The ancient St.Sophia Cathedral dressed in brisk Ukrainian Baroque style walls is a most famous landmark of the capital of Ukraine. The Cathedral together with the Kiev-Pechersk Monastery is the first Ukrainian site inscribed to the World Heritage List. It has the most complete complex of preserved frescoes and mosaics of the 11th century, and it can be said with certainty that nowadays the Saint Sophia Cathedral is one of a handful of the sights of this scale around the World.
Being the object of a great scientific interest within couple of the last centuries, the Cathedral is a ground for ongoing discoveries. The foundation date of the Cathedral is still a battlefield of many scientists. Traditionally correct foundation date of 1037 was refuted by recent researches of Dr.Nadia Nikitenko, who has been studying the subject on site for 30 years. According her conclusion the St.Sophia Cathedral was founded as early as 1011. This date is recognized by Ukraine and UNESCO, and 1000-anniversary of the Cathedral of St.Sophia was celebrated in 2011. Though the 26 years later foundation date does not take an inch away from the Cathedral’s significance and greatness, the earlier date changes the meaning of some interior details drastically and events in the history of Kievan Rus, in general. So, evidently St.Sophia was founded by Volodymyr the Great, the Baptizer of Rus, and Yaroslav the Wise has continued and completed his father’s undertaking.
The name of St.Sophia is not associated with a Saint but is for Holly Wisdom, like Hagia Wisdom in Constantinople. It was built in Byzantine Style by Byzantium foremen, cross-in square shaped, with 5 naves, 5 apses and 13 cupolas. The cathedral of the 11th century is incorporated in the current Baroque Style Cathedral building. We still can admire the 11th century walls of alternating brick and stone in the openings on the whitewashed facade, ancient monumental mosaics of Mother of God (Orante), Christ Pantocrator and Church Fathers, frescoes of the Christological cycle and secular portraits of the Kiev Prince family. According to the “Chronicles of Begone Times” the latter frescoes are traditionally believed to be a portrait of Yaroslav the Wise family – Tsar with his wife Irina and children. But recently this doctrine has become another ground for scientific discussions in the light of the Cathedral graffiti research. With the earliest graffiti dated 1022, it was postulated that dilapidated fresco represents family of Yaroslav’s predecessor and father - Volodymyr the Great and his wife Anna with children, among which is Yaroslav. Thus, the meaning of the whole secular cycle changes.
The years of Volodymyr and Yaroslav rule were at the height of Kievan Rus. The St.Sophia Cathedral became a main metropolitanate of the country, symbol of might, power and sovereignty. It was the main Church of Rus, a center of spiritual, cultural and political life. St.Sophia has witnessed the golden age and the times of decline of Kievan Rus. Within these walls princes were anointed and crowned, foreign ambassadors received, equity relations established and peace treaties signed with other principalities, first chronicles and books scripted and the very first library in the Old Rus started. The Cathedral walls have also encountered pillagers of Bogolubsky during the sack of Kiev in 1169 and Batu Khan Hordes in 1240. St.Sophia has remained on the place, though robbed and devastated. Nevertheless, it stayed a Metropolitan’s residence and a center of spiritual life of Rus. The Cathedral has recovered under Metropolitan Cyril, but in the 13-16th centuries it fell back into despair. Uniats and Orthodox feud brought nothing but dilapidation to the Cathedral either.
Rebirth of Saint Sophia is associated with the names of two outstanding persons: Metropolitan Petro Mohyla and Hetman Ivan Mazepa. The first one has returned the Cathedral to the Orthodox believers, sufficiently repaired it engaging artisans and foremen of highest expertise, and founded a monastery with monastic infrastructure around the Cathedral. Hetman Ivan Mazepa has donated into the completion of renovation, and works have been conducted under his influence. That was a moment when medieval character of the Cathedral has changed for Ukrainian Baroque Style, which we see nowadays. Six new domes were added to existing thirteen ones, all crowned with pear-shaped cupolas, exterior decorations appeared, walls were plastered and whitewashed, 3-storey bell-tower was built. By the end of 18th century continued construction and renovation works have created the current image of the St.Sophia and surrounding territory: with the Metropolitan’s Residence, the Bakery, the Cells of the Cathedral Elders, the Seminary and the Western Gate.
Starting from the middle of the 19th century discovery time began. There were found 11th century frescoes under mural oil paintings; they were restored with usage of best techniques of that time. Research and restoration works of the Soviet times lead to revival of integral mural ensemble of the 11th century. Wherever ancient mosaics and frescoes have vanished and 17-18th centuries paintings were lost, oil paintings of the 19th century were left.
The Saint Sophia Cathedral was a burial place of the princes and metropolitans. Till our days there stays sarcophagus of Yaroslav the Wise, who died in 1054. Other princes’ graves have not remained. In the Metropolitan Cyril burials were found fragments of 13th century silk clothes with Mother Orante, angels and saints motives embroidered in silver and gold. There were detected hundreds of ancient graffiti scripted on the walls of the St.Sophia. Research of these graffiti brings valuable information on the Cathedral and historical events in gerenal.
While 260 square meters of mosaics and 3000 square meters of frescoes of 11th century have been preserved, it is only half of the initial volume. Who knows how many findings and discoveries treasures the Saint Sophia Cathedral for the researchers in the future?
The religious service is conducted at the St.Sophia Cathedral on very rare and solemn occasions, leaving the Cathedral mostly as a museum. Major St.Sophia’s visitors are tourists, thus we can enjoy in full this beautiful masterpiece of art and architecture of the passed days.