A bird’s eye view of the Mykhaylivsky Cathedral.
church is not just a piece of architecture. It is a harmony of Heaven in its earthly reflection, it is the whole universe presented in a way comprehensible to man. It can also be regarded as an embodiment of man's primary form and function. In other words, any church is not just so many bricks or logs put together and arranged in a special manner but at least a sort of a milestone on the road from earth to Heaven.
Each Christian country has its own “main” church which sets the tone for spiritual life of the nation, and if it is an old church it has been doing so for centuries. Ukraine has three such churches, all of them to be found in Kyiv, its capital. They are the Holy Sophia, the Uspensky (Assumption) Cathedral of the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra Monastery and the Mykhaylivsky Zolotoverkhy (St Michael's) Cathedral of the Mykhaylivsky Monastery. For almost a millennium these three churches had been spiritual inspiration for the Ukrainian people until in the cataclysmic twentieth century two of them succumbed to the vandalism of the new totalitarian breed of barbarians. Only Sophia has survived almost intact.

Archangel Michael at the top of the Mykhailovsky Cathedral's facade.

General view of the Mykhaylivska Square with the Mykhaylivsky Monastery in the background on the day when the statue of Archangel Michael was installed on the top of the facade of the Mykhaylivsky Zolotoverkhy Cathedral.

The Uspensky Cathedral was dynamited and then blown up by an underground cell of the Bolshevik resistance fighters shortly after the Nazi Germans captured Kyiv in September of 1941. Its majestic ruins keep reminding us of the tragedy. The Mykhaylivsky Zolotoverkhy (further on it will be referred to as “St Michael's”) has been dealt the hardest blow - in the mid-thirties of this century the Bolshevik theomachists and atheist freaks pulled it down “in order to clear up space for new glorious buildings of the victorious socialism.” At that time, this gem of early Ukrainian ecclesiastic architecture had been in existence for more than 800 years. As late as ten years ago, only art historians, enthusiasts of Ukrainian history and a handful of Kyiv old timers knew that at the top of the Volodymyr Hill had once stood a majestic church.
The construction of St Michael's was begun in the year of Our Lord 1108 and soon its gold leaf-covered domes rose high above the Starokyivska Knyazha Hora (“Old Prince’s Mount” as the hill on which the church stood was called at that time). Prince Svyatopolk the Kyivan whose Christian name was also Mykhaylo (Michael), initiated the construction of St Michael's.

No wonder the new church (originally it had one nave, two aisles, three apses) was dedicated to Archangel Michael who was regarded in old Orthodox tradition as the Leader of all the Heavenly Hosts, Mighty Warrior fighting against Satan. The name itself in old Hebrew means “Who is like God?” Tradition holds it that these words were uttered before “war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon...called the devil, and Satan... was cast out into the earth and his angels were cast out with him” (Revelation, 12:7-9).
The hill on top of which St Michael's was built had, in fact, been a pagan shrine up to the year 988 when Christianity was adopted. There had been several idols there, decorated with gold and silver, which were cast after the baptism of the land into the Dnipro river. A monastery was founded a little later at the place of the former heathen shrine and named after Archangel Michael, the Invincible Great Captain.
The cult of St Michael came to Rus-Ukraine from Byzantium. As early as the 4th century there was a St Michael’s church in Constantinople. St Michael was considered to be the heavenly protector of the Byzantine Empire and heavenly patron of the Emperors and their armies. Therefore, it was quite natural that St Michael was regarded in the Christian Kyivan Rus-Ukraine as the protector of the land. In the early 13th century there were already fifteen churches dedicated to St Michael built in the Kyivan Rus-Ukrainian lands, and the grandest of them all was Mykhaylivsky Zolotoverkhy in Kyiv.
The unusual destiny of St Michael’s was, probably, heralded by a mysterious bird which appeared in Kyiv in the year 1109. The Nykonivsky Chronicle of the 16th century says that “the bird was the size of a sheep, shone with many colours and sang songs sitting perched on the church (St Michael’s) for six days… and then flew away never to be seen again.” Those who saw the bird thought it was an angel or even Archangel Michael himself, encouraging the Kyivans by his presence to stand against the hordes of invading enemies.
Varvara, the wife of Prince Svyatopolk-Mykhaylo (daughter of Alexius I Comnenus, the Byzantine Emperor) promoted the prestige of St Michael’s. She brought to Kyiv the miracle-working relics of St Varvara who was martyred in the 3rd century AD to be kept in St Michael’s. These relics have remained the most precious sacred object of its kind in Kyiv throughout the ages (at present the relics are kept in St Volodymyr Cathedral). There were many miracles reported in connection with the relics of St Varvara placed in St Michael’s, but the miracles created by human hands in this church are no less wondrous.


Frescoes and mosaic in the Mykhaylivsky Monastery, recently created to look like exact replicas of the destroyed originals.


M. Makarenko’s memorial plaque on the wall close to the entrance to the monastery; M. Makarenko, a prominent Ukrainian archaeologist, was among those few who tried to save the Cathedral from destruction in the thirties.
Mosaics and frescoes decorating the interiors of St Michael’s were much admired. In accordance with the Ukrainian Orthodox tradition mosaics could be placed only in the central apse behind the altar and at some other places with the rest of the interior walls being decorated by frescoes.
Before the church was demolished in the thirties of the twentieth century, some of the mosaics and frescoes were removed from the walls and thus saved. The central mosaic of the Eucharist has been preserved almost intact as well as representations of several saints (Thaddeus, Stephan, Dmitry the Solunsky). Some of the mosaics were taken to Russia to be exhibited in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and in other museums. The rest are stored in the Holy Sophia Cathedral. Several mosaics, frescoes, the foundation - it is all that was left of the great 12th century church.
The mosaics are considered to have been created in Kyiv, their creators following the patterns established in Byzantium. The Eucharist is a masterpiece of mosaic art. The scene shows Jesus Christ sharing bread and wine at the Last Supper. The elongated figures of the Apostles are full of energy, with each face bearing individual characteristics: the severe Peter, the majestic Andrew, the dreamy Jacob, the thoughtful Matthew, the doubting - as he should be - Thomas…

The foundation of the Mykhaylivsky Cathedral,
discovered during archaeological excavations.

The domes of the Cathedral
under construction.

General view of the Mykhaylivsky
Monastery during the reconstruction.

Installation of the statue of Archangel Michael on the facade of the Cathedral.
The angels of exquisite beauty on both sides of the composition are among the best images of this kind created in the early periods of Kyivan art.
Frescoes, also of a very high artistic quality and superb execution, are believed to have been designed by the same artists who designed the mosaics. Art historians point to the Slavic type of the faces depicted with haircuts typical for the 12th century Kyiv. The faces of Archangel Gabriel and of the Virgin in the Annunciation radiate tenderness and gentle emotion that feature in Ukrainian art of later periods too.
At least eight churches of the early mediaeval times in the Kyivan lands are known to have had mosaics (six in Kyiv and two in Pereyaslav), with St Michael’s being the latest in construction. It had the greatest number of mosaics of them all.
The further history of St Michael’s is full of dramatic events. In the year 1240, during the Mongol invasion the church was pillaged but not destroyed. For three centuries, it stood neglected. Only in the mid-seventeenth century, thanks to the Ukrainian Hetman (Cossack military leader) Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the roofs of the church were covered with gilt copper plates.
Another hundred years later, the church, repaired and its exteriors partially rebuilt, acquired a typical Ukrainian Baroque look. A big iconostasis of carved wood with tiers of icons (made in Chernihiv) was installed in 1718. The shrine with the relics of St Varvara, made of silver, was donated to the church by Hetman Ivan Mazepa. Mazepa was known in his time as one of the biggest donors to church among the then Ukrainian potentates. The sculptural figure of Archangel Michael the Great Captain adorned the pediment on the facade and has miraculously survived the demolition of the church.
After the Bolshevik coup of 1917 and Civil War, the capital of Ukraine was moved to Kharkiv, but in 1934 it was moved back to Kyiv.

An old print with a general view of the Mykhaylivsky Monastery.

The monument to Bohdan Khmelnytsky with the Mykhaylivsky Cathedral in the background.
And it spelled disaster for many Kyiv churches, which were pitilessly destroyed by the Soviet authorities. St Michael’s was one of them. It was planned to build a monstrous Stalin-era type office building right at the place where the monastery had been. Just a handful of intellectuals dared to speak out against Soviet vandalism. Scholars Dmytro Aynalov, Felix Kon, Mykola Makarenko, Fedir Ernst attempted to prevent the destruction of the monastery but they managed to save only several mosaics and frescoes. Some of the Soviet toadies went out of their way in their futile attempts “to prove that the church of St Michael and the monastery it is in, are neither of high artistic value nor of scientific significance” (they did not, of course, try to assess its spiritual value). Archaeologist Mykola Makarenko and art historian Ipolit Morhylevsky, both prominent scholars, openly went against such judgement.
The former was arrested and dispatched to a GULAG concentration camp, the latter literally went insane, his insanity having been caused by the tremendous nervous strain he experienced in his struggle to save St Michael’s. The church and monastery were demolished in 1936, and the principal official to blame for the destruction was the then Minister of Education of Ukraine Volodymyr Zatonsky. Isn’t it ironic that for many years the memorial plaque with the portrait and name of the Soviet vandal could be seen on one of Kyiv houses (it is still there) and his victim Makarenko was honoured with one only recently? The place cleared by the self-styled “builders of Communist paradise,” was never used for any building to stand on it.

The refectory of the Mykhaylivsky Monastery.
It was overgrown with grass, fertilized by several generations of dogs taken out for walks to the site of the former monastery by their masters ignorant of history of the place that in their eyes was “just a pretty park lawn.” At the end of the eighties of this century though, when a revival of interest in Ukrainian spiritual heritage began, a campaign to have St Michael’s reconstructed was launched.
In 1991, a cross, blessed by the first Patriarch of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church Mstyslav, was put close to the place where St Michael’s used to stand. It was the first step on the road of the reconstruction of the church. The reconstruction of the monastery began in 1997.
It was initiated by the Kyiv State City Administration headed by O. Omelchenko. In 1998, the bell tower was built as a close replica of the original, ruined together with everything else around in 1936. Soon afterwards, St Michael’s itself rose majestically from its ancient foundation, recreated in every minute detail. Today its domes, topped with crosses, are shining with gold, symbolising victory of Eternal Good over temporary evil.

Religious procession moving from the Holy Sophia
Cathedral towards the Mykhaylivsky Monastery on the day
when the statue of Archangel Michael was installed.

President L. Kuchma, Patriarch Filaret, Mayor O. Omelchenko,
brothers Klychko (donors to the reconstruction) and
others at the installation ceremony.

The Ukrproektrestavratsiya Company has been commissioned to build up the monastery to its former glory, the construction being financed by the Ukrainian government and city authorities, whose leaders have come to understand at last a great importance of such architectural and spiritual landmarks.
On May 29, 1998, a bronze figure of Archangel Michael was installed on the facade of St Michael’s. It is a replica of the original which is kept in the museum of the monastery. We don’t know the name of the master who created it in the 18th century but he is not entirely anonymous - the sculptor has left his self-portrait on the right shoulder of the statue, without signing it though. Before the year 2000, the interiors of St Michael’s will have been adorned again with sparkling mosaics and wonderful frescoes. The religious services will be held there, people will come to worship, mystery of Holy Communion will again take place in the church.
Let us hope no one will ever again dare raise a sacrilegious hand against the glory of Mykhaylivsky Zolotoverkhy and it will always remind people that “God is not in the worldly might but in heavenly truth.”

Andriy Vlasenko, an Orthodox priest
Photos by Yuriy Buslenko, Olexandr Horobets


Decorative architectural elements
of the Mykhaylivsky Cathedral in the typical Ukrainian Baroque style.