Historical fate

Historical fate

Anna Yaroslavna (Anne de Kyiv)

           The time of the cathedral’s appearance marks the highest rise in the history of Kyivan Rus, which in the late 10th – early 11th century was at the zenith of its heyday. Having received baptism in 988/9 from Byzantium, which was the world power of the Middle Ages, Rus triumphantly entered the international stage and became one of the most powerful states in Europe. The Kyivan princes were connected by prestigious dynastic marriages with the ruling families of many countries. Volodymyr married Princess Anna Porphyrogenita, the sister of the powerful Byzantine Emperor Basil II, and Yaroslav married Princess Ingegerd of Sweden (in baptizm Iryna), daughter of Olof Shötkonung, Sweden’s first Christian king of the strongest Scandinavian state of that time.


Volodymyr’s daughters, Agafia (Agatha) and Maria Dobroniega, made a match to the English and Polish kings, and Yaroslav’s daughters, Elizabeth, Anna and Anastasia, became queens of Norway, France and Hungary.                                 


A memorial sign in honor of the founding of the first library in Rus. Sculptor Ivan Kavaleridze. 1969


The symbol of the power and sovereignty of Rus was St. Sophia Cathedral – “Rus Metropolitanate”. As the main temple of the state, it played the role of its spiritual, political and cultural center. Under the vaults of St. Sophia there were solemn ceremonies of mounting the Grand Ducal throne, church councils, ordinations to metropolitans, receptions of ambassadors, approval of political agreements. Kyivans “from small to big” gathered to Sophia for “veche” (town’s meeting). The first known library in Rus was established at the cathedral, where chronicles were kept and books “from Greek to Slavic writing” were translated.     


The history of the cathedral knows repeated lootings, fires, years of desolation, repairs and reconstruction. In 1240, during the conquest of Kyiv by the hordes of Batu, St. Sophia Cathedral survived, but was looted and devastated. Despite the invasion of the Horde, Sophia remained the metropolitan residence, the spiritual center of all Rus. Under Metropolitan Cyril II (1242-1280), who was an authoritarian hierarch, St. Sophia was repaired and put in order. In the 14th century South-Western Rus fell under the rule of the Lithuanian state. After the transfer of the metropolitan’s residence from Kyiv to Volodymyr on Klyazma, and then to Moscow (1325), the Lithuanian princes initiated the creation of a separate metropolis for their Orthodox subjects. However, the danger of Tatar raids led to the fact that the southern Rus metropolitans almost did not live in Kyiv, having a residence in the capital Vilna or in Novogrudok, near Vilna.

Metropolitan Macarius of Kyiv. Oil painting of Sophia of Kyiv. 13th century.


The Orthodox Church was then in decline and suffered from Catholic expansion, internal strife and the ruin of its estates. Ukraine was also concerned about the Tatars, who carried out devastating raids on its land. In 1416 Kyiv was devastated and burned by the Hordes of Edigu, and in 1482 by the Crimean Khan Mengli-Giray. In 1497, the relics of Metropolitan Macarius, who had been killed by the Tatars near Mozyr while travelling from Vilna to Kyiv to help Sophia robbed by the “Hagarenes”, were laid to rest in Sophia. Since then, the relics of Macarius (now in St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral) are revered as a great shrine of Kyiv.


 After the Union of Brest in 1596, the cathedral was taken over by the Uniates. The condition of Sophia, for the possession of which there was a fierce struggle, remained very disappointing. The sacristy of the cathedral was looted, the roof was torn off and stolen. In the first quarter of the 17th century the western wall of Sophia fell, blocking the central entrance with debris.

Metropolitan Petro Mohyla

        The revival of the cathedral is associated with the name of Metropolitan Petro Mohyla (1633-1647), whose cadence, like that of his successor Sylvester Kosov (1647-1657), coincided with the Liberation War of 1648-1654 under the leadership of Bohdan Khmelnytsky. Mohyla carried out extensive repair and restoration work in Sophia and founded a monastery there.


Then the so-called Age of Ruin (1657 – 1687) came, and Sophia fell into disrepair again for several decades.

Hetman Ivan Mazepa


      A new bright page in the history of the cathedral was the time of Hetman Ivan Mazepa (1687-1709) and his associate Metropolitan Varlaam Yasinsky (1690-1707). At the turn of the 17-18th centuries Sophia was completely restored and externally rebuilt. Dressed in new baroque robes, she expressed the idea of Ukrainian statehood in the sound of Mazepa’s era.


During the 18th century the interior of the temple is also changing. Its ruined western part is being rebuilt, as a result of which the center of the cathedral becomes more spacious. Old frescoes are plastered and whitewashed, and new oil paintings appear on top of them. The newly created art ensemble was a model of mature baroque, marked by a bright local colouring.

     The 19th century was for Sophia an epoch of discovery, study and restoration at the level of that time of its ancient artistic values. In 1843–1853 the frescoes were cleared from later paintings and renewed with oil paints. At the end of the 19th century the era of the first major restorations of Sophia of Kyiv is over. Restoration of the cathedral, carried out in the middle of the 19th century by F. Solntsev and continued at the end of the century by A. Prakhov, opened to the world the largest national monument of architecture and monumental painting, after which the ancient Rus art was talked about as an artistic phenomenon of millennia ago. This was a new point of view in comparison with the accepted in those times attitude to the oldest shrines of Kyiv as Byzantine monuments.

Restoration of mosaics by P. Yukin.

     After the establishment of Bolshevik rule in Ukraine (1919), Sophia of Kyiv remained a functioning church for more than two decades. In 1934 it was closed and turned into the State Architectural and Historical Reserve. Since then, a commission for the restoration of Sophia has been working in the reserve under the chairmanship of the famous Moscow art critic I. Grabar. It leads a group of Leningrad and Moscow restorers, including V. Frolov, P. Yukin, K. Dombrovska, and others, who conserve the plastered foundations of Sophia mosaics and frescoes and clear the frescoes from oil paintings of the 19th century.


Interrupted by the war, this work was continued in the 1950s by Kyiv restorers L. Kalenichenko, E. Mamolat, and O. Plyushch, and was completed in the 1970s by their students. As a result, ancient frescoes in all parts of the interior of Sophia have been freed from oil layers. In places where frescoes and mosaics of the XI century are not preserved, oil renovations of the XIX century are left. All remnants of 18th century frescoes that survived the restoration of the 19th century were preserved and conserved. Currently, the condition of St. Sophia Cathedral and the ensemble of its monumental painting is monitored by a group of specialists led by the restorer of the Conservation Area A. Ostapchuk.


     In 1987, an international jury of Hamburg Foundation awarded Sophia Reserve the European Gold Medal for preservation of historical monuments. In 1990, St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv, along with the entire complex of monastic buildings, was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. After Ukraine gained independence, the Conservation Area received the status of National (1994). Since then, its name is the National Conservation Area “St. Sophia of Kyiv”.