Sophia, Divine Wisdom. Icon, 16th century.


The Greek word “Sophia” for the Ukrainian ear sounds like a woman’s name Sofia. The Greek word means “wisdom”. In the course of time, philosophers, both ancient and modern, pondered the hidden meaning that seemed to lurk in the word. Solomon, son of David and one of the greatest kings of ancient Israel, was the first, ten centuries before Christ, to attach a special importance to wisdom.
He prayed God to give him wisdom rather than riches, power or fame. He was the one who built the First Temple in Jerusalem (it was destroyed in 587/586 BC by Nebuchadrezzar II of Babylonia, rebuilt later as a modest version of the First, only to be destroyed five centuries later; of the Second Temple only one wall remains standing, known as the Western or Wailing Wall). Solomon aspired to understand the Divine Wisdom, and apparently failed. The Greek philosophers continued their attempts to comprehend the essence of the Divine Wisdom, and passed this search to later generations. One of the prominent Russian philosophers of the late 19th-early 20th century, Vladimir Solovyev devoted much of his philosophical attention to Sophia, Divine Wisdom. Poets also paid their artistic tribute to Sophia. But God has found better ways to actually demonstrate His Wisdom which is hardly expressible in words: one of the ways was to inspire people to build a church devoted to the Holy Wisdom, and this church proved to be an embodiment of the Divine Wisdom.
Central Dome of the Cathedral, with the representation of the Pantocrator. Mosaic, 11th century.

Holy Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv, 11th century.
In the 4th-century Constantine the Great, the Roman Emperor at last, after three centuries of persecution, embraced Christianity as the official religion of his Empire. His new capital, New Rome, or Constantinople, was a rival in architectural glory to Rome itself. Constantine built a church devoted to the Holy Wisdom. The church was burned to the ground in 404. The cathedral was rebuilt (415) by Theodosius II; this church was also destroyed by fire in the great Nika riot of 532. Emperor Justinian I immediately set out to erect an even more splendid cathedral. The new church was completed, at fantastic expense (over 10,000 workers were said to have been employed), within the amazingly short period of five years.
The foundation stone was laid on February 23, 532, and the cathedral was consecrated by Patriarch Menas on December 27, 537. The daring and innovative design was developed by the architects and scholars Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus. Hagia Sophia is an epitome of the Christian view of the world. At the same time it symbolically glorified the idea of centralism. It surpassed anything that had been built earlier in the line of temple and church construction, even the temple in Jerusalem. Hagia Sophia has a gigantic central dome that rests on four great arches buttressed by two half domes and is surrounded on all sides by an outer shell of aisles and galleries (the church measures 77 m x 79 m and the impressive huge dome soaring 62 m above the floor has a diameter of about 33 m).
Although the huge open space under the vaults creates a longitudinal axis that suggests a traditional early Christian basilica, the fundamentally centralized plan and dominating dome introduced motifs that characterized subsequent Byzantine church architecture. Aside from its obvious cosmic symbolism, Hagia Sophia’s enormous dome, described by the contemporary author Procopius as “not founded on solid masonry but suspended from heaven by a golden chain,” became a magnificent stage for the elaborate processions of Byzantine church services.
Equally impressive were the interior’s richly coloured marbles and gleaming golden mosaics, which enhanced the sparkling play of light through its many windows and apertures. The interior was further enriched by magnificent figural mosaics added in later periods, such as the 9th-century Virgin and Child in the half dome of the apse above the main altar (earthquakes caused all or part of the great dome to collapse in 558, 989, and 1346, but repairs have left the church essentially in its original form; converted for use as a mosque immediately after the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the building became the Ayasofya state museum in 1934). Justinian, who paid regular visits to the construction site, is said to have looked round in amazement when he first entered the completed building, and murmured, “Solomon, I have surpassed thee.”
No other church was ever built on the same pattern and the same scale, but the artistic and technical breakthroughs achieved in Hagia Sophia paved the way towards the classical type of Byzantine church. The cross in a square surmounted by a dome or domes set upon drums was the design used in many lands which came under cultural and religious influence of Byzantium.In the mid-6th century, Paul the Silentiary wrote encomium [hymn of praise] The Magnificence of Hagia Sophia, which became famous: “Above all rises into the immeasurable air the great helmet [of the dome], which, bending over, like the radiant heavens, embraces the church. And at the highest part, at the crown, was depicted the cross, the protector of the city.


Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (Istanbul), 6th century.

And wondrous it is to see how the dome gradually rises wide below, and growing less as it reaches higher. It does not however spring upwards to a sharp point, but is like the firmament which rests on air, though the dome is fixed on the strong backs of the arches... Everywhere the walls glitter with wondrous designs, the stone for which came from the quarries of seagirt Proconnesus. The marbles are cut and joined like painted patterns, and in stones formed into squares or eight-sided figures the veins meet to form devices; and the stones show also the forms of living creatures... A thousand lamps within the temple show their gleaming light, hanging aloft by chains of many windings. Some are placed in the aisles, others in the centre or to east and west, or on the crowning walls, shedding the brightness of flame.


Interior of the Hagia Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople (Istanbul).

Thus the night seems to flout the light of day, and be itself as rosy as the dawn... Thus through the spaces of the great church come rays of light, expelling clouds of care, and filling the mind with joy. The sacred light cheers all: ... not only does it guide the merchant at night, like the rays from the Pharos on the coast of Africa, but it also shows the way to the living God.” Written sources refer to “the number of clerics appointed to the service of the most holy Great Church of Constantinople.” The records list a total of 600 persons assigned to serve in Hagia Sophia: 80 priests, 150 deacons, 40 deaconesses, 60 subdeacons, 160 readers, 25 chanters, 75 doorkeepers. Another source reveals the extent of destruction and pillage which Constantinople suffered in the hands of the Catholic Crusaders after 1204 and the difficulties that the great church had to face from the 13th century onwards. Paspatis writes: “In 1396, during the patriarchy of Callistus II, a note was made in the second volume of patriarchal documents listing all the existing gold and silver sacred vessels, hieratic vestments, crosses, gospel-books and holy relics.
The destitution of the celebrated church, looted by the Latin Crusaders, became evident. I mention the most important objects, from which pillagers removed pearls and other ornaments of gold in later times. The church had: nine gospel-books, two of which remained in the church for the use of the priests, while the other seven, much adorned with representations of embossed gold, were kept in the Skeuophylakion; five craters, ... fourteen patens and chalices; six lavides [spoons]; six silver asterisks; four candelabra by the entrance; sixteen ripidia [fans]; eight crosses containing splinters of the True Cross and adorned with gold, silver and pearls; four aer [large veils]; twenty-six chalice veils and four patriarchal staffs; also a few icons, hieratic vestments and some relics of saints that had escaped the rapacious Crusaders...” Hagia Sophia has been regarded for centuries as a wonder, a true reflection of the Divine Wisdom. The magnificent structure was usually referred to as the Great Church. It has miraculously withstood the ravages of time, more than a hundred recorded earthquakes, invasions of Arabs, Crusaders and Turks. Prince Kiy, the founder of Kyiv, the capital of Rus-Ukraine, is said to have travelled to Constantinople where he was received by Justinian himself. Kiy was dully impressed by the glory of New Rome but was not converted to Christianity. It was Prince Volodymyr of Kyiv, who five centuries later, in 988, turned Christian and brought Christianity to the land he ruled.
According to tradition, Volodymyr at first was not sure which religion to choose, and he sent his messengers to the lands of Catholicism, Judaism and Orthodox Christianity. It was the impressions the messengers had of their visit to Hagia Sophia in Constantinople which they conveyed to Volodymyr that won him over to Orthodox Christianity: “We’ve not seen anything like it anywhere else — when we entered this church we thought we had been transported to Heaven...” Rus-Ukraine accepted Christianity from Byzantium and soon three churches, bearing the name Hagia Sophia, were erected in Kyiv, Novgorod and Polotsk. But it was not Volodymyr who built them. His son Yaroslav, nicknamed the Wise, had the first Hagia Sophia built in his capital, Kyiv. The site was chosen right outside the walls that ringed the city, at the place where a horde of invading nomads was destroyed in battle. The construction began in 1037. Hilarion, the first Ukrainian Metropolitan, wrote that the church “...was to be a wondrous and magnificent edifice, famous in the lands stretching to the east and to the west.” Kyiv’s Hagia Sophia was invested with the great symbolic meaning. Itsesoteric significance was partly due to its role of prime cathedral and coronation church. It was surely not by chance that the centre of the cathedral’s main apse fell on the point at which two lines drawn from each of the city’s four gates intersected. The building was of brick, set in the pinkish cement, and in all evidence the architect and master mason came from Byzantium. We don’t know their names. Only one name is known– Georgy, it has been found among the graffiti on the walls, written in Greek. He must have been one of the artists adorning the interior with frescoes.


Model of the original Holy Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv.


Reconstruction of the Holy Sophia Cathedral in Polotsk.

In the opinion of some scholars, Ukrainians were employed too in the construction of the church, and not only as labourers, but as artists. Yaroslav and Metropolitan Hilarion took a deep interest in the work and were responsible for many of the cathedral’s features. Kyiv’s Hagia Sophia followed a Byzantine plan but it was by far more elaborate. Ukrainian taste already managed to express itself clearly in a large central dome symbolizing Christ, rising from amidst twelve smaller ones representing the Apostles. The Byzantines had never indulged in such a galaxy of domes.


Holy Sophia Basilica in Sofia, Bulgaria.

The church is remarkable for its monolithic, yet elegant appearance. In its interior, with its multiplicity of marble columns and arches, of vistas and galleries, Kyiv’s Hagia Sophia presents an artistic complexity and sophistication, excelling in the variety of its effects those achieved in such a building as St Mark’s at Venice. Indeed, nothing quite so grand and vibrant existed in western Europe at the time. The feeling of vitality within Kyiv’s Hagia Sophia, or rather of actuality, was sustained by the mosaics. The effect was due partly to the scintillations produced by the lights catching the gold and delicately coloured cubes, but still more to the frontal pose of the figures, which invests the personages with the character of an audience, suggesting that they are both participating in and also watching all that takes place within the church. Scholars found that no less than one hundred and seventy seven shades of cubes were used to produce the desired effect (34 shades of green; 25 shades of brown; 25 shades of gold; 23 shades of yellow; 21 shades of blue; 19 shades of red; 9 shades of silver; 6 shades of purple).
The making of mosaics was an intricate operation, it involved a careful, time and labour consuming preparation of the surface into which the cubes were to be embedded (different angles at which they were stuck in added to the scintillation effect), designs to be made by artists, manufacture of the cubes themselves which was a sophisticated and complicated technological process. Even the floors were covered with mosaics (in the course of centuries, Hagia Sophia went through several reconstructions, some of which changed the exterior to a certain extent, effecting but little the interior; the floors were covered with metal plates in the 19th century). Particularly impressive is the figure of Virgin Mary in the main apse. Such representations of her image are called Oranta. Virgin Mary holds her hands up in prayer and supplication. She seems to be looking into the eyes of anyone who looks up at her. The art of mosaic required very high skills of the masters who created it and for several reasons mosaics stopped being used for church decoration as early as the 13th century. In addition to mosaics, the interiors of Hagia Sophia of Kyiv were decorated with wall-paintings which played quite a prominent part in the overall scheme of interior decor and, what is even more important, in the stories they conveyed to the faithful. In addition to biblical scenes of customary character, frescoes showed the figure of the Saviour receiving from Yaroslav a model of the cathedral; behind Yaroslav his sons were arranged in order of seniority, and opposite him his wife and daughters, all in single file.

Unfortunately, only parts of the original frescoes have survived to our day, but they testify to a great artistic taste and superb craftsmanship of the artists who created them (Yaroslav’s daughters were married to western Kings: Elisabeth to the King of Norway, Hanna to the King of France and Anastasia to the King of Hungary). Quite distinct and unique in their choice of subjects are the paintings which decorate the walls of the fine staircase which leads to the gallery above the main floor and was reserved for the use of the ruler of Kyiv. In contrast to any surviving Byzantine paintings, the subjects chosen for these decorations illustrate secular instead of biblical themes. They depict the mimes, jugglers, musicians, wrestlers, dancers, and animal tamers who took part in the so-called Goth Games held in the Hippodrome of Constantinople on the ninth day of Christmas in the presence of the factions, each member of which wore the team’s colours. Ukrainian nobles visiting Constantinople greatly enjoyed the Games organized in their honour. The delight which Yaroslav derived from such pastimes as well as from hunting can be inferred from the numerous criticisms which they evoked from Ukrainian churchmen of his day, but Yaroslav must have disregarded such strictures, since he had the walls of his private staircase within the cathedral’s precincts decorated with the scenes which amused him. Another Hagia Sophia in the lands of Kyivan Rus-Ukraine was erected in the town of Novgorod, in the north of the Kyivan state. At present, Novgorod is a provincial place of little distinction but in the mediaeval times it was a city of great culture, with its own traditions, even with a language that differed somewhat from the Slavic languages spoken elsewhere in the lands of the Kyivan state (now Novgorod is in the Russian Federation). Some scholars are of the opinion that if not for the great havoc wreaked upon the rebellious Novgorod by Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century, the people of Novgorod and adjacent territories would have developed into the fourth major group of Eastern Slavs (the three existing ones are Russians, Ukrainians and Belorussians). Hagia Sophia of Novgorod is believed to have been built by architects, artists and masons who moved to Novgorod from Kyiv after the completion of Hagia Sophia in the capital.


Holy Sophia Cathedral in Novgorod.

Interiors of the Holy Sophia Cathedral in Novgorod.

But Novgorod’s Church of the Holy Wisdom differs in many respects from Kyiv’s House of the Divine Wisdom. There could be several reasons for that: different climate, somewhat different ethnic background of the people inhabiting Novgorod, different mood of the place, all of these and other factors combined to produce a church of a more laconic, even austere form. The number of domes was reduced to one central and four smaller ones. Novgorod’s Hagia Sophia looks more monolithic and static, the decor is much simpler with no marble and no mosaics. Frescoes were the principle decorating element of the interior. They were of superb artistry. It is very regrettable that most of the frescoes were destroyed when a German shell hit the church in 1942. The western portal of the church boasts amazing bronze doors with representational reliefs whose uncharacteristic naturalism suggests that they were created with the help of or by western-European masters. Inscriptions in Latin (with Russian translation added later) also testify to the western-European links. The third of the Divine Wisdom churches in the lands of Kyivan Rus-Ukraine was built in the town of Polotsk (now in Belarus). It is much less known that the other two. Of the original church, erected in the mid-eleventh century, only the apses and lower parts of the walls remain in place — the rest was reconstructed and added in the course of centuries. Judging by the ground plan, one can surmise that it was similar to, though smaller than, Hagia Sophia of Kyiv and available evidence gives grounds to think that Kyiv masters were commissioned to build the church in Polotsk. The churches of the Holy Wisdom, preserved from destruction by Divine Providence — and if one remembers how many wars, revolutions and outbursts of wanton atheistic vandalism occurred in the course of our tumultuous history, one cannot help wondering whether this preservation was actually a result of divine intervention — are our direct links with the Divine. They, probably better than anything else, give us an idea of what Sophia, Divine Wisdom, is.

With Alex Pan