Built in the 11th century, the St Sophia Cathedral has served a number of important purposes throughout the years. First of all, obviously, the cathedral was built and used as a sacred place. Liturgy was held here, and worshipping the Holy Wisdom (Sophia is translated from Greek into wisdom) was a part of that. The church also served as the location for the coronation and burial of Kyiv Rus princes. In fact, one of the most precious relics of the cathedral today is an intact six tonne marble sarcophagus which holds the bones of Prince Yaroslav the Wise.
St Sophia was also called on to demonstrate the power of Kyiv Rus. Some of the most important political and economic agreements were signed here, and the reception of various foreign ministers often took place in the cathedral. Not just concerned with religion and politics, Sophia Kyivska was also a cultural centre. The nation’s oldest library was at one time housed here along with the scriptorium – a building in which books were rewritten and translated from Greek and Latin. And if we speak about nothing more than the visuals, the interior of this edifice is itself unique, housing one of the world’s largest mosaics (260m²) and nearly 3000 square metres of frescoes!
Layer by Layer
The construction of St Sophia was extremely wide-scale. One thousand years ago, there were no computers, cranes or other technical gadgets to help put this 54.6m wide, 41.7m long and more than 28m tall building together, pushing the number of builders that must have been required up into the hundreds. Unfortunately, history has not preserved the names of those responsible for the assembly of this monolith. However, historians agree there must have been a number of Byzantine master builders invited throughout its construction to keep everything in check.
What we do know, is that the walls are made of granite, pink quartz and some sort of substance similar to that of brick. Each layer was laid one at a time, and has created an interesting pale rosy brown colour which can be seen from the outside. Crowned with 13 spherical domes covered in lead, the pyramid-like silhouette of the cathedral rises up out of the hills above the city of Kyiv.
Throughout its lifetime, danger of its destruction loomed hundreds of times. In 1169, Kyiv was in ruins because of the Volodymyro-Suzdalsky Prince, Andriy Boholyubsky. Seizing the state, he robbed the cathedral of all icons and gold items. The year 1240 also saw a massive invasion. This time it was by Mongol-Tatar Khan Batyj. Robbing the cathedral and leaving it badly damaged without a roof, some say it was the heavenly beauty of St Sophia that kept him from demolishing it completely. In the 15th and 16th centuries, when Kyiv was again invaded by Tatars, the cathedral was almost abandoned. Luckily, St Sophia’s renaissance came with Petro Mohyla, the Kyiv Metropolitan. Inviting Italian architect Octaviano Mancini to help him, he looked after the capital repairs, while Mancini contributed to building wooden monastic grounds which at one time surrounded the main church.
Swap of Style
A new period for the cathedral came with Ivan Mazepa, Ukraine’s hetman of the late 17th century. Mazepa donated money from his own pocket to help reconstruct the beautiful St Sophia, and it is due to him that the cathedral took on a more Baroque appearance. The earlier domes of the Byzantine era became more pear-shaped and were wrapped in gold. He also had the exterior walls bleached which hid the early medieval foundation. Construction of the entrance bell-tower was also initiated by Mazepa and was finally finished in 1706. Unfortunately, the upper storeys were damaged by an earthquake not long after it was finished. With the help of architect Johann Gottfried Shedel, however, the bell tower was soon restored and improved! Adding a couple of new storeys, the structure now reaches 76m tall.
Sky blue with exquisite ornamentation, the bell tower is in typical Cossack Baroque style, something which became quite popular in the 17th and 18th centuries in Ukraine. More buildings such as the Metropolitan’s house, school buildings and a consistory all appear at this time. Incorporated into the territory of St Sophia, they continue to serve both cultural and educational purposes housing events such as art exhibitions and classical music concerts.
On the other hand, the 20th century was not an easy one for Sophia. The Soviets were in power and were demolishing cathedrals and churches all over the country. Her fate might have been sealed in the early 30s had it not been for Queen Anna, daughter of Kyiv Rus Prince Yaroslav the Wise and wife to France’s Henry I. France well remembered how their historic queen loved this building, and afraid of the international scandal the destruction of the most ancient cathedral in all of Ukraine might induce, the Soviets did not touch Sophia. Instead, they allowed her to become a museum and reservation site for the restoration of various projects. This also meant, however, that practicing the liturgy was strictly prohibited, and to this end, all gold and silver items of religious significance, including icons, were removed. In 1941, there was an attempt at demolition by the communists. But it seems even God himself was one of Sophia’s protectors: the building stands today as it did those seventy-some years ago. Thankfully, UNESCO came to its rescue in 1990, and St Sophia is now one of the world’s heritage sites.
She Speaks for Herself
If you have only ever walked past this place of calm and spiritual harmony, it is time you took a step inside. In the cathedral itself, the walls demonstrate that she is something of a relic. But it is because of the murals and frescos found here that historians can denote her age with confidence. There have been previous theories which date Sophia Cathedral to some time between 1017 and 1037. But historian Nadiya Nikitenko was able to prove (and has since succesfully defended) the construction date as 1011. Having studied the building carefully, examining the architecture and paintings over the past 40 years, while also taking history into account, Nikitenko insists the cathedral was founded by Prince Volodymyr way back then. Iryna Margolina, deputy director of the National Conservation of St Sophia of Kyiv, says this is a real revelation.
For those hard-to-convince individuals, there is evidence to support this claim. One piece of proof includes a photo taken in the 1950s. The picture is from a piece of wall under one of the many domes in the cathedral and reads, “This church was submitted in 1011.” During the days of the Soviets, much that was on the walls has been covered over in concrete, and scientists cannot know for sure whether they would be able to remove this particular overlay without damaging that which sits underneath. The photo, however, is an important document in favour of Nikitenko’s theory.
Margolina says the most significant and truthful witness to the age of St Sophia is the cathedral herself. “Our new scientist Vyacheslav Kornienko came here to examine the graffiti on the cathedral and his discoveries only prove the millenary-age theory. He has found and scrutinised nearly 6,000 murals with writings from different times and carrying different significance. Some are dated 1018, 1022, 1030 and 1036. Because architects and historians alike hypothesise that such a large cathedral would take an average of three to six years to build, the theories that it was erected in either 1017 or 1037 must be false. We are sure St Sophia was founded in 1011 and finished in 1018.”
1000 Years Later
The murals that can be found not only serve to date the cathedral but also reveal the mindset and the way of life that dominated 1000 years ago. There are drawings found in the entrance where common Kyiv citizens of the 11th century were allowed. But even more interesting are those surrounding the altar. Only noble families and higher church clergy were allowed here. Archbishops were meant to be the ones keeping an eye out for anyone defacing the church. However, it has been confirmed that they too were culprits to much of the graffiti! Inscriptions include asking God for help, certain natural disasters, profanity and some even report the clerics guilty of underpaying builders!
While this is a rather large celebration in the life of the most eminent historical and spiritual monument for Ukraine, the National Conservation Area of “St Sophia of Kyiv” will not be getting much support from the state. What could have been a powerful promotional campaign to popularise the cathedral, making it one of the Meccas just like the Hagia Sophia of Istanbul, has turned into a series of events for small scientific circles. In fact, it is likely the majority of Kyiv citizens don’t even know about the millenary anniversary. But then there are few billboards about the city to inform the public and the official celebration has yet to be approved. Iryna Margolina, however, says they hope to have some officials to commemorate the event with a concert of classical music, choir performances and exhibitions of rare historical samples.
Intense restoration is ongoing even as we speak. Unfortunately, there is little information being dispersed about the great cathedral and the profound work coming from it. Facing its second millennium, watching wisely as Ukraine’s present becomes its history, it seems that perhaps 21st century citizens do not need its Holy Wisdom.