What You May Not Know about the Magnificent Onion Domes in Russia


Russia, to me or to everyone, is cold, closed, and, mysterious. It seemed like the country unwelcomed any outsiders and was much more approachable until recent years. After my Russia trip, I don’t think the Russian is unwelcoming at all – I would say… they are just straightforward and efficient. The people don’t smile, they are cool, but they are not cold-blooded. I met some of them who are helpful (but not exactly… friendly). Besides, many of them look Asian with dark hair and dark eyes. Then I realize, of course, that Russia is a Euro-Asian country and though most of its population spreads within the European side, most of its land lies on the Asia side. We joined the Moscow Free Tour and it gave us a great overview of Red Square and the nearby landmarks. Then we had to actually enter and explore the sites on our own. Find out what you could see and do in Moscow, how to design a Moscow subway tour, and also Moscow travel tips to make your trip planning in Moscow much easier.

What we know about the Onion Domes

Art historians had different views about when onion domes were used in Russian churches, and some estimated that onion domes began in architecture from as early as the 13th century. One important feature of an onion dome is that the dome is usually thicker in the middle than the tholobate (the base of the dome that sits on the building) – giving it an onion shape, not just a hemisphere. Besides, the domes existed in many different shapes, colors, and numbers that allegedly represent the Holy Trinity, Jesus Christ, and the Four Evangelists in different combinations. The design was also popularly believed to symbolize burning candles.

It is a typical feature of churches and mosques, which can be seen basically all over Russia. Of course, there are some examples of onoin domes outside Russia like They are the signature of Russian architecture, and they could be seen basically anywhere in the country. You may also see them in former Soviet States (like Estonia), places with an Orthodox Catholic cathedral (like Helsinki), or other places that has a Soviet influence throughour history (like Northeastern China). This architectural style is, in general, not exclusive to Russia but somehow the Russian made it much more adorable. Theories about how the Russian started the onion fest were diverse.


Some suggested this feature was brought to Russia from Muslim countries. Have you seen the Blue Mosque in Istanbul? The domes of Byzantine architecture, however, were broader and flatter (called helmet domes that looked like the shape of Hershey Kiss, one good example is the St Mark’s Basilica in Venice); the domes of Russian churches had a wider drum and a higher tip, which looked much more like an onion (so-called onion domes).

The view of the Blue Mosque from Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.

Novodevichy Convent

The first place that we visited in Moscow, was a convent that served as an appetizer for our onion domes adventure. Novodevichy Convent is not located in the historic city center but it is not that far away. It is a 10-minute walk from the Sportivnaya subway station. On our way there, the highrise in the Presnensky District, the Moscow business district, could be seen.

The convent is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it may not be as famous as the others like the Kremlin and Saint Basil’s Cathedral, but it has great historical value with its cloisters remaining virtually intact since the 17th century, making it a special place start our trip in Moscow. The convent was founded as early as the year 1524, by Vasili III, the Grand Prince of Moscow, in commemoration of his conquest of Smolensk in 1514. One important disaster that happened to the convent was actually quite recent. The bell tower caught fire in March 2015 and now it’s undergoing major repair work. If you visit there now, the tower is covered in scaffolding.

The complex shares some similarities with the Kremlin and it’s a complex with a mix of functional buildings built one next to another. Highlights include the Cathedral of Our Lady of Smolensk, Octagonal bell tower, and almshouses. Other houses and buildings are now exhibition rooms, showcasing valuable artworks, paintings, sculptures, and photographs.

One note to visitors, don’t forget to drop by the church store. I found some very beautiful worship items (shiny printed catholic pictures in wood frames) there at a good price.


St. Basil’s Cathedral

I have written a few times about this iconic, opulent architecture in the country and so I put it on the second and just to share some of my favorite photos that I took inside the museum.

The St Basil’s Cathedral is the most recognizable landmark in the city and there are so many interesting facts and stories behind this building.

While it’s no longer a functioning cathedral, I listed it on my Top 16 Most Spectacular Cathedrals in the World. Find out what are the other 15 impressive landmarks which are also my favorites!

The structure consists of eight flamboyant onion domes and each of them was originally a stand-alone chapel. They are arranged with the main cathedral in the center. Therefore, don’t be surprised when you enter the cathedral and found that it doesn’t have a grand and huge hall that is typically seen in other cathedrals.

Instead, I appreciate the intricate frescoes of these churches – the patterns, the colors, and the organic images. I took so many photos of the soft and colorful patterns and I made it my iPhone’s wallpaper until I replaced it with Joan Carmella’s work :P.

Did Ivan the Terrible blinded the architect?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne of the most popular myth that probably many would have heard is that Iven the Terrible blined the architect who designed the Cathedral to make sure he won’t be able to design the same beauty elsewhere. However, historians remained skeptic that it was true, as the architect’s work like the Annuncation Catehdral and the walls of Kremlin were in the books after the construction of the Cathedrals, proving that he would have been spared from the cruelty.

It was named something else.

The cathedral was originally called the Cathedral of Intercession of the Virgin to commemorate the capture of Kazan, which occurred the same day as the Feast of the Intercession of the Virgin in 1552. Besides, it was the first architecture that was built on the moat of the Kremlin that gave the Red Square its look and silhouette as the pyramidal roofs have not yet been on the towers of the Kremlin.

It was not as colorful as we see today

What makes the cathedral one-of-a-kind is its colors. It is not a typical style while most Russian-style cathedrals are painted in white with gold domes (like those in Kremlin). So does the cathedral in its early times. While there are other colors introduced in other cathedrals in Russia, they are usually in one color, not in that many colors applied on the domes. The colors were painted in the early 18th century, and the colors were added in different stages through the years to the present-day look. Why? It was likely that the colors were adopted from biblical descriptions of the Kingdom of Heaven from the Book of Revelation.

It was not that much of a church

It has a name of a cathedral, and a symbol of Russia – it may surprise you that the building was not that much of a church. Most of the time the building was quite secular. Under the Soviet regime, the building was confiscated from the Russian Orthodox church, and by 1929, it was totally secularized and remains a State Historical Museum, meaning that it was not a functioning church with services to prayers.

Weekly Christian services were restored in 1997 after the Soviet Union dissolved, but still, it is not the main cathedral of the city, nor the headquarter of the Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow.

It was almost destroyed… twice

For such beautiful architecture, it was hard to imagine that Napoleon Bonaparte, the French Monarch, attempted to destroy it during the war in 1812. Luckily, they had to retreat from Moscow before they successfully conquer Moscow. Leaving the cathedrals preserved intact. Years later, Stalin the second leader in the world attempted to burn down the cathedral to symbolize the end of Tsardom and his new regime during the Soviet times. The cathedral survived when architect Pyotr Baranovsky wrote a telegram to Stalin and pleaded with him not to destroy this architectural treasure. The cathedrals were spared in the end, but the architect was sentenced 5-year imprisonment at the gulag.


Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

As much as the St. Basil’s Cathedral was impressive, my friends shared with me that he was actually expecting something… bigger. As a first-time traveler in Europe, he was hoping to see a cathedral with grandiose. So I brought him to here, a rather new, but giant church built on the North bank of the Moskva River, while the Kremlin and Saint’s Basil’s Cathedral are in sight from the Patriarchy Bridge. The current church was a second built, completed in 2000, while the original was destroyed in 1931. Given that it’s a new cathedral, it was an important site for the Russian Orthodox Church. Although the cathedral is a reconstruction, the exterior of the church was decorated with life-like statues and the interior of the church has some beautiful paintings and décor that are worth a visit.

Walking the Patriarchy Bridge

Moscow Kremlin

Trinity Tower

As stated previously about the Moscow Free Tour – the Moscow Kremlin (or, the Kremlin) is one of the three “must-sees” in Moscow and I agree. “Kremlin”, as a general term, means “fortress inside a city” – a major fortified central complex. But since the Moscow Kremlin is so famous, it is always referred to as “the Kremlin”. The complex is enclosed by Kremlin walls with 18 towers, and there are five palaces, four cathedrals, and a Grand Palace within.

It is the Russian White House which is opened as a museum, but also where the President of the Russian Federation lives. It is the largest functioning fortress in Europe, and it was named the UNESCO world heritage site, together with the Red Square, in 1990.

The site was inhabited since the 2nd century BC and continuously expanded as it remained the core of the country. When you are there, don’t miss Cathedral Square, Armoury Chambers, and Alexandrovsky Garden.

From the outside of the complex, the Savior’s Tower and the Saint Nicholas Tower are the most eye-catching towers; and the ticket office is at the Trinity Tower.

Alexandrovsky Garden

It is the residence of the president

There is a helipad built in 2013 and the President of Russia commutes to and from the Kremlin by helicopter. Later, it is the residence of the current president, Vladimir Putin.

It used to be white

Same as St. Basil’s Cathedral, it was not in its original color as we see it today. The two architectures were actually in matching white – while the cathedral was painted in different colors in the 18th century, the walls were turned red in the 19th century. If you check out the works of 18th and 19th-century painters, like Pyotr Vereshchagin or Alexei Savrasov, you will see that faithfully captured the white look of Kremlin during that time.

It kept intact during the World War II 

The Kremlin was surprisingly well-preserved after World War II as it successfully disguised itself as civilian housing by being painted and decorated with fake windows and doors on the wall, and the stars were turned off from shining.

The Kremlin Wall

The five stars weigh a ton… literally, and some used to be eagles

The Kremlin covers an area of 90 acres of land. To put this in perspective, the five giant stars on top of the Kremlin weigh one ton each, and they were made of ruby to enhance their shine. Originally, the other four Kremlin towers were topped with two-headed eagles. in 1935, the Soviet government melted them down and replaced them with stars. The last star was added to the Vodovzvodnaya Tower.

The Kremlin stars always shine, except for two times

The stars are supposed to be shining all the time, 24/7, for the last 80 years of existence. It was only turned off twice. The first time during World War II, and the second time was because of a movie shooting. Oscar-winning director Nikita Mikhalkov was shooting a scene for the Barber of Siberia, which is set in pre-revolution Russia.

All Kremlin tower has a name, even if they don’t

The twenty towers in Kremlin have a name, just not a proper name as you may imagine. Those without, are called “the first unnamed”, “the second unnamed”… and so on. The tallest tower of the bunch is the Troitskaya tower, the Kremlin tower, standing 80 meters tall.

The Alexandrovsky Garden is free to visit, and there are a few monuments to see such as Monument to Alexander I; The Armoury Chambers is considered the best history museum in history and it has 4 exhibitions times a day. The ancient museum depository was constructed in 1844-1851.

Krelmin TicketBefore I entered Cathedral Square – I had no idea I would be overwhelmed by so many onion domes. As I turned I was surrounded by golden domes and they are all in one place. Chronically, the Assumption Cathedral was erected in 1475-1479 as a major church of the state in which all Russian Tsars were crowned; The Annunciation Cathedral was built in 1484-1489 by Pskov craftsmen. It was the home church of Moscow Great Princes and later Russian Tsars; The Church of Laying Our Lady’s Holy Robe was erected in 1484-1485, also constructed by Pskov craftsmen. It was the home church of Russian Metropolitans and later Patriarchs. The Archangel’s Cathedral was constructed in 1505-1508, and was used as a burial vault for Moscow Great Princes, Appanage Princes, and Russian Tsars; The Patriarch’s Palace and the Twelve Apostles’ Church was built 1653-1655 for Patriarch Nikon. The ground floor of the Single-column chamber is now an exhibition hall of the museum.

The tallest building in the square is The Ivan The Great Bell-Tower Ensemble. It was built in the 15th century. Nowadays, the ground floor of the Assumption Belfry houses is an exhibition hall of the museum.

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