St. Sophia’s Cathedral in Kiev, Ukraine was built in 1037 under the rule of Prince Yaroslav the Wise and remains, “despite certain Baroque modifications in the 18th century, one of the finest and most beautiful examples of early Rus-Byzantine ecclesiastical architecture.”[i] Kievan Rus was the first eastern Slavic state and at its center was Kiev, the “Mother of Rus Cities.”[ii] Under the rule of Grand Prince Yaroslav, who ruled from 1016 to his death in 1054, Kievan Rus “reached a peak of its cultural bloom and military power.”[iii] Yaroslav was extremely interested in expanding the boarders of Kievan Rus, and one of his greatest military conquests was his defeat of the tribes of Pincenates, who had a long history of raiding the southern territories of Kievan Rus. To celebrate his decisive victory over Pincenates, Yaroslav ordered the construction of St. Sophia’s Cathedral (alternately called the Saint Sofia Cathedral) in Kiev. The construction of the cathedral spanned two decades and large-scale renovations also took place from 1633 to 1740 under the supervision of Italian architect Octaviano Mancini.[iv] Aside from commemorating Yaroslav’s consolidation of the power of Kievan Rus, St. Sophia’s Cathedral is also significant because it marks one of Yaroslav’s main efforts to spread Christianity in the Ukraine, one of the main goals of his reign. Ukraine had begun turning increasingly away from paganism and towards orthodoxy beginning in 988 and the construction of St. Sophia’s Cathedral in Kiev, as well as Yaroslav’s program of translating Byzantine religious books into old Russian, was a major step in increasing the power of Russian orthodoxy Christianity over the Ukrainian territories.
St. Sophia’s Cathedral also has aesthetic significance. In conjunction with the spread of Christianity across Ukraine, Byzantine art forms also gained influence in Ukraine during the 10th century. St. Sophia’s Cathedral remains one of the best examples of Byzantine-style mosaics and frescoes. These features are exceptionally well preserved. This fact is extremely impressive when one considers that St. Sophia’s Cathedral survived not only the Mongol invasion of 1240 but also plans for destruction at the hands of the Soviet government. In the 1930s, Soviet authorities demolished many exceptional churches of the 11th and 12th centuries, including St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery in Kiev, and it was only a surge of “international protests [that] saved the cathedral of St. Sophia from the same fate.”[v] Follow the links below to see images of the original St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery before its demolition by the Soviets as well as the reconstructed version of the Monastery that stands in Kiev today:
An important aspect of the frescoes inside St. Sophia’s Cathedral is the prominence of artistic depictions of saints; indeed, “this impressive number of saints is a unique feature of the St. Sophia’s fresco ensemble,” indicating the desire at the time of the cathedral’s original construction to emphasize “the recently adopted Christian faith.”[vi] The number of preserved saint frescoes, including those that are incomplete or partially damaged, inside the cathedral stands at 250 and there were likely around three times that many originally. Additionally, the interior of St. Sophia’s Cathedral also boasts frescoes depicting secular images, including hunting scenes, fighting warriors, the Byzantine court and the hippodrome in Constantinople with the emperor observing the races from a box. These secular frescoes are significant because they “illustrate the history of political contacts between Kyiv and Byzantium.”[vii] Below are links to pictures of the stunning interior of the cathedral:
Although St. Sophia’s Cathedral ultimately escaped a fate of demolition, it has been subject to much raiding and plundering over the course of history, most notably during the fourteenth century by the Crimean Tatars. Additionally, the function of the cathedral, as well as the people who use it, has changed over time. St. Sophia’s Cathedral has served largely as a place of worship for Orthodox Christians, but for a period of time between the formation of the Greek Catholic Church in 1596 and the official recognition of Orthodox Christianity—as well as the sanctification of the cathedral—in 1632, St. Sophia’s Cathedral was a place of worship for Greek Catholics. In 1934, the Soviet government “converted” the cathedral from a religious space to a “State historical and cultural conservation area.”[viii] Today the cathedral acts as a museum and is also recognized as a national conservational area by the Ukrainian government.[ix] Furthermore, St. Sophia’s Cathedral has also received status as a World Heritage Site, showing how important the cathedral is as a physical representation of the “turbulent history of the city [of Kiev] and the beauty of the architectural splendor of centuries gone by.”[x] Today St. Sophia’s Cathedral is also one of Kiev’s most popular tourist attractions and “[has] seen many ceremonies, greeted famous dignitaries and witnessed events take place within the walls of the cathedral complex.”[xi] The cathedral also holds interest for those interested in both Ukranian and Russian history, as it contains the tomb of Prince Yaroslav the Wise by whom the cathedral was built and for whom it is, albeit indirectly, named (“Sofia” means “wise” in Greek).[xii] The cathedral’s location in the old Upper Town area of Kiev, which remains the center of the city, also helps make the cathedral a focal point of modern-day Kiev. The link below shows an aerial view of the cathedral, highlighting its centrality in the context of modern-day Kiev:
While St. Sophia’s Cathedral is significant as a stronghold of early Ukrainian Christianity, as well as of Ukrainian Baroque artwork, it is also important for the ways in which it embodies a specific sense of Russianness in the global, and especially Ukrainian, imagination. Because St. Sophia’s Cathedral was built during the period of Kievan Rus’ “golden moment,” during which this flourishing state was expanding its influence politically and religiously over a growing geographical area, the cathedral represents a view of Russia as hungry and desirous of growing its influence to the furthest possible extent. Furthermore, Soviet plans to demolish the cathedral, as well as the international protests that these plans sparked, capture an aspect of Russianness that derides and even has a tendency to suppress expressions of nationalities other than Russianness itself. In this way, St. Sophia’s Cathedral encompasses aspects of Russian power and dominance, but also encapsulates darker sides of Russianness in the global perspective, namely Russia’s hunger to expand its influence geographically, politically and ideologically often at the expense of other cultures and nations.
[i] “Kiev,” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/317542/Kiev (Mar. 30, 2014).
[iii] “Prominent Russians: Yaroslav the Wise,” Russiapedia. Autonomous Nonprofit Organization “TV-Novosti,” 2011, http://russiapedia.rt.com/prominent-russians/history-and-mythology/yaroslav-the-wise/ (Mar. 30, 2014).
[iv] “St. Sophia’s Cathedral—Oldest Cathedral in Kiev,” Ukraine.com: Ukraine Channel. NewMedia Holdings, Inc., 2014, http://www.ukraine.com/religious-sites/st-sophias-cathedral/ (Mar. 30 2014).
[v] “Ukraine,” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/612921/Ukraine (Mar. 30, 2014).
[x] Ukraine.com: Ukraine Channel, http://www.ukraine.com/religious-sites/st-sophias-cathedral/ (Mar. 30 2014).