St. Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square
June 26/July 9, 2012
St. David of Thessalonica
We finally take a proper excursion into the center of the city to the well-known and much celebrated Red Square. Somehow, a visitor does not truly feel they have arrived in Russia until visiting this center of national gravity. Beyond being a great place for photo opportunities, it establishes for the tourist/pilgrim the identity of the place to which he/she has journeyed.
Russians have an obsession with things really, really BIG, or really, really SMALL, and not much patience for settling matters in the compromised middle. If anything is worth doing, it is worth going all the way, or why bother? The iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square is a great example of this love of extremes. Built by Tsar Ivan the Terrible, it is an explosion of architectural styles and colors. The multiple towering domes shelter a series of surprisingly small, separate chapels on the inside. It is majesty in miniature.
It all reminds me of G.K. Chesterton’s definition of orthodox Christianity in his classic apology Orthodoxy: The Romance of Faith (small “o”, as he himself was a convert to Roman Catholicism). Chesterton, also no lover of gray compromise, was a colorful figure from the late 19th and early 20th century who has been influential in bringing many atheists (including C.S. Lewis) to faith by his penchant for paradox. He says that what Christians aim at in their definition of orthodoxy is not a mean between two extremes, the dirty gray that results from mixing black and white. No, Christian orthodoxy would have both extremes “…at the top of their energy: Love and wrath fully burning.”
When I look at St. Basil’s, I think of this explosion of extremes. There is nothing tamed or compromised about this tribute to faith. So, while we tourists attempt to tame it into a postcard, Kodak moment, its towering domes capture the essence of faith in Jesus Christ, the Lion of Judah, who cannot be tamed into a compliant house cat.