Like much of Europe, Ukraine sits at the brink of old and new. Its capital, Kyiv, is a series of often anachronistic contrasts — new cars drive on worn cobblestone roads, metro stations sit beside landmarks that date back hundreds of years, and the smell of heavy cigarette smoke is nearly obscured by the flower stands on every street corner. The grandeur of its famous Orthodox architecture momentarily distracts from the hustle and bustle of what has become Europe’s seventh largest city. These juxtapositions make Kyiv interesting, and nowhere is that better demonstrated than Kyiv’s oldest standing church.
Near the center of the city, St. Sophia’s Cathedral is maintained by the Ukrainian government as a grand and beautiful reminder of the past. Originally founded in 1011 A.D., when Kyiv was still the capital of Kievan Rus, it was an early and grand celebration of the state’s official adoption of Christianity in 988. The cathedral, now a museum, remains one of three UNESCO world heritage sites in Kiev— a status that is well deserved. It has managed to withstand the sands of time, but not without struggles.
The History of St. Sophia
The cathedral’s inspiration – for its name and partly for its construction – come from the Hagia Sophia of Istanbul. The richness and splendor of that city’s Christian institutions left a striking impression on the Slavs who visited it and is said to have influenced Prince Vladimir’s historic decision to convert.
Hard times began in 1240, when the Mongols razed most of the ancient city. Much of St. Sophia’s surrounding grounds were destroyed, though the bell tower and central dome survived. St. Sophia’s would see raids, religious disputes, decaying ceilings, and art thieves before it was repaired in the 17th century.
These repairs restored the church and also gave it a new styling of “Ukrainian Baroque,” rather than the Western styles used previously. The intense, bright colors contrast with simple lines and forms. This makes Ukrainian style unique from the more ornate, dramatic Byzantine cathedrals. Most Ukrainian Baroque churches are filled with golden alters that mirror the golden roofs.
The cathedral narrowly escaped doom during the Soviet’s religious purges. Plans to take down the church with its gleaming gold tops and replace it with a grey complex would have completely changed the Kyiv horizon. Although many beautiful churches, some even on the same street, were destroyed, St. Sophia’s was spared and instead became a museum of architecture.
This was a strategy often used in the USSR by those who sought to save the Orthodox heritage of their country. There are several reasons why the church was spared. Many historians and artists argued on its behalf as a historical structure and object of beauty if not a religious institution. A more practical reason, however, is likely that the Soviets found that they lacked the funds to replace the building on the hilly landscape.
Entering St. Sophia’s
Today, St. Sophia’s glistening golden bell tower can be seen from miles away— it grows no less impressive the closer you get. Passing the gates of the surrounding wall, the visitor then walks through a beautiful garden and courtyard filled with flowers and trees. Even with the digital cameras and tourists’ baseball caps that now dominate this area, there is the unmistakable presence of history. As soon as you enter the church itself, you’re greeted with the incredible, centuries-old frescoes and mosaics. At the center, above the altar, sits the Virgin Oran, or Virgin Mary, one of the original surviving pieces from the 11th century. This particular Oran has survived so long that many in the Orthodox religion believe it to be indestructible, and that as long as the nearly 20-foot tall mosaic is standing, it protects Kyiv itself from destruction.
In addition to the formidable Mary, there are striking portraits of the Yaroslav family that have also survived from the 11th century. They are faded, but an incredible reminder of Kiev’s grand past nonetheless. It’s so easy to forget that the figures in these portraits actually existed outside of the novel of history we learn. Thinking about this and looking at the paintings that are hundreds and hundreds of years old put everything in perspective for me. Beyond this, nearly every wall in the church is covered in vibrantly colored paintings that showcase both Ukrainian and Byzantine influences.
The individual paintings and the structure as a whole can be better understood by hiring a guide from the facility. They are available in English as well as Ukrainian and Russian. English-speaking guides can be in short supply and high demand so you might try to phone ahead and make a reservation. There are also inexpensive audio guides available in multiple languages including English.
As far as museums go, St. Sophia’s is obviously niche, focusing only on preserving and displaying what is actually in and around the cathedral. This makes it fairly easy to follow. The entire experience is focused on providing a deep understanding of this specific site, and its mark on the region. The paintings, frescoes, and mosaics can seem overwhelming at first in their sheer number and beauty. You have to think of them as a unified whole, contributing to a place meant to be used as a space for reflection and worship. The accessibility of the historical structure also allows the viewer to view the church and art from multiple angles: from the floor, the spiral staircase, or from the balcony, from which one can make particularly striking eye contact with the beautiful Virgin Oran, a completely different experience from viewing her from the ground level. The bell tower is open to provide truly spectacular views of the city, tying the church to the surrounding area and providing yet another contrast: standing in a bell tower from the 11th century, one sees billboards and skyscrapers.
The Museum Complex of St. Sophia’s
There is a model of the cathedral and grounds as they looked in the 11th century on the first floor of the cathedral. This shows a city in stark contrast to modern Kyiv but many of the buildings on the cathedral grounds have either survived or been reconstructed.
For instance, the refectory still stands and has been turned into a more traditional museum. While not incredibly modern and with comparatively little technology, it’s interesting and not difficult to follow. Inside is an in depth historical overview with images of what the original grounds most likely looked like and a recording of all the restoration the site has gone through. The small museum is completely devoted to the immediate grounds, giving it a brevity and immediacy that many museums lack.
St. Sophia’s itself only feels ancient when one recalls its long history. It has been beautifully restored and today stands proud at the center of Kiev, an obvious and memorable piece of the skyline. In fact, despite being a museum, it still plays a role in the city’s modern social, political, and religious life.
A fair amount of St. Sophia’s budget comes from given by UNESCO, which provided over $74,000 in 2019. Although a UNESCO site, which should not have any active religious ceremonies, the church has been utilized for church purposes since receiving its UNESCO status. Most recently, after the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was granted independence from the Russian Orthodox Church by the Patriarch of Contantinople, the head of the new church was coronated in St. Sophia. There was outrage among the Russian Orthodox in part as they feared that the church, which has been an important part of the history of slavic Orthodoxy as a whole and which is currently shared, neutral ground as a state museum, was offered with special access to the new religion. There is some talk of restoring it to an active church, as the Pershka Lavra Cathedral is on the other side of the city, which would likely be met with considerable opposition from both Russia and local Russian Orthodox faithful.
There is an aura on the grounds as a whole, from its lush courtyards to soaring bell tower. How well it’s maintained certainly contributes to this. As both a Complex of Culture Heritage for UNESCO since 1990, and an area of importance for the Ministry of Culture in Ukraine, it has established itself as a necessary piece of Kyiv. As a UNESCO site, the goal of St. Sophia’s, both as a museum and a historical site, is to preserve history. It has the largest number of intact paintings and frescoes from its time period, and is a brilliant representation of Ukrainian Baroque architecture. Having stood through both Mongol invasions and Soviet purges, St. Sophia’s is a survivor that is worth a visit and worth keeping.