St. Sophia Cathedral

National Historical Reserve “Sophia of Kiev”

A magnificent monument of ancient Slavic architecture of the 11th-18th centuries rises majestically in the very heart of Kiev city. It outshined all that was created in the previous eras and was not surpassed in the next centuries. This remarkable architectural complex occupies five hectares (12 1/3 acres) of spacious grounds.

With the introduction of Christianity in 988, in the Kievan Rus, started intensive construction of stone Christian churches. Temples were decorated with wall paintings, stone carvings and became real masterpieces. According to chronicles the foundation of the Sofia Cathedral was laid in 1017 or 1037. 

St.Sophia Cathedral

View on the St.Sophia Cathedral from the Bell Tower

Its construction began during the reign of Yaroslav the Wise and was consecrated in 1032. The temple was built on the site of the battle of Kievans with the Pechenegs, which ended in the complete defeat of the nomads.

Aside from its main building, the cathedral includes an ensemble of supporting structures such as a bell tower and the House of Metropolitan. The complex of the Cathedral is the main component and museum of the National Preserve “Sophia of Kiev” which is the state institution responsible for the preservation of the Cathedral complex as well as four other historic landmarks across the nation.

The name of the cathedral “Sophia” derives from the Greek and means wisdom. Dedicated to “the wisdom of the Christian teaching”, St. Sophia Cathedral, according to the creators had to assert Christianity in the Kievan Rus. As it was built as a major metropolitan church, there took place the ceremony of coronation of princes for the throne of Kiev and receptions of foreign ambassadors.

During its long history, St.Sophia Cathedral survived the invasion of enemies, numerous robberies, partial destruction, repairs, and reconstruction. In one of the most difficult periods of the history of ancient Kiev – the seizure of the city by the hordes of Batu Khan in 1240 – the majority of architectural constructions were ruined. But Saint Sophia survived. In the 16th century, the Cathedral was seized by the Uniates and became completely dilapidated. The roof was decayed, the vaults of the galleries and some of the murals were destroyed.

In the 17th century, after the national liberation struggle of the Ukrainian people led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky and the reunification of Ukraine and Russia started an intensive stone construction of the city. The new monastery complex was completed only by 1767. During this period the marvelous bell tower was erected, the refectory, the bakery, the Metropolitan’s residence, the West Gate (or Zaborovsky Gate), the monastery’s brick wall, the south entrance tower, the cells of the cathedral elders and the seminary. After this reconstruction, the architectural style of the monastery buildings and the exterior of the St. Sofia Cathedral reflected features typical of the 17th- and 18th-century Ukrainian baroque. 

After the Russian Revolution of 1917 and during the Soviet anti-religious campaign of the 1920s, the government plan called for the cathedral’s destruction and transformation of the grounds into a park. Somehow the cathedral was saved from destruction (while, for example, St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery was destroyed in 1935 ) primarily with the effort of many scientists and historians.

An interesting fact is that in the late 1980s all Orthodox and the Greek-Catholic Churches lay claim to St.Sophia Cathedral. But Soviet politicians promised to return the building to the Orthodox Church.

In 1934, was created the State Architectural and Historical Reserve Sofia Kievska, which includes St. Sophia Cathedral and monastery buildings of the 18th century.

Bell Tower of the St.Sophia Cathedral

I would like to especially highlight the magnificent bell tower of Sophia Kievska. To my mind, it is rightfully a marvelous construction of the whole complex. Its height is 76 meters and it is built in the shape of a stepped pyramid of four tiers, gradually decreasing in size to the culmination point of the dome.

St.Sophia Cathedral Bell Tower

Majestical St.Sophia Bell Tower

Of particular interest is the architectural decoration of facades of the bell tower. All the walls of it are covered with lush and rich moldings. The first tier of the bell tower is marked by a special wealth in architecture and stucco decoration, showing the great influence of Ukrainian folk art. There are sculptured images of Prince Vladimir, the Apostle Andrew, the Apostle Timothy and the Archangel Raphael, on the facades of the third tier placed in rectangular frames.

From the initial construction, which was erected in the years 1699-1706, have survived only the first and a part of the second tiers. But despite this fact, the architecture and decoration of the whole bell tower are designed in the same style.

The bell which is preserved in the second tier was cast in 1705 by the Kiev talented master Athanasius Petrovich. It is decorated with rich floral ornaments, which cover a wide frieze bell neck and run along its bottom edge by a thin thread. It is a valuable monument of Ukrainian artistic casting of the beginning of the 18th century.

Colors of the walls of the bell tower before the reconstruction of the 1851-1852’s was polychromatic. Thus, after the reconstruction of the 1744-1748’s the walls were painted in blue, the stucco decoration was ivory and figures of the saints, angels and masks were painted this way: faces – yellow color, hair – black color and costumes – different colors.

After the restoration and building of the fourth tier, the bell tower was painted in two colors. This color scheme is preserved to the present days. In all cases, the color molding and ornaments remained white or ivory, and fields of the walls are painted in green or turquoise colors of varying intensity.

The bells of the Bell Tower

Until 1930 the bell tower counted 20 bells. Among them were five “great” bells: e.g. “Raphael” and “Mazepa” were the biggest ones. All the bells of St. Sophia were made at different times exclusively by the Kiev masters.

On the second tier of the bell tower has preserved the bell “Mazepa”, which was cast in 1705 by the known at those times Kiev master Athanasius Petrovich. Bell’s name comes from the name of a patron, who gave funds for its casting, as well as for the construction of the entire bell tower – Ivan Mazepa (a prominent Hetman of Ukraine). “Mazepa” – is the largest among all the bronze bells, which has preserved in Ukraine. It’s has got one of the richest ornamental decorations. The diameter of the bell is 1.55 m, height – 1.25 m. The weight is about 2 tons, but it’s not possible to accurately measure the weight because the bell firmly hung.

In 2008, to the 1020th anniversary of the Baptism of Rus, 20 new bronze bells were installed in the bell tower – according to the conducted estimates, it is the exact number of the bells that in combination with the “Mazepa” should give a complete sound. The biggest of them weighs 300 kg, and the smallest – 4kg; the total weight of all the bells – 835 kg, which is much less than the weight of the majority of the old bells.

Mosaics and frescoes of Sophia Kievska

Mosaics and frescoes were called to play an extremely important role: they were like a “Bible for the illiterate.” After all, Kievan Rus had just been baptized, and the Church attached a great importance to the visual arts – as if paintings of the temple explained neophytes the essence of the Christian religion and morality, expounded the events of the Old and New Testament. This role of the church fine art again became important in our days.

The system mosaic and fresco painting of St. Sophia Cathedral was intended to reflect in the images of art the idea of the defense of the Orthodox Kievan Rus by the Christ and the Virgin. They, together with the apostles, evangelists, saints and martyrs are in eternal union with the Church of Christ on the Earth.

St.Sophia Cathedral,”the Wisdom of God” is an outstanding monument of Old Slavic Rus architecture, the main temple of Kievan metropolitans.