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.