor Alexeyevich and Tsar Ivan Alexeyevich. In 1903, the tombs were covered with glass and copper cases for protection.
One of greatest treasures of the cathedral is the burial vault of Ivan the Terrible. Ivan was the first to take the title of Tsar and therefore merited a special burial chamber, the construction of which he oversaw himself. Nearby are the tombs of Ivan's sons, Ivan Ivanovich (killed by his father) and Fyodor Ivanovich (who succeeded his father.) Restoration work done in the 1950s uncovered 16th Century frescoes including the famous deathbed scene 'Farewell to the Family', depicting the death of a duke surrounded by his family and spirits from the afterlife.
The Cathedral of the Archangel was closed after the October revolution. Since 1955 it has been open to the public as a museum.
The Cathedral of the Assumption is the oldest church in the Kremlin and also the most important: the seat of the Russian Orthodox Church was transferred here from Vladimir in 1326, making it the centre of the state of Muscovy, and Muscovy the most powerful of the Russian principalities. Here Russian emperors were crowned, and before them tsars and Grand Dukes. Patriarchs (the highest rank of clergy), metropolitans (the church leaders of large metropolitan districts), and bishops were also consecrated here. In an age when state power and religion were barely separable, it was also a centre of state ritual - a place where governmental decrees were read and official state services were held. Inside the cathedral, the Patriarch's Seat and the Throne of Monomakh - carved in 1551 for Ivan the Terrible - mark the physical presences of the two sides of this historic alliance.
The original cathedral was built during the reign of Ivan Kalita, whose strategic marriage to the daughter of the Tartar Khan brought Moscow to prominence. Chapels grew up around the small church and, in 1472, Ivan III, who was in the process of reconstructing the Kremlin to reflect the power of his new Russian state, the 'Third Rome', had a new building erected. Pskov craftsmen Krivtsov and Mishkin, who went on to build the Cathedral of the Annunciation, began the project, but in 1474 disaster struck: the unfinished building unexpectedly collapsed due to a freak earthquake. The ruins lay in the Kremlin for almost a year, before Bolognese architect, Aristotle Fioravanti was charged with completing the building. He studied the architectural traditions of Novgorod, Suzdal and Vladimir, and set to work. The speed of construction of the cathedral startled observers, and the feat was chronicled in meticulous detail. The church was consecrated in 1479 by Metropolitan Geronty and became one of the most influential architectural works in Russian church history.
The building is simple and austere - a vaulted limestone block topped by five golden cupolas. The gabled frescoes on the east and west faces were added in the 1660s, and otherwise the exterior has remained almost unchanged to this day.
Inside, the iconostasis of the cathedral dates mainly from 1652, but with several older icons within it, including two attributed to the master Dionysius, the most famous and talented painter of his day. A Russian Orthodox iconostasis consists of tiers of icons showing different saints and feast days relevant to the church in which the iconostasis resides. The first, lowest rank features local icons, including the icon to which the cathedral is dedicated. In the Assumption Cathedral the local tier was a symbol of the unity of the new Russian state and comprised icons brought from all the principalities that had been united under Moscow. Behind the iconostasis is a stone altar screen with unrestored frescoes representing early holy men. Some of these frescoes are also attributed to Dionysus.
Most of the frescoes in the Cathedral of the Assumption date back to the 17th century. Under a special edict from Tsar Mikhail Fyodorovich Romanov, issued in 1642, about a hundred and fifty artists were brought to Moscow from various towns to decorate the cathedral. Icon painters Ivan and Boris Paisein, and Sidor Pospeyev, led the team. It is their paintings that we see now, although many are missing.
Throughout the ages, the cathedral has suffered along with the people of Russia. Napoleon's troops stabled their horses here during his Russian campaign, and, in 1918, the Cathedral was damaged as Whites and Bolsheviks exchanged fire. The last liturgy was held on Easter in 1918 by Patriarch Tikhon, after which the Cathedral was closed and its treasures requisitioned by the Bolsheviks. However, according to rumours, when the Nazi troops arrived on the outskirts of Moscow in 1941, Stalin secretly allowed a service to be performed here to save the nation from deadly peril. The cathedral was reopened to the public in 1990.
The Church of the Deposition of the Robe was built in 1484-86 by Pskov craftsmen, on the site of the original Church of the Deposition of the Robe, which perished in the Kremlin fire of 1473. The church commemorates the official recognition of the Moscow Metropolitan as Metropolitan of Kiev and all Russia, acknowledged in 1451 by Casimir IV, King of Poland and Lithuania.
The church's name refers to the robe of the Virgin Mary, a prized relic which was held to have saved Constantinople from attackers on several occasions. When the city was threatened, the robe was paraded around the walls. In Moscow, an icon kept in this church was put to the same use.
During the 16th Century the church was reconstructed many times over, and a side chapel was added. Only after the 1917 Revolution did architects return this building to its original shape. Restoration work began in 1919 and lasted more than 40 years.
Today the church houses a small exhibition of wooden sculptures from the 15th to 17th centuries. These include icons carved from wood, designed to be taken on long journeys.
On the eastern side of Cathedral Square stands the magnificent Ivan the Great Belltower, which, at a height of 81 metres, was the tallest building in all Russia for almost 400 years. It was the work of an Italian, Marco Bono, who was ordered by Ivan the Great to design a bell tower for the Archangel, Assumption and Annunciation Cathedrals next to the 1329 Church of St. John Climacus-under-the Bells.
Between 1532 and 1543, architect Petrok Maliy built the four-storey Assumption Belfry, which stands next to the tower and houses the 64-ton Resurrection Bell, cast in the 19th Century. In 1624, the tent-roofed Filaret Tower was added.
In 1812, Napoleon's soldiers tore down many of the buildings of the Kremlin, and attempted to blow up the bell tower. Thankfully they failed, although the belfry and the Filaret Tower were badly damaged. They were restored in 1819 by the architect D.I. Gilardi.
There are 21 bells in the tower and belfry, of which the Assumption Bell, located in the central arch of the belfry, is the largest at 70 tons. It was always the first bell to ring on church holidays, a signal that started all the other church bells in Moscow. In 1918 the last Easter service in the Kremlin took place, and the bells of Ivan the Great did not ring again until 1992.
Wide scale restoration work was carried out in the 1950s, and an exhibition hall was created on the ground floor, which is still used for various temporary exhibitions.
The Cathedral of the Twelve Apostles forms part of the same building as the Patriarch's Palace. Although building began in 1640, the whole ensemble is primarily associated with Patriarch Nikon (1652 - 1658), whose tenure as head of the Russian Church was marked by the schism that separated the Old Believers from the official church, and by ongoing conflict with Tsar Aleksei.
Since the early 14th Century this plot of land had been the Metropolitan's, and then the Patriarch's estate. The Cathedral forms the grand entrance to the luxurious Palace, and was built on Nikon's own initiative - the atrium of the church led directly to the Patriarch's stone cell. The design of the Cathedral is based on the old churches of Vladimir and Suzdal, with four supporting columns, five cupolas, and a high, two-tiered porch on the northern face. Although the smooth, somewhat austere exterior of the building is unobtrusive, the original interiors of the Palace were reportedly astonishingly lavish, rivalling the Tsar's own Terem Palace in luxury and wealth.
The buildings of the Great Kremlin Palace complex include small domestic churches built from the 14th to the 17th centuries. Originally, there were eleven of them, but only six remained after the numerous reconstructions of the 18th and19th centuries. The oldest of these is The Church of the Nativity.
Although it's known to everyone as St. Basil's, this legendary building is officially called "The Cathedral of the Intercession of the Virgin by the Moat". The popular alternative refers to Basil the Blessed, a Muscovite 'holy fool' who was buried on the site a few years before the present building was erected.
The Cathedral was ordered by Ivan the Terrible to mark the 1552 capture of Kazan from Mongol forces. It was completed in 1560. That's pretty much all the genuine history that's known about this celebrated landmark. There, however, scores of legends. Nothing is known about the builders, Barma and Postnik Yakovlev, except their names and the dubious legend that Ivan had them blinded so that they could not create anything to compare. Historians unanimously state that this is nothing but urban folklore.
Architectural specialists are to this day unable to agree about the governing idea behind the structure. Either the creators were paying homage to the churches of Jerusalem, or, by building eight churches around a central ninth, they were representing the medieval symbol of the eight-pointed star. The original concept of the Cathedral of the Intercession has been hidden from us beneath layers of stylistic additions and new churches added to the main building. In fact, when built, the Cathedral was all white to match the white-stone Kremlin, and the onion domes were gold rather than multi-colored and patterned as they are today.
In the 17th century a hip-roofed bell tower was added, the gallery and staircases were covered with vaulted roofing, and the helmeted domes were replaced with decorated ones. In 1860 during rebuilding, the Cathedral was painted with a more complex and integrated design, and has remained unchanged since.
The Cathedral is now a museum.