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A Once and Future Church


There are not too many buildings around, and not only in Kyiv, Ukraine, but in the whole of Europe, that are a thousand years old and continue to function in the capacity they were originally built for. The Cathedral of Hagia Sophia is such a building in the city of Kyiv.


In the late 1960s and in the 1970s, I used to go to Sophia (I hope the church will not be angry with me for my using such a familiar address at least a couple of times a week during the tourist season which lasted from late April to early October. I was a tour guide who took US and British tourists around Kyiv, around Ukraine and around much of the country that was called the Soviet Union.

At that time, the church was only a museum, with no religious service held in it (occasional services were resumed after Ukraines independence but the church has retained its status of a museum).

The Soviet Union collapsed, Ukraine is independent; my visits to Sophia are few and far between. Several weeks ago I did go to Sophia to talk to scholars who work at the history department attached to the cathedral. The matter I wanted to clarify was the date of the foundation of the church. Traditionally, it was claimed that the church was founded either in 1017 or in 1037, or thereabout, by the ruler of Kyiv Grand Duke Yaroslav nicknamed the Wise. Research done in recent years, and new discoveries made, have led some historians to postulate that the foundation date should be pushed back to 1011 as the most probable date of the churchs foundation.

The new dating has been given a mixed reception and in spite of a considerable body of evidence produced in favor of the earlier date it remains a controversial issue.

Mrs Iryna Marholina, PhD in history, and deputy director of the Director General of the National Reserve Sofiya Kyivska, who is a leading exponent of the new dating and its main advocate, gave me exhaustive explanations and I was easily converted into a supporter.

During our talk (most of the talking was done by her and I did the fascinated listening), Mrs Marholina whose speech was colorfully sprinkled with metaphors and similes though the subject was of a purely historical and scholarly nature, said that she had come to think of the church as of a living creature rather than artistically arranged pile of bricks and stones. She [the church] has answers to most of our questions all youve got to do is to ask your questions in a proper way.

After the talk was over, I thanked the scholar, bade goodbye and left the office. I, in a nostalgic mood, took a slowly walk around the church, so familiar, like an old friend. And I did feel that the church was alive, that some vital energy was emanating from her thousand-year old walls!

There is a little park on one side of the church. I saw several young mothers sitting on the benches under the trees, their children playing in the grass or resting in baby carriages. I saw a group of young painters behind their easels with a gray-haired gentleman giving them some instructions. And this young human presence increased my newly born feeling that the church was full of life, and this life force attracted young mothers with children and young creators of new art.


The founders

Before I proceed with providing some facts about Sophia and deal with the controversial dating, a few words are needed to say about the name of this cathedral church.

Evidently the founders of Kyivs Sophia followed the example of the great Hagia Sophia in Byzantium (Church of the Holy Wisdom, built in Constantinople, now Istanbul, between 532 and 537 under the auspices of Emperor Justinian I; innovative Byzantine technology allowed architects Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus to design a basilica with an immense dome over an open, square space), and the cathedral church in Kyiv was dedicated to the Holy Gods Wisdom, or Hagia Sophia in Greek.

In the guidebooks of the twentieth and twenty-first century the church keeps being reffered to as St Sophia as though it is a saint by the name of Sophia to whom the church is dedicated. There is no such saint and it is the Christs wisdom that the church celebrates.

Yaroslav the Wise, under whose auspices the church was allegedly built, invited Byzantine architects and artists to help with the construction of the church. In the early tenth century, Christianity was still a new religion in Kyiv, having been adopted by Yaroslavs father Volodymyr in 988. Only one stone church is known to have been built in Kyiv before Hagia Sophias the Desyatynna Church. The main building material in Kyiv at that time was wood and an audacious project to build a grandiose stone church required a totally new approach to construction. Byzantines with their several centuries of experience in church building were turned to for help. Besides, it was the Byzantine Orthodox Christianity that Volodymyr had been converted to.

When it came to choosing the site for a new church, Yaroslav pointed to a place, then still outside the city walls, where he had inflicted a crippling defeat on the Pecheneg nomads (the earlier date of the construction of the church abolishes this story as a popular legend). The chronicles seem to indicate that the Grand Duke himself laid the foundation stone. But when? From what the chronicles said it was assumed that the date was 1037. Well discuss the date later. Now there are some more facts about the church.

The Hagia Sophia in Kyiv (there were several Sophias built in the state that is known as Kyivan Rus) basically followed a Byzantine plan, being cruciform with several aisles and domes, but Kyivs, though smaller in size, was more elaborate. It contained five aisles, a large central dome that symbolized Christ, rising from amidst twelve smaller ones that represented Apostles. The church was greater in width than in length and had a unique feature (now lost) a single-storied peristyle that ran round the churchs north, south and west walls. Porphyry, marble and alabaster were used in the construction for columns and decorative elements.

Kyivs Hagia Sophia was quite distinct from anything that was built in Byzantium; also, it contained many of the essentials from which the medieval style of Rus-Ukraine church developed.

The church exterior has undergone considerable changes since the time it was built. In later centuries, it was given the shape typical of the style of what is known as Ukrainian Baroque. The walls were plastered and whitewashed; the shape of the domes was changed; the peristyle was gone. Originally, Kyivs Hagia Sophia was remarkable for its monolithic and yet elegant appearance.

The interior, with the exception of some minor changes and the loss of most of the original frescoes, has remained intact since the eleventh century. The interior, with its multiplicity of columns and arches, of vistas and galleries, presents a complexity and sophistication hitherto unknown in Kyivan Rus. The feeling of vitality was sustained by the mosaics. This effect of vitality is probably due to the scintillations produced by the light which is reflected from the gold and delicately colored cubes of which mosaics are made the surface of the mosaics is never absolutely even and thus the cubes reflect the light at slightly different angles, producing a shimmering, living effect. The figures are presented frontally and they all look at the beholders with their big, searching eyes. Their gazes suggest that they are participating in and also watching all that takes place within the church.

The towering figure of the Virgin Mary (in Slavic tradition the Most Holy Mother of God) to be seen in the central apse immediately rivets the attention of anyone who walks into the nave. The figure with its arms raised (such a posture is known in iconography as Oranta) is monumental rather than graceful and this monumentality rising above the iconostasis, dominates the church and imbues the space with a protective and reassuring force.

The figure of the Pantocrator, Christ the All-Ruler, the Heavenly King and Judge, is placed in the inside of the central dome. He looks down on us and his gaze warns against sinning. Of the four archangels surrounding the central figure only one survives as the original mosaic of the eleventh century the rest were painted in the imitation of mosaic during the restoration at the end of the nineteenth century.

The frescoes of the church were much less lucky and only fragments of the original eleventh-century murals have survived. But even what is left suggests that there was hardly an inch on the interior walls that was not covered with painting. In addition to religious and secular scenes, there was a lot of ornamental elements. The impression that the interior produced on anyone who walked in must have been enormous when the frescoes and mosaics were in the full glory of their colors and exquisite artistic design.

And of course the murals and mosaics were there not just for decoration they told Biblical and Evangelical stories, their images carried edifying, moral and didactic messages, and they were all united by one comprehensive theological program.



The controversy around the date of the foundation and consecration began almost two centuries ago and cannot be considered as fully resolved.

The surviving chronicles suggest two dates 1017 and 1037 as the years of the churchs foundation. The dissenting voices began to be heard as soon as the study of history turned into a serious academic discipline.

Restorations, the development of new scientific methods of research and new advancing technologies revealed many facts that demanded interpretation.

Among the most revealing finds were graffiti and inscriptions discovered in many parts of the church. The earliest of them definitely date to 1018 and that means that by that time the church was already in existence. It has also become evident that by the time the earliest graffiti were scratched into the walls, the interior had been already decorated with frescoes.

The sum total of new findings point to the date of the foundation of the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia as November 4 1011. The construction and decoration of the church were completed by 1018 and the church could have been consecrated no later than May 1018.

The new dating points to the Grand Duke Volodymyr, the baptizer of Ukraine-Rus, as the founder of the Cathedral. Volodymyr, a rather controversial figure himself, is thus credited with the construction of the majestic church which for centuries was considered to be one of the most respected shrines of the Eastern European Christendom. Volodymyr died in 1015, and his son Yaroslav elevated himself in series of military campaigns against his brothers and next of kin from the ruler of Novgorod to the ruler of Kyiv and thus of all Kyivan Rus, was left the task of completing the construction of the church.

Among the surviving frescoes there are three which were thought to be the portrait of Yaroslav and his family. The new findings now claim the portraits are in fact those of Volodymyr and his Greek wife Anna, and of their children.

The chemical analysis of the paint, of the original flooring and of other materials definitely suggest the earlier rather than later dating.

Thus a change of dates rewrites a lot of history but hardly changes the miraculous vitality of the Hagia Sophia.

Not all the historians have been convinced but November 4 2011 will be celebrated as the thousandth anniversary of the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia of Kyiv.


The central apse with mosaics the Virgin Mary as Oranta,
the Eucharist and the saints.


Graffiti of the date which translates as 1019 CE. Tracing.


Interior of the Cathedral.


The Tsarksi Vrata (central gate) of the iconostasis.


The Tsarksi Vrata arrives at the Cathedral after
restoration which was done in Poland. 2008.


Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople conducts
divine service of the blessing of the Tsarksi Vrata.


Evangelist Mark. 11th-century mosaic.


Christ Pantocrator. 11th-century mosaic in the inside of the central dome.


The reconstruction by Yu. Aseyev, V. Volkov, M. Kresalny that shows
how the cathedral could have looked like in the 11 century (north-eastern facade).


The chapel of the Metropolitan Petro Mohyla.


Abraham entertains three strangers. 11th-century fresco.


The Eucharist (a detail). 11th-century mosaic.


Examination of the mosaics with a special device in progress.




By Alex Pan


Photos have been provided by St Sophia of Kyiv

National Preservation Area


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