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Lavra Monastery, the sacred place of the East European Christendom
Oles PANKIV takes the readers on a guided tour of the Troyitska Church of the Pechersk Lavra Monastery in Kyiv, one of the most venerated and sacred places of the East European Christendom.
Before we start on the tour, it is probably quite reasonable to explain the name of the monastery. The word “lavra” has been borrowed from the Latinized Greek word “laura” (which originally meant a lane or alley), that is “a monastery” (laura is a legitimate English word to be found in any, fairly sized explanatory dictionary). “Pechersk” stands for pechery, or caves, and reminds us of the monastery’s origin — it started from the caves in which monks lived.
There are several entrances to the monastery; the central one is the gate with a church sitting above it. The transition from the hustle and bustle of the city — the monastery is located in one of the busiest central streets of Kyiv — to the unhurried world of a monastic community changes your mood momentarily. You take a few steps and find yourself surrounded by magnificent architectural landmarks; the domes of the churches and of the sky-high bell tower shine bedecked in gold; the atmosphere is that of reverent fascination.
The church sitting above the gate is believed to have been built in the early thirteenth century. It was dedicated to the Holy Trinity, and in Ukrainian it was known as Troyitska tserkva. According to the medieval chronicles it was Prince Svyatoslav, the son of a grand duke from Chernihiv, who initiated the construction of the Troyitska Church. He gave up his worldly possessions and pretensions to the throne, and took monastic vows, adopting a new name, Mykola, and willing all his property, his large library included, to the monastery.
The Pechersk Lavra Monastery, which was founded in the 11th century in the caves, grew fast to become the largest religious community of its kind in the lands of Kyivan Rus. Churches, monks’ cells and other buildings were built on the surface above the caves, but the caves were not abandoned either. They were connected with underground passages and underground churches were added as well. It was in the caves that the monks began burying their most respected dead.
After several decades of relative peace in the eleventh century when Kyiv was ruled by the Grand Duke Yaroslav the Wise, continuing internal strife and frequent raids of the nomads made life insecure, and the monastery which at that time was not part of the city of Kyiv — it sat on a hill some distance away from the one on which the central part of Kyiv was located, had to find its means for self-defence. The city was surrounded by defensive walls with defensive towers, and the monastery did the same — high walls were built with several gates in them and several towers above them. The monastery would hardly be able to sustain a long siege but an attack, even a massive one, could be repelled.
After centuries of decline which followed the devastating invasion of the Mongols in 1240, the monastery began to revive in the late sixteenth century, and in the seventeenth eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it acquired many new buildings, churches included, some of which are magnificent architectural creations. Since most of new architectural additions date from the eighteenth century, the prevalent architectural style in the monastery is of that century which is now usually referred to as “Cossack Baroque.” Churches and other structures that dated form the earlier times, were reconstructed to suit the new tastes. Even the Uspensky (Assumption) Cathedral (which was destroyed in the Second World War but was recently rebuilt) changed its original twelfth-century shape to acquire a typical eighteenth-century appearance.
A similar thing happened with the Troyitska Church as well — it was reconstructed to such an extent that there is very little left in the exterior that would give you an idea of what the church and the gate looked like at the time when they were just built. The interior remains more or less intact, but the murals decorating the exterior and interior of the church date from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The lavish Baroque-style murals cover all the available space of the interior, with the emphasis being put on the special meaning of the Holy Trinity. The eighteenth century when the murals were done was a watershed in Ukrainian painting, the time of transition from the style and subjects of religious painting to a much more realistic style and secular subjects. The murals in the Troyitska Church reflect that transition and are an artistic landmark in themselves.
On one of the walls, you can see an angel who holds a quill and a parchment — the names of all those who pass by will be written down. At the Last Judgment it may prove to be useful. In addition to the usual Biblical and Evangelical scenes, you can see a mural depicting the first Christian Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325, at which the Nicene Creed was adopted — a formal doctrine of the Christian faith to defend orthodoxy from Aryanism (it was expanded in later councils). The painters made the august assembly look like a gathering of Ukrainian nobles, churchmen, military and secular leaders of the eighteenth century. Among the personages depicted in the mural, one can recognize Hetman Ivan Skoropadsky (died in 1722).
The Kyiv Pechersk Lavra Monastery is a living religious community which came back to life after decades of soviet suppression not so long ago. Part of the monastery is open to tourists.
The entrance fee is ten hryvnyas and if you want to join a guided tour, you will have to pay 16 (about three dollars at the current rate of exchange). Schoolchildren and pensioners get a discount. Those who come to worship may enter free of charge.
Photos by Ivan KREZHENSTOVSKY
The First Christian Ecumenical Council
The Troyitska Church. A view from the north.
God the Father. The ceiling of the vault
Murals on the walls
A Last Judgment angel with a quill
A view of the Troyitska Church from the east.
A view of the Troyitska Church from south.
One of the murals on the southern wall