They say that the oldest fresco to be found in Ukraine is that of a young man done back in the 4th century BC. There is another that was found three centuries later in the tomb of Demeter. It shows Hades kidnapping Persephone, Demeter’s daughter. The last in this series that dates back to those centuries BC is shown on a stone sarcophagus which depicted a painter’s studio. All found in areas surrounding the Black Sea, they all remain incredibly well preserved and are all thanks to former Greek colonists.
Pictures of Yore
People used to adorn their homes, public buildings and especially tombs with these murals or wall paintings, and it became the principle method of decorating church interiors specifically during the Kyivan Rus period. Certainly in Kyiv, this happens to be one of the foremost epochs for fresco work, and if you take a look at any of the cathedrals built during that time, examples of this work is easily accessible.
Take St Sofia for example. Built in the 11th century, it has survived lootings, raids, even wars, and yet it was often thought of as the centre of social life. Here, the anointing and crowning of the prince occurred, the people’s assembly was held in the courtyard and trade agreements or peace treaties were often discussed with other principalities. The colour palette of the ancient frescoes was based on the combination of dark-red, yellow, olive and white tones depicted against a blue background. Frescoes here adorn walls, pillars and arches, and in contrast to other structures at the time, the cathedral displays biblical representations as well as secular images, such as Prince Yaroslav and his family.
Possessing some 260 square metres of mosaics and 3,000 square metres of original frescos, reports reveal that this represents only one third of that which could at one time be found amongst the inner walls. Reconstruction carried out in the 17th and 18th centuries dramatically changed its original outer appearance, and while there have been some changes to the inside, much of it remained unaffected. The missing portions were filled in in the 17th century with paintings, and at the turn of the 18th century many walls were plastered and white washed and new paintings were done over the plaster.
As soon as the cathedral was proclaimed a museum, however, vast restoration projects were undertaken to ensure that those works originally created were cleared of the plaster and re-painting to reveal ancient frescos atop a two-layer plaster base 1.5–2 cm thick strengthened with chopped straw. Those parts where the ancient plaster had fully deteriorated left the 17th, 18th and 19th works in tact. Many of these newer frescos were helped along by famous Russian painter Mikhail Vrubel whose works cane be found at the top of the central cupola.
St Cyril is an ancient structure of the 12th century and has also undergone periods of deterioration, leading to reconstructive procedures. In the 1860s, original fresco paintings were discovered on the walls under plaster that had been put in place one hundred years before, and extensive work was carried out from 1881 – 1884 to see if they could be recovered. The same painter who worked on St Sophia, Mikhail Vrubel, was asked to help with the restoration of these frescos as well, many of which were soon repainted in oil. Eight hundred square metres of the ancient 12th century frescos still exist, and it is amazing to see how well the foundation of this structure has survived battles, wars and time in general. Proclaimed a museum in 1929, most of the old frescos you can find in this building are in dedication to deeds of St Cyril, such as the creation of the Cyrillic alphabet.
Commissioned by Prince Svyatoslav II, St Michael was also built in the 12th century, but suffered a much graver fate than either of the two aforementioned places of worship. Enlarged in the 17th and 18th centuries to the same grandeur of today, it was demolished by the Soviets in 1935. It would take more than 60 years, but in 1997 and 1998 it was completely rebuilt. Before its demolition, however, steps were taken to remove the 12th century Byzantine mosaics and the 45 square meters which were then moved to the Hermitage in St Petersburg, the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and the State Russian Museum. Some were also stored in St Sophia but they were not shown to tourists.
As the building was being reconstructed, the cathedral was concentrated on last of all but was later decorated with copies of the former mosaics and frescos. Decorated in bright colours of red and ocher, these new frescos were not finished until 2000. The following four years were quite significant for the St Michael’s, however, and saw many items, including mosaics, returned to the cathedral from Moscow. This happened only after intense discussion, and most remaining frescos, which had been placed in a special preserve, were said to be returned at the end of 2006.
Importance in the Past
The monastery walls leading to the Gate Church of the Trinity (Lavra), which was built in the 12th century but stood against the same devastating natural and manmade disasters, still stands covered in frescos. Most are of biblical scenes and Ukrainian folklore and were completely renewed in 1900. However, there are some 18th century compositions that have been preserved to this day, and among them, there are four that merit special attention: Saints Marching into Paradise at the entrance; the Nicene Council on the western wall; Expulsion of the Merchants from the Temple above the entrance; and Baptism of an Ethiopian by Apostle Philip to the north. Besides this unique collection of frescos inside the building, there have also been a number of works fashioned on furniture.
Unfortunately, the frequency of fresco painting started to wane after the 12th century because of the appearance of wooden churches and techniques that were not as flamboyant in style when it came to more secular buildings. One of the few exceptions, however, is St Volodymyr. As a comparatively newer cathedral to Kyiv, it was built in the 19th century and is no less beautiful because of its age. In dedication to the Prince of the same name for baptising the empire and making Christianity an official state religion, this building is famous for its frescos and mosaics. Accomplished artists such as Viktor Vasnetsov, Wilhelm Kotarbinski, Paul Svedomsky, Mikhail Nesterov and others participated in its decoration, where the salvation of Russian Orthodox Christianity was at the heart of almost all of the depictions. Among those most precious, is the Baptism of Kyivans (which is pictured on the cover).
Among those more modern buildings in Kyiv that have little to do with biblical representation but still display an aptitude for this valuable art, the Children’s Puppet Theatre ranks near the top. It marked its 80th anniversary in the fall of 2007, and wanting to build a brand new theatre, the Ukrrestavratsiya Corporation was brought in to help. The site chosen was one one which an old cinema stood. But not only that, it also contained a pretty impressive, 24-square metre mosaic created in 1936. Wanting to remove the mosaic and reinstall it in the new theatre took some work, but it now graces the facade of the new Puppet Theatre.
A lot of thought went into the decoration of this new building, and while there is a bit of eclecticism about it, personages from fairytales and Ukrainian legends and myths – such as Kiy, Shchek and Khoriv – appear in the current frescoes. In fact, it has been said that many of the modern murals took their inspiration from ancient frescos of the 11th and 12th century cathedrals here in the city, and you can’t help but wonder at who enjoys all of the architecture, mosaics and murals more – the children or their parents.