In the stucco molding that decorates the iconic architectural and historical landmark for Kyiv – the Bell Tower of St. Sophia of Kyiv (1697 – 1706), which is called Mazepa’s, there is an image of a double-headed eagle, whose heads are concluded with royal crowns, in its paws the bird holds the symbols of supreme power – a scepter and the state.

1. Bell Tower of St. Sophia of Kyiv. First tier. View from the square. 1706

Two-headed eagles can be seen on the first tier of the Bell Tower, which has survived from the time of Hetman Ivan Mazepa, under whom it was erected and decorated with stucco in 1706. In the middle of the 18th c. the two upper tiers, due to their damage, were rebuilt and also decorated with stucco molding stylized to match the decor of the lower tier, skillfully executed by masters from Zhovkva, Ivan and Stepan Stobenski.

1a. Bell Tower. First tier

The three-tier St. Sophia’s Bell Tower from the side of Sophiiska Square is depicted in a small and rather indistinct watercolor of the 1840s by M. Sazhyn, who, apparently due to technical factors, depicted the stucco of the bell tower quite conventionally, but at the top of the first tier you can still see four dark squares in which, judging by their configuration, double-headed eagles are guessed.

2. Watercolor by Sazhyn

In the mid–19th century the fourth tier of the belfry was built with stucco molding corresponding to the motifs. It is noteworthy that the later stuccowork of the 18th and 19th centuries, although it basically corresponds to the lower tiers, no longer has the same richness as the decorations of the latter (especially the first), which belong to the era of Mazepa or Cossack Baroque. It is enough to look at the colorful images of angels on the first tier of the bell tower, interpreted as Ukrainian men in belted Cossack robes, to feel the unique days of Mazepa here.

There is a similar symbolic sign on the silver Holy Gate of St. Sophia’s iconostasis of the mid–18th century, created during the time of Kyiv Metropolitan Raphail Zaborovskyi (1731–1747).

3. The Holy Gate of the main iconostasis of St. Sophia of Kyiv. The mid–18th century.

Unfortunately, since the 19th century, in secular literature and public opinion, as well as by some modern visitors, these symbolic signs are sometimes mistakenly perceived as the royal coats of arms of the Russian Empire. The misunderstanding of the phenomenon of these images leads to the appearance in our society of unacceptable Herostratus demands to destroy the mentioned images. During totalitarian times, Ukraine already experienced the barbaric destruction of church monuments, and these scars remained in our culture and our souls forever. To talk today about the need to destroy the two-headed eagles on St. Sophia monuments included in the UNESCO List is to ignore its basic principles and call for a crime against not only our, but also the world’s cultural heritage. First of all, I would like to note that the above-mentioned St. Sophia shrines were created during the heyday of the Ukrainian Cossack state – the Hetmanate, and both the above mentioned figures were outstanding personalities of our history and culture, Ukrainian patriots, generous donors who built the national state and the Church. In addition, at the beginning of the 18th century, when the Bell Tower was built, Mazepa’s relations with the Russian Tsar Peter I became sharply worse, so the Hetman, who soon rose up against him, could not glorify the predatory Russian Tsar here. In fact, the hetman, who evidently saw the image of the double-headed eagle on Ukrainian monuments as historical symbols of national sovereignty, glorified the Ukrainian state and himself as its leader. It is not for nothing that his banner from the hetman’s capital Baturyn, which is kept in the Kharkiv Historical Museum, features a double-headed eagle – a symbol of his power, reminiscent of St. Sophia phenomena.

4. Mazepa’s original flag

4a. Mazepa’s flag (reconstruction)

Samely famous “Thesis in honor of Ivan Mazepa” of 1706 (engraving by I. Migura) is crowned by a seven-column rotunda as a symbol of Saint Sophia the Wisdom of God, which is inscribed with a double-headed eagle.

In this case, how can one understand the appearance of crowned double-headed eagles here? Of course, based on where they are placed, where they come from and what meaning they contain. This archaic sign became a symbol of the Byzantine Empire during the reign of the Palaiologoi dynasty (1261 – 1453), rather, the heraldic emblem of this dynasty and signified the duality (symphony, sacred harmony) of royal and bishop power embodied in Christ. This emblem of the Palaiologoi did not arise in their time in an “empty place”, because it had a twofold semantic content, laid in the very foundations of the Byzantine statehood at the beginning of its existence. It embodies the very ancient Byzantine ideological doctrine of the “symphony of powers” as a divinely established sacred structure of the legal society of the Holy Christian State. Evidently, hetman Mazepa – a faithful son of the Church, who consistently pursued the policy of a “symphony of powers” – understood the sign of the double-headed eagle in the same way, and his associate and friend was Kyiv Metropolitan Varlaam Yasynskyi. This is very clearly visible in the literature and art of Mazepa’s time. Hetman, as a highly educated person, knew well that the idea of a symphony of powers, formulated as early as IV c. in the Church History, as well as in other works of the Byzantine author Eusebius Pamphilus (265 – 339), originates from the time of the Christianizer of Byzantium, Emperor Constantine the Great (272 – 337), whose friend and associate was St. Eusebius Pamphilus, bishop of Caesarea. However, the sign itself, which was associated with the Sun, a powerful state power, arose in the Middle East as early as the 3 – 2 millennia BC, together with the first states on earth, and became a divine or royal sign long before the reign of Constantine the Great, and even more so – Palaiologoi. After the fall of Byzantium in 1453, the double-headed eagle as a symbol began to exist simultaneously in two planes – secular and ecclesiastical. On the one hand, politically, it became a heraldic symbol of the Empire, and on the other, spiritually – of the Church. During the late Middle Ages and modern times, monarchs who claimed the inheritance of the Roman or Byzantine Empire began to use it as a coat of arms. So, it became the coat of arms of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (and after its liquidation – of the Austrian Empire). The double-headed eagles could not have come there from Moscow, or even later – from St. Petersburg. At different times, the double-headed eagle was included in the coats of arms of the Balkan states that arose on the former Byzantine territories: Serbia, Montenegro, Yugoslavia, Albania, etc. and signified their historical dependence on Byzantium, strength and sovereignty. Only at the end of the 15th c. this emblem was appropriated by the Moscow principality (since 1547 – the Moscow kingdom). It is believed that he was brought to Moscow by the second wife of the Grand Prince of Moscow Ivan III, grandmother of Tsar Ivan IV the Terrible Sophia (Zoe) Palaiologina (1455–1503), who came from the Palaiologoi dynasty of Byzantine emperors. She was the niece of the last emperor Constantine XI and after his death and the fall of Constantinople in 1453 she lived under the protection of the Pope, and in 1472 she brought this symbol from Rome to Moscovia. Shortly after his wedding with Sophia Palaiologina, Ivan III began to mint the Byzantine double-headed eagle on his seals as a symbol of the sacred royal power he supposedly legitimately inherited from Byzantium. This tradition was picked up by his heirs and successors on the throne. When the Russian Empire was created under Peter I in 1721, the double-headed eagle became its state emblem, which was inherited by modern Russia in 1993 with certain modifications.

However, in order to correctly understand the presence of this emblem on the mentioned St. Sophia church monuments, one should not forget that after the fall of Byzantium in the Orthodox Church, which originated from there, this symbol first of all acquired a spiritual, Episcopal meaning. Since then, this perception has spread in the countries of the Byzantine cultural area, and numerous images of the double-headed eagle as a purely church symbol can be seen, for example, on Mount Athos, in Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania, Macedonia, Cyprus and other Eastern Christian countries. This spiritual-hierarchical symbol began to decorate bell towers, bishops’ thrones, iconostases, the Holy Gate etc., because the Head of the Church is the heavenly image of the bishops, Jesus Christ – the King of Glory and the Great Bishop, who during the Liturgy comes out of the Holy Gate of the altar to the faithful in the Holy Gifts, in order to give communion to them with His Body and Blood. In small medallions on St. Sophia Holy Gate, Old Testament holy kings are depicted one above the other, which are prototypes of Christ as the King of kings in the form of a crowned double-headed eagle. In the same way, double-headed eagles mark the entrance or triumphal bell towers, which, accordingly, have a triumphal arch through which pilgrims go to the cathedral to meet Christ. On the St. Sophia Silver Holy Gate, the gilded figurines placed on it symbolically depict the Tree of Jesse (father of King David) – the canonical iconographic plot of the sacred genealogy of Jesus Christ from the holy King David, who sits on the throne (below) to Jesus himself as the King of Glory and the Great Bishop, who embodies the crowned double-headed eagle depicted above. That is, in a spiritual sense, the double-headed eagle here is a sacred church symbol of Jesus Christ Himself.

Since Christ is the prototype of the bishops, we see a double-headed eagle crowned with a crown as the patriarchal symbol of the Orthodox Church of Constantinople above the entrance to the Church of St. George in Istanbul, where the residence of the Patriarch of Constantinople is located.

5. Cathedral Church of St. George in Istanbul. The 16th century

The double-headed eagle as a patriarchal symbol also marks the seat of the Catholicos of Armenia. In the Orthodox and Greek-Catholic Churches, a round orlet (Eagle carpet) is laid under the bishop’s feet in every place where he is in the church. Therefore, these heraldic signs of Christ the King of Glory and the Great Bishop on the Sophia Bell Tower and the Royal Gate of St. Sophia of Kyiv should, without a doubt, be perceived not as the royal coat of arms of Russia, but as a spiritual genetically Byzantine, later Ukrainian episcopal (metropolitan) symbol, because St. Sophia from the very beginning of its existence, it was the cathedral of the Kyiv Metropolitanate, which was part of the Constantinople Patriarchate. This historically determined subordination, which brought the Orthodox Church of Ukraine into the bosom of the Ecumenical Church, was restored in 2019. In 2008, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I consecrated the restored Royal Gate in St. Sophia and, of course, was not surprised by the image of a double-headed eagle on the Holy Gate of the main altar of the cathedral.

That is why double-headed eagles as a church, not a state symbol of power appear in our country not from Moscow and St. Petersburg, but from Constantinople and Mount Athos.

6. Monastery of St. Neofit of the 12th century in Cyprus. Floor mosaic

They are not just a reminder of Byzantium, where the faith of Christ came to us, but a sacred sign of higher spiritual authority. Muscovy and its direct heir, the Russian Empire, and after it, modern Russia, appropriated the ancient Byzantine symbol as a state coat of arms in order to ancientize and magnify their own history and assert themselves as an empire. So this fact does not mean at all that we should eliminate these symbolic church images on the unique historical and cultural monuments of Sophia, which retain their authenticity and are pearls of our national cultural heritage.

7. Greek Cathedral Church of St. Sophia in London. Floor mosaic. 1882

8. Modern Greek eagle

Doctor of Science, Prof. Nadia Nikitenko