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Kyiv’s Ancient Rival
The city of Chernihiv has its own unique style, it has its own culture and traditions. The Ukrainian Orthodox priest Andriy Vlasenko, who has authored this essay, calls Chernihiv “an ancient rival of Kyiv.”
Mykola Ivashchenko, Oleksandr Horobets, Andriy Vlasenko
Chernihiv, its landmarks and its culture, has survived wars and vandalism of the barbarous regimes. Its history is alive in monuments of architecture and in poetry.
Chernihiv has several distinct features that make it easily distinguishable from any other Ukrainian towns.
Chernihiv’s old churches, even if you are not too interested in architecture or Orthodox Christianity, can provide you with an idea what Chernihiv looked like in the past. They can also be looked upon as witnesses of so many events that have occurred since they were built. And today’s Chernihiv offers tourists sights, services and entertainments that one may expect to find in a big town.
Bits of history
The first written reference to it dates to the year 907 but there is enough archaeological evidence to suggest that it is much older. Even if you are not an archaeologist, you can feel the antiqueness of the place if you come to the centre of the city, to a place locally known as Chorna Mohyla — it is said to be the place where Prince Chorny, the legendary founder of the town, was buried. Christianity came to Ukraine at the end of the tenth century and churches began to be built during the reign of Volodymyr the Great, the ruler of Kyiv, who converted his state to the new religion. But in the land of Chernihiv, as in many other lands that were ruled by Kyiv, the construction of churches came to a standstill in the early eleventh century because of “the first civil strife,” in the words of a chronicler, that swept through Ukraine. In the year 1024, the strife ended with all the warring sides getting lands to rule.
Mstyslav, the ruler of Chernihiv, was the first to begin a large-scale construction work. In the year 1033, the foundation of a church was laid in the centre of his fortified city — the Spasky Cathedral, which was later renamed Spaso-Preobrazhensky (Saviour’s Transfiguration).
The Cathedral witnessed many historical events, one of them was of a particularly tragic nature for Ukraine — it was in this church that the blessing for the union with Russia was given in January 1654; the union proved to be disastrous for Ukraine and over three centuries passed before Ukraine regained her independence. The Cathedral stands in all of its majesty on a hill above the Desna River, cleansed of human foibles.
The Illinsky Monastery, situated on the southern slope of the Boldyn Hills, was founded in 1069 by St Antony, the same monk who founded a cave monastery in Kyiv, the one that came to be known as Kyiv Pechersk Lavra Monastery. St Antony chose natural caves to start the two monasteries, both in Kyiv and in Chernihiv; in fact, he was the monk who laid the foundation of monasticism in Rus-Ukraine. The caves in the Illinsky Monastery in Chernihiv were widened and linked with a system of underground passages; the three underground churches in the caves are the biggest of their kind in Ukraine. They have a unique feature too — the acoustics inside them are such that the sounds reverberate for several seconds before dying. So far it has not been established how this acoustical effect was created by the ancient builders of the underground churches.
The underground churches in the Antoniyevi Pechery differ considerably from those in the Kyiv Lavra or from any other similar churches in Eastern Europe. Their ceiling is eight meters (about 25 feet) above the floor, much higher than anywhere else.
Churches as architectural landmarks
There are five churches in Chernihiv that date from the “pre-Mongolian times,” that is from the centuries before the thirteenth when the Mongols invaded Rus-Ukraine and laid waste to its lands. This alone makes Chernihiv unique among other cities situated in the area devastated by the invaders. The twentieth century saw another “scourge of the human race”— the atheistic Bolshevik regime that vandalized or pulled down many an ancient church.
It’s almost a miracle that so much of old architecture has survived in Chernihiv. The Borysohlibsky (St. Borys’ and St Hlib’s) Church of the twelfth century is famous for its “white stone” decorations made in the style known as “animalistic.” The church treasures “the Czar Gate” (central gate) to the iconostasis which was made with the money donated by Hetman Mazepa (late seventeenth-early eighteenth century) from the silver idol of pagan times that had been discovered in the vicinity of the church.
The Yeletsky Monastery of the twelfth century is located opposite the Chorna Mohyla Tomb. It stands at the place where St Antony Pechersky saw an icon of the Virgin that miraculously appeared in front of him. It must have been an event that greatly impressed the people of Chernihiv, and the church of the monastery reflects the religious zeal that must have been inspired among the inhabitants of Chernihiv by the heavenly apparition. The white church of exquisitely balanced proportions looked as though it was about to soar heavenward, but in the late sixteenth century the exterior of the church was redone in the nascent Ukrainian Baroque style which completely changed the appearance of the church but luckily did not disfigure it.
There are quite a few churches and buildings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to be found in Chernihiv. Among the more impressive ones are the majestic Troyitsky Sobor (Holy Trinity Cathedral) with wonderful frescos of the eighteenth century; the Voskresenska (Resurrection) Church which was designed by the Ukrainian architect of a great artistic talent Ivan Hryhorovych-Barsky, and the House of Colonel Lyzohub, a rare landmark of secular architecture of the seventeenth century.
Some art and architecture historians claim that the sweeping reconstructions of the seventeenth-eighteenth centuries, which drastically changed the appearance of the churches built in the eleventh-twelfth centuries, disfigured the originals, robbing them of the purity of line, and investing them with excessive Baroque lavishness, so uncharacteristic of early Rus-Ukrainian church architecture. But in Chernihiv you can see churches which have been stripped of their Baroque decorations to reveal their original purity — and to please those aesthetes who are such enthusiasts of purity of form. In Chernihiv, you will find almost all architectural styles of the past thousand years represented, from Byzantine to Bauhaus.
A bit of mysticism and supernatural
One of the prominent figures in Chernihiv’s history, Colonel Vasyl Dunin-Borkovsky, a philanthropist and patron of art and of the church of the 17th century, was buried in the Uspensky (Assumption) Cathedral. His portrait hung on the wall of the church close to the tomb for about 150 years and then was removed. In the local lore, the colonel was known as a vampire, a sort of Chernihiv variation of the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde story. Another portrait of him, in which the colonel was presented as an evil creature, was said to have hung side by side with the other, “magisterial” portrait of the man. A historian of later times, Mykola Markevych, wrote down one of the versions of the macabre story about Vasyl Dunin-Borkovsky. A little excerpt from it runs like this: “When this vampire died, he was buried in a monastery. But the next day he was seen riding in a carriage drawn by six black horses across Chervony Bridge. The driver, the postilion, the lackey and three other persons in the carriage were all devils… the carriage fell into the River Stryzhen… The tomb was opened, the coffin pried open and the body in it looked red and blue, the eyes open. Then the body was pierced through the heart with an aspen stick…” One of the possible explanations is that the colonel did not die but fell into a deep stupor which was mistaken for death. A more romantic approach leaves some room for imagination — what if we are dealing here with a supernatural phenomenon?
Solid realism of a museum of history
The Museum of History and Arts in Chernihiv was established in 1902 and was named after the distinguished Ukrainian patron of art Vasyl Tarnovsky Jr. who left his collections in his will to the city of Chernihiv. His collections contained over a hundred thousand items — old Cossack sabers, maces, utensils and tools, icons, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century portraits of Cossack leaders, paintings of the twentieth century plus a lot more — and fifty thousand books into the bargain. During the Second World War about two thirds of these collections were destroyed in bombing raids and artillery shelling. Those who have a good eye for architectural styles will hardly fail to spot a number of buildings in the central part of Chernihiv that belong to what is usually referred to as Art Nouveaux, locally known as “Modern”.
Even if you are not a connoisseur of architectural styles, a leisurely stroll along the streets of Chernihiv, a walk through its parks, is a highly pleasurable experience.
The Troitsky (Holy Trinity) Cathedral of the The Troitsky Monastery is one of the most impressive architectural landmarks in the Ukrainian Baroque style, dating from the 17th–18th centuries.
In the central part of Chernihiv; in the background — Katerynynska (St Catherine's) Church.
The cannon dating from the 18th century in Dytynets — the fortified part of ancient Chernihiv, where the residence of the local ruler was located.
The Pyatnytska (St Paraskeva’s) Church was initially built in the 12–13 centuries, but ruined in 1941 during a German bombing raid. It was rebuilt in 1962 with some of the original bricks used in the reconstruction.
The interior of one of the numerous Chernihiv's churches.
Museum of History and Arts in Chernihiv boasts an impressive collection of refined embroidery made in 17–18 centuries in the Land of Chenihivshchyna.