St. Sophia Cathedral

Saint Sophia Cathedral is a world famous monument of the first half of the 11th century.

It was built by Kiev Prince Yaroslav the Wise and got its name from the Greek word sophia which means wisdom. The 11th century was the time when art, education and culture prospered and Kiev became one of the most beautiful cities of Europe and Asia. Prince Yaroslav forged ties with European states, destroyed Pecheneg hordes and did his best to improve cultural and educational level of his newly baptized people. He found the first Russian library situated in this very cathedral. Lots of scribes were copying and translating books here. That unique book collection included thousands of manuscript volumes. As a legend goes, the library still exists, though most historians agree that it had disappeared. In front of the cathedral you can see a memorial sign, devoted to that library.

 Building the main temple of the country, prince Yaroslav wanted its scale and dedication to compete St. Sophia of Constantinople. Initially total dimensions of St. Sophia of Kiev were 55 by 42 meters with 29 meters height. Thus, it was the most grandiose Kiev structure of that time. It is considered that 40 Byzantine masters together with 80 Russian assistants constructed it. Originally the cathedral had 5 naves and 13 domes: the big dome was surrounded with 12 smaller ones symbolizing Jesus Christ with 12 Apostles.

Mainly, it was built from plinfa bricks (say, flat wide bricks of special composition). At first the church was cruciform. Later on, two-storied galleries were built from its southern, western and northern sides. From the eastern side we can still observe samples of the original 11 century brick walls of the.

At present, the architectural look of the cathedral differs radically from the original, combining constructions of several centuries. But the ancient interior of the 11th century is almost unchanged.

In the vestibule there are two models of St. Sophia: 11th century Byzantine style reconstruction and the one of the modern look. To the right there is a baptistery with an ancient marble font. Coming into the church you will see a marble threshold of the times of Yaroslav.

Mosaics and frescos

St. Sophia mosaics and frescos date back to the 11th century. Though nearly half of them were destroyed, no other European cathedral seems to have such great amount of ancient artworks. Mosaic palette contains almost 200 shades. For example, blue has 21 shades, green has 34 and yellow has 23 shades. Small pieces of smalt were placed on the wet plaster under different slopes so that reflected light create a sparking luminous surface.

Once an early Christian philosopher wrote, that images in a church should be read like a book: from top to bottom and from the left side to the right. Therefore have a look at the paintings of the central dome: at the height of 29 m there is a depiction of Christ Pantocrator as a fearsome judge. It was a Byzantine manner of depicting God. This central image is surrounded with images of four archangels. Note that only one of them has survived since the 11th century. The three others were skilfully painted by the talented artist M. Vrubel, imitating the original colours. Look, how perfectly he mastered ancient style and palette: it is very difficult to distinguish new paintings from the old ones.

On the dome drum there are images of   apostles. The dome rests on four sails with the figures of  Evangelists as Christian doctrine is based on the Gospel.

The central apse is decorated with a large mosaic depicting praying Virgin Mary. The mosaic is 6 meters height. People called this icon “The Unbreakable Wall” because neither wars nor fires have destroyed it. The legend goes that Kiev will exist till the icon exists.

Below there is a depiction of the Eucharist, as the most important of the church sacraments. Several saints below the Eucharist symbolize the unity of heavenly and earthly worlds. Numerous compositions vividly show biblical events. 

 Round the altar conch there is a Greek inscription about the city of God saying: God is in the middle of it, and it will not hesitate: God will help it from the early morning. Writing this site from the psalm-book the constructers of the temple meant Kiev.

On pillars and arches there are multiple images of holy saints, martyrs, ascetics, who had contributed the Church of Christ on the earth.

About 5,000 m2 of frescos were painted in the 11th century but only half of them survived because of repeated fires and destruction. They say that in the 15th century the cathedral remained without its roof at all. At the end of the 17th century old frescos were whitewashed with lime and were accidently found again only in 1843, when a piece of plaster fell off. They started cleaning the walls, but the job was not done properly, so that removing lime they sometimes removed old paintings as well. 

Some frescos are especially interesting as they represent secular subjects. You can see portraits of Yaroslav the Wise family members. As you know a nimbus usually denotes sanctity. But here it means belonging to a royal family as royal power was considered to be given by God. However, many of these personalities are actually camonized.  

For many years St. Sofia Cathedral was the burial place for Kiev princes. Remains of Yaroslav the Wise and several his descendants were buried here. Later on the cathedral became the burial place for the famous Kiev metropolitans as well. We will go to the southern part of the church to see the tomb of Yaroslav the Wise. His father brought this 6 ton marble sarcophagus to Kiev from conquered Chersonese. In the 20th century the coffin was opened, and the preserved bones were studied. It was determined that they belonged to a man and a woman, namely Yaroslav the Wise and his wife Irene. Having studied the skull the anthropologist-sculptor Gerasimov created the probable appearance of Yaroslav. Now this sculpture portrait is displayed in the cathedral.


Nearly 300 graffiti were found here. Some of them relate political events and historical personalities of ancient days thus being of great historical value.

The cathedral loft is unusually large. It was not by an accident, as that space was used for the library, treasury and reception of foreign ambassadors. In addition, the Grand Prince with his retinue usually stayed there during the worship.

Enthronement ceremonies of Kiev princes were held in the cathedral as well. 

On the second floor there also is a unique museum exhibition, showing fragments of frescoes and mosaics of St. Michael Cathedral, which were removed from the walls of the cathedral before its explosion.

St. Sophia history

The history of the cathedral was not easy. It was firstly mentioned as a completely finished and consecrated temple in 1051 in connection to Hilarion enthronization. Hilarion was the first metropolitan of Russian origin. 

Less than 200 years later, in 1240 the temple was badly damaged by Baty troops. They say the Tatars did not completely demolish it only because of its marvelous beauty. But Kievans left the Upper city so the temple was in ruins for more than 3 centuries. Morover, there is some indirect evidence that its parts were stolen and used as building material.

Kiev metropolitans seldom visited their devastated residence because of mongol tatars` raids. Thus the cathedral was slowly falling into decay and became a sad sight by the end of the 16th century. It survived several fires and was robbed by the Crimean Tatars.

Uniates, owning the cathedral since 1596, only worsened its state, selling even stone architectural decorations.

In 1633, due to the famous Kiev metropolitan Petro Mohila, the Cathedral became Orthodox again. From that time a long history of its revival began. The reconstruction had lasted for almost 10 years. Yet it was not completed.

Full renewal of St. Sophia began in 1688, financed by Hetman Mazepa. The Byzantine style was transformed into the Ukrainian baroque with typical pear-shaped cupolas. The cathedral was whitewashed and got 17 domes instead of 13. Thus St. Sophia virtually obtained its modern look.

In the late 18th century the Cathedral was decorated with a luxurious new iconostasis of gilded wood. But soon it was demolished not to cover the Virgin icon.

 In the 19th century cast iron floor tiles appeared. Thus today`s Sophia combines constructions of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries made by the famous architects Shedel, Sparro, Zaborovsky and others.

 In the 30ies of the 20th century the atheistic Soviet power threatened the temple complex with a complete destruction. The relict was saved due to France government. They reminded that their queen Ann, the wife of Henry the 1st, was a daughter of St. Sophia founder. Communists were afraid of breaking international scandal, and decided to turn St. Sofia into an architectural and historical preserve.

In 1990, St. Sophia Cathedral was included on the List of UNESCO Cultural Heritage. It means, that nowadays the cathedral is a museum, and no one has a rule to officiate here regularly.

UNESCO has also confirmed that St. Sophia was founded in 1011. They have stated that 2011 is the year of its 1000 anniversary. For us it means only that not Yaroslav himself but his father Vladymyr started building the cathedral. There are several historical facts* approving this version. But I am not sure whether they are reliable and not connected, for example, with politics.

*These facts are:

-dates scribed in some graffiti (they are earlier than the official1037 year of Sophia foundation),

- evidences of unofficial chronicles,
- compound and structure of the original ancient floor tiles,

- dates of birth of Yaroslav children (not all of them were born by the hypothetical time of their fresco portrait painting).