A key monument of medieval Russia: St. Sophia Cathedral in Kiev

By Alice Isabella Sullivan

The Ukrainian people and the local cultural heritage of medieval Rus’ are under fire from the ongoing Russian attacks. What the world is witnessing is tragic, and the consequences on human life and on the medieval monuments that still stand in the historic cities of Ukraine are irreparable.

Several key churches that are UNESCO World Heritage Sites preserve the history of medieval Rus’ within the modern borders of Ukraine. The most notable of these is Saint Sophia’s Cathedral in the historic center of Kiev, built by Yaroslav the Wise (r. 1019-1054) in the first decades of the 11th century (before 1037). His father, Prince Vladimir the Great (r. 980-1015), adopted Orthodox Christianity in 988, initiating a process of Christianization in the region.

Map of later Kyivan Rus (after the death of Yaroslav I in 1054). Image by Vitaliyf261/Wikimedia Commons

Located in the heart of the Ukrainian capital, the Saint Sophia Cathedral was probably built with the help of Byzantine masons using the technique of embedded brick, characteristic of construction projects in Constantinople. But it was not only in materials and methods of construction that this important monument recalled the traditions of Byzantine church building. The layout and rich mosaic decorations of the interior also expressed Byzantine ideas.

The cathedral was built on a square cross core surrounded by barrel-vaulted aisles with galleries and a wider outer aisle, with a tripartite apse and additional east-facing chapels. The Byzantine-inspired layout is transformed here to create an impressive setting and accommodate a large number of worshippers. The pyramidal layout of the exterior culminates in the central dome, which rises 29 meters above the naos. Intricately designed and monumental in scale, the cathedral was meant to impress and inspire, while prominently marking the skyline of medieval Kyiv.

Map of Saint Sophia’s Cathedral in Kiev, Ukraine – Wikimedia Commons

See also this 3D MODEL of Saint Sophia Cathedral

The interior decorations also contributed to the impressive experience. The lower parts of the walls retain marble coverings and wall paintings, while the upper parts display vibrant mosaics with Christological, Mariological and hagiographic content. The main dome bears a larger depiction of Christ Pantocrator surrounded by angels, with images of the apostles and the four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) on the dome drum and pendentives below, respectively.

Photo by Rasal Hague/Wikimedia Commons

A frontal Virgin Mary (Oranta) stands in the apse against a gold background, while below is a detailed depiction of the Communion of the Apostles. The detailed mosaic shows a double figure of Christ at the central altar, assisted by angels holding liturgical fans and administering eucharistic bread and wine to the apostles arranged in two groups of six on either side. As a liturgical interpretation of the Last Supper, these types of images emphasize Christ’s initiation into the Eucharistic sacrament and his pontifical role. Located at the middle level of the decorations of the apse, and therefore above the height of the original templon, the mosaic of the Communion of the Apostles was intended to visualize for the faithful gathered in the naos the activities taking place at the altar. Although other examples of this type of image from the mid-11th century offer iconographic variations (such as, for example, the mural in the Church of Saint Sophia in Ohrid), the image as it appears in St. Sophia’s Cathedral in Kiev seems to have been favored in later Byzantine depictions of the theme of the Communion of the Apostles.

St. Sophia’s Cathedral in Kiev exemplifies the reworking in a local context of the Byzantine traditions of church building and decoration that inspired its forms, decorations and also its dedication, i.e. St. Sophia of Thessaloniki and the famous Hagia Sophia in Constantinople/Istanbul (now a mosque). The latter’s innovative design and decorations, in fact, informed Christian architecture in Byzantium and in Eastern Christian cultural spheres – from the Balkan Peninsula to the regions of the Carpathian Mountains, and further north in Russia and later. Muscovy – but no building has replicated its monumentality, remarkable engineering, and variety of distinctive features and visual effects.

The layout of Rus’ churches, with a subdivision of interior spaces into smaller sections and a vertical emphasis at the level of the dome above the crossing, became features of Russian and later Russian church architecture. For example, the mid-11th century St. Sophia Church in Novgorod imitated the famous Kyiv Cathedral, but on a smaller scale and less elaborate in design and decoration. The specifics of how architectural patterns were mediated in this Nordic cultural context relative to Byzantium, the medieval West, and local traditions remain to be fully explored. What is certain is that Kiev served as a cultural center for the dissemination of artistic and architectural models to other regions of medieval Rus’, and beyond.

Nevertheless, in the conversion of the local population to Eastern Christianity, Byzantium and Hagia Sophia of Justinian played an important role. Indeed, when the ambassadors of Prince Vladimir (r. 980-1015) attended the liturgy of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, they recounted: “…we did not know whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or beauty, and we do not know how to describe it. We only know that God dwells there among men, and that their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. Because we cannot forget this beauty. The architecture, decorations and rituals of Hagia Sophia thus reinforced the sacredness of the space, leaving remarkable impressions on all who experienced the building and sought to recreate its splendor.

Like the famous Great Church of Constantinople, Saint Sophia’s Cathedral in Kiev was designed to overwhelm the senses both visually and sensorially, physically and spiritually transposing all who have entered its walls. Unfortunately, much of that original splendor has been lost over time. This moment in time also has its challenges. The hope now is that this important monument of medieval Rus’ can survive the current attacks on Ukraine, its people and its cultural heritage so that the physical fabric and many memories of this precious monument can enrich future generations.

Alice Isabella Sullivan is an art historian specializing in medieval history, art and culture of Eastern Europe and Byzantine-Slavic cultural spheres. She wrote award-winning publicationsis co-editor of Byzantium in Eastern European visual culture in the late Middle Ages, Eclecticism in late medieval visual culture at the crossroads of Latin, Greek and Slavic traditionsand co-founder of North of Byzantium and Mapping Eastern Europe. Follow her on Twitter @AliceISullivan

Further reading:

Freeman, Evan”Byzantium, Kievan Rus’ and their contested legacies», in Smarthistory, May 10, 2021, consulted on February 27, 2022

Hrushevsky, Mykhailo. History of Ukraine-Rus’. Flight. 3, Around the year 1340. Translated by Bohdan Strumiński, ed. Robert Romanchuk, with Uliana Pasicznyk (and Marta Horban-Carynnyk). Toronto: Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies Press, 2016.

Pevny, Olenka Z. Perceptions of Byzantium and its neighbors (843-1261). New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.

Pevny, Olga Z. “Kievan Rus’.” In The Glory of Byzantium. Middle Byzantine Art and Culture, AD 843-1261, ed. Helen C. Evan and William D. Wixom, 281-287. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997.

Raffensperger, Christian. Reinventing Europe: Kievan Rus’ in the Medieval World. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Raffensperger, Christian,Rus: a brief overview,Mapping Eastern Europeaccessed 16 February 2022

Shvidkovsky, Dmitry O. Russian architecture and the West. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.

Top image: photo by SergKh78 / Wikimedia Commons

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