Published date: 24 Aug 2012
After filming a world history in rooms ranging from rare traditional Japanese homes to Inca prisons, Buddhist temples to mud mosques in Mali, one place has burned itself into my imagination: the eerie, overwhelming Dormition Cathedral in Moscow's Kremlin. Gold-domed, it dates from 1479. Ivan the Terrible was crowned there. It has suffered many indignities since. It was looted by marauding Poles and used as a stable by Napoleon's ragged army. It survived fires and was shut down by Lenin – though legend says Stalin ordered a secret Orthodox service there as the Nazis drew close in 1941.
There are four huge pillars dominating the nave and they, like every available inch of wall or ceiling, are covered with painting. There
are so many icons, and so many frescoed faces staring down,
it's like finding yourself stark naked in heaven. The first impression is of a rich, dark red, with gleams of gold, but then you notice all the colors of the rainbow, from the arsenical green of saintly dresses to cobalt skies and flaming orange swords. Some of the icons are ancient: one was painted in Novgorod in the 1100s.
Lazily, I used to think of icon painting as all vulture-eyed saints and stoned Virgins, but these ones include gorgeous views of monasteries in medieval Russia, angels like flocks of parrots, warrior saints flashing swords and some sensational crowd scenes. For the very best icons by Andrei Rublev you have to go elsewhere in the Kremlin or to other Moscow galleries or, apparently, to Vladimir (which is now on my list of must-go-to-one-day).
There are comparable places – the museum church of Chora in Istanbul and the San Clemente Basilica in Rome, for instance – but I don't know of anywhere that has the same thrilling intensity of feeling. It's very curious, because it does feel weighed down by the gloom and pessimism of Russia's history yet it's ecstatic and, in places, joyous too, a whole novel in stone, wood and fresco paint.
The cathedral has been back in the hands of the Russian church for over 20 years, and is open to visitors. Moscow can be so unwelcoming and often so ugly these days, with its mash-up of Stalinist joylessness and robber-capitalist bling, that it's good to be able to recommend a room so rare and so ravishing.
Dormition Cathedral, The Kremlin, Moscow; www.kreml.ru/en
Andrew Marr's latest book, A New History of the World (Macmillan), which accompanies a major BBC television series, is published in October.