National Conservation Area “Sophia of Kyiv”
A magnificent monument of Old Rus architecture of the 11th-18th centuries rises majestically in the very heart of Kyiv. This remarkable architectural complex occupies 5 hectares (12 1/3 acres) of spacious grounds. Saint Sophia the Wisdom of God is one of the fundamental landmarks of Eastern Christianity.
With the introduction of Christianity in 988, in Kyiv started intensive construction of stone churches. Temples were decorated with mosaics, frescos, stone carvings and looked like real masterpieces. The construction had begun during the reign of Prince Volodymyr the Great in 1011, while his son Prince Yaroslav the Wise had completed it.
I’m accredited private tour guide of St.Sophia Cathedral and I invite you to book my private Kiev tour inside this magnificent landmark. Let me guide you through the centuries of its impressive history.
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Millennial history of Saint Sophia of Kyiv
Aside from its main building, the Cathedral includes an ensemble of supporting structures such as Bell Tower, House of Metropolitan, and numerous monastic buildings. St.Sophia Cathedral is the main construction of the museum of the National Conservation Area “Sophia of Kyiv”.
The name of the cathedral “Sofia” derives from Greek and means “wisdom”. Dedicated to the wisdom of the Christian religion, St. Sophia Cathedral, asserted Christianity in Kyiv. As it was built as a major metropolitan church, there were held ceremonies of the coronation of princes for the throne of Kyiv and receptions of foreign ambassadors.
During its long history, St.Sophia Cathedral survived numerous robberies, partial destructions, repairs, and reconstructions. In one of the most difficult periods of the history of ancient Kyiv – the seizure of the city by the hordes of Batu Khan in 1240 – the majority of architectural constructions were ruined. But 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 were erected the marvelous bell tower, refectory church, bakery, Metropolitan’s house, the West Gate (or Zaborovsky Gate), monastery’s brick wall, 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.
Threat of Destruction of St.Sophia in the 20th century
After the Russian Revolution of 1917 and during the Soviet anti-religious campaign of the 1920s, the Soviet government’s plan called for the cathedral’s destruction and transformation of its grounds into a park. Somehow the cathedral was saved from destruction (while St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery was destroyed) 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 Kyivska, which included 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 Sofia Kyivska. To my mind, it is rightfully a marvelous construction that dominates above the 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.
Of particular interest is the architectural decoration of the facades of the bell tower. All the walls 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 Volodymyr, Apostle Andrew, Apostle Timothy, and Archangel Raphael.
The initial construction of the Bell Tower (1699-1706), has 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 Kyiv master Athanasius Petrovich. Decorated with rich floral ornaments, it is a valuable monument of Ukrainian artistic casting of the beginning of the 18th century.
The colors of the walls of the bell tower before the reconstruction of 1851-1852’s were 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 day. 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.
20 Bronze Bells of St.Sophia
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 Kyiv masters.
On the second tier of the bell tower has preserved the bell “Mazepa”, which was cast in 1705. Bell’s name comes from the name of the 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 have been preserved in Ukraine. It 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 is firmly hung.
In 2008, 20 new bronze bells were installed in the bell tower, it is the exact number of the bells that in combination with the “Mazepa” should give a complete melody. The biggest of them weighs 300 kg and the smallest – 4kg; the total weight of all the bells – is 835 kg, which is much less than the weight of the majority of the old bells.
Mosaics and frescoes of St.Sophia
Mosaics and frescoes played an extremely important role: they were like the “bible for the illiterate.” After all, the Church paid great importance to the visual arts – as if paintings of the temple explained to people the essence of the Christian religion and morality and events of the Old and New Testament.
I always take my guests on a tour inside St.Sophia within the Full Day Kyiv Tour. The itinerary of the tour is planned so that we have enough time to visit this outstanding landmark of Eastern Slavic Christianity. It is an honor for a local Kiev tour guide to present St.Sophia to foreign guests.
St. Sophia has been a symbol of the Church of Wisdom for the Eastern Slavonic world. It is the best proof of its high spiritual mission. The cathedral preserves the ancient architecture and is the most complete in the world ensemble of original mosaics and frescoes of the 11th century – 260 square meters of mosaics and 3000 square meters of frescoes. They are true masterpieces of world art.