Mosaics and frescoes
Mosaics and frescoes
The mural painting of the cathedral is in organic unity with its architecture. The central characters appear in the main dome and altar highlighted by mosaics. Images of Christ Pantocrator, Mother of God Orans, Apostles, Enlighteners and other saints depicted on a shining golden background were taken from the cubes of multicolored glassy mass (smalt). The mosaics impress with the brightness and richness of the palette, which has 177 colors and shades. The exceptional richness of the palette consists of 34 shades of green, 25 – gold and brown, 23 – yellow, 21 – blue, 19 – red, 9 – silver and gray, 6 – purple and more. The keynote of the palette are blue, purple, and light gray colors, which harmonize perfectly with gold, giving the ensemble a color unity. The golden background of the mosaics seemed to absorb the heavenly light; majestic figures, illuminated by its shimmering rays, create the effect of an amazing phenomenon to their viewers.
A view of the central dome
The placement of the characters corresponds to the iconographic canons developed by the Church, to which the system of painting is subordinated, which is marked by ideological and decorative integrity, harmony, and interaction with service. The dome was seen as the sky where God is, so at the highest point of the temple – the zenith of the central dome, in a medallion with 9 colorful, like a rainbow, circles – a monumental image of Christ Pantocrator (The Almighty) is situated. He reigns over all space. The image of the Creator and Ruler of the world, full of power and majestic peace, gives rise to the idea of the reliability of the world order established by him.
Christ is surrounded with archangels standing on the four sides of the world, forming an honorary escort. The archangel in blue robes is preserved in the mosaic, the other three were skillfully painted by M. Vrubel at the end of the 19th century. Below, in the sheets of the light drum the figures of 12 apostles are situated. The upper part of the figure of the Apostle Paul is preserved in the mosaic. The Gospels in the hands of apostles mean that they enlighten the nations with the word of divine truth. Under the dome, on spherical triangles (pediments), there are four evangelists – John, Matthew, Mark and Luke, depicted in the process of writing the Gospels. Among these, the image of Mark on the southwest pediment is completely preserved in the mosaic. On the four domed arches – medallions depicting the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste. They were depicted as the support of the Church; on their bones and blood it was built. From this composition of 30 mosaic medallions and 10 frescoes (on the western arch) – 10 ancient images of martyrs on the southern arch and 5 – on the north one are preserved.
The Annunciation. Mosaic of the XI century
The eastern, triumphal arch opens the altar. A mosaic of the Annunciation on its pillars flanks the altar space: the archangel Gabriel brings to the Virgin Mary the Good News of the coming birth of the Savior. On the north pillar the blessed messenger archangel Gabriel in rapid motion is depicted, on the south – the Virgin Mary with a ball of yarn, which she prepared for the curtain of the Jerusalem temple. On the same level with the Annunciation, on the inner northern plane of the pillar of the triumphal arch, there is an extremely impressive mosaic figure of the high priest Aaron. The main altar is crowned above the arch of the apse (altar niche) by a mosaic composition “Deesis” (“Prayer”) – three medallions with busts. In the central, cruciform one, Christ is depicted, to whom John the Forerunner and the Mother of God bowed reverently in prayer.
The Deesis. Mosaic of the XI century
In the vault of the main altar – the glorious image of Mother of God Orans (the Prayer) – the symbol of the Earthly Church. The majestic six-meter figure on the concave surface seems to be surrounded by divine light, which creates an eternally shining halo around Orans. Raising hands to heaven, the Mother of God offers unceasing prayer to the Son for the people. For centuries, Orans was revered as the Prayer for the Rus’ land, the Unbreakable Wall of its main stronghold – Kyiv. Below the Orans, the mosaic “The Eucharist” shines with colors – a symbolic scene of the apostles’ communion. Christ is depicted twice; He gives communion to the apostles’: bread (left) and wine (right). In the lower tier of the altar mosaics is the “The Hierarchs Tier“, which represents the Fathers of the Church, who contributed to the victory of Christianity over paganism and heresy in word and deed. Among them – Pope Clement, whose relics were brought by Volodymyr from Korsun, laid in the Tithe Church, and since then this saint was revered as the patron saint of newly converted Rus.
All other compartments of the cathedral are decorated with frescoes – exquisite in pattern and color wall painting, which is made of wet plaster diluted in water with mineral paints. Despite the significant damage of the frescoes, their palette pleases the eye with the purity and intensity of the paint. The core role is played by the Christological cycle located in the domed space. Consistently illustrating the earthly history of Christ, the frescoes are arranged in three registers and are read “like a book” – from left to right and from top to bottom. The story of Salvation unfolds epic before the spectator; moving in a circle, he seems to visit the holy places of Palestine. The final scenes of the apostolic acts in the name of Salvation and Resurrection are associated with the baptism of Rus and the mission of Volodymyr Equal to the Apostles. No wonder the Christological cycle ends with a large group portrait of the family of the Kyivan prince, which makes a ceremonial exit to the church. Lateral fragments of the portrait depicting the prince’s children have been preserved: four figures on the south wall of the central nave and two on the north. The prince and the princess were painted in the central part of the fresco, which did not survive because it was located on the wall of the western three-span arcade, dismantled in the late seventeenth century. A. van Westerfeld’s sketch of 1651 gives an idea of this lost part of the fresco. Given that the chronicles call Yaroslav the founder of Sophia, it was generally believed that the throne figure of Christ (missing in Westerfeld’s drawing) was originally depicted in the center of the fresco, to which Yaroslav’s family approached on two sides: a prince with sons and a princess with daughters.
The Grand Prince’s portrait, southern part. Fresco of the XI century.
Although the portrait is traditionally associated with the family of Yaroslav the Wise, this view is outdated. It is refuted by the data of the Sophia graffiti, the earliest of which contain the dates of 1018/21 and 1019. Thus, the portrait, like the whole mural, appeared not later than this time. Meanwhile, the prince’s older children are depicted here as adults, and the eldest daughter is represented in the headdress of a married woman – a headscarf under the prince’s hat. It is known that the eldest sons of Yaroslav (Volodymyr, Izyaslav, Svyatoslav and Vsevolod) were born in 1020, 1024, 1027 and 1030, respectively, and daughters – only about 1030/32. Thus, the fresco depicts not his family, but the family Volodymyr Svyatoslavych – the founder of the church and the customer of the painting. The procession solemnly enters the temple in two groups – male and female. The prince at the head of the procession carries a Jerusalem reliquary in the form of a five-domed Tithe Church, the “mother of Rus’ churches.” Jerusalem in the hand of Volodymyr is a liturgical symbol of the newly converted Rus’, which the Equal to the Apostles prince and leader of the new “chosen people” (the new Moses) leads to the altar of Sophia of the Wisdom of God. Illustrating the consecration of St. Sophia, the fresco symbolizes the baptism of Rus’, the equal apostolic mission of Volodymyr and Anna.
The unique cycle of secular frescoes of the cathedral towers is subordinated to the general concept of the mural ensemble. In ancient times, the towers were isolated from the interior, the entrance to them was outside. Members of the princely family with the retinue walked up the towers to the choirs, which determined the palace theme of the frescoes. According to the ceremonial, the men climbed the spiral staircase of the south tower to the male, southern half of the choirs; women used the north tower reaching women’s, northern choirs. According to this, the central plots are clearly divided by theme: in the south tower there is a large composition “The Hippodrome”, in the north – “The Coronation Entry of the Tsarina”. Composition “The Hippodrome” unfolds from the bottom up on the wall of the south tower. It consists of three main stages: chariots with charioteers going to the start, chariots racing, and the winner’s finish near the Emperor’s loge (Kathisma) of the Great palace of Constantinople, to the left of which is a slightly smaller loge of ambassadors. The portrait of the emperor, which bears a great resemblance to the image of the most prominent representative of the Macedonian dynasty Basil II (976-1025), is noteworthy. Basil II sits in his loge on the throne, and next to him the eunuch is depicted in a position of complete obedience. Behind him is the head of the Rus’ embassy, the factotum of the prince. It was a trusted person of the prince, a boyar who acted on his behalf.
Emperor Basil II at the hippodrome. Fresco of the XI century.
In the ambassador’s loge, a courtier stands in front of three Rus’ ambassadors, presenting the emperor’s high guests to the public. The culminating scene of the northern (female) tower is “The Coronation Entry of the Princess”. In the center of the composition is the entry to the terrace, from which the newly crowned princess appears in front of the people in a wedding veil under the crown. The fresco depicts the coronation of Princess Anna during her engagement to Volodymyr. The ceremony is attended by Basil II and young nieces of Anna – Princess Zoya, Theodora, Evdokia. When Volodymyr was engaged to Anna, he received the title of Caesar, and according to the ceremony she was crowned as the Tsar’s bride and publicly proclaimed as Tsarina. In general, the frescoes of the towers form a triumphal cycle, which echoes the palace cycles of Byzantium, which glorified the emperors through depictions of significant events in their lives. But the secular cycle in the towers of Sophia of Kyiv was called not only to glorify the princely couple Volodymyr and Anna, but also to sanctify the history of Rus’, which triumphantly joined the family of Christian people.
In addition to large narrative scenes, the mural of Sophia contains more than 500 images of individual saints. This colossal “council of saints” creates a strong impression of the appearance of the Christian cosmos to the spectator, of its opening to the new people. The spiritual images of the apostles Peter and Paul, St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, the healer Panteleimon, the holy warriors Andrew Stratilat and Demetrius of Thessaloniki, the martyrs Victor, Domne and Philip attract attention. A notable feature of the fresco painting of the cathedral is the presence of a huge number of “holy wives”, which can be explained by the role of Princess Anna as the founder of Sophia together with her husband Volodymyr. Female characters appear in the western part of the temple, where women were housed in ancient times. Here are images of holy tsarins, which are associated with Princess Anna, Volodymyr’s wife. Among the images of “holy wives” we find rare in their depth images of Agafia, Anastasia, Sophia, Paraskeva, Nina, Tekla, Marina, Evdokia and many others. Unusual in number of characters, the pantheon of Sophia is a whole gallery of masterpieces, which spiritually unites generations, fills human life with high meaning. The specifics of the selection and placement of saints testifies to the attempt to glorify in the mural the princely couple of the Baptists of Rus’ and the founders of the cathedral – Volodymyr and Anna.