Designed to rival Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, Kiev's Saint-Sophia Cathedral symbolizes the 'new Constantinople', capital of the Christian principality of Kiev, which was created in the 11th century in a region evangelized after the baptism of St Vladimir in 988. The spiritual and intellectual influence of Kiev-Pechersk Lavra contributed to the spread of Orthodox thought and the Orthodox faith in the Russian world from the 17th to the 19th century.
© Federica Leone
St Sophia, a Greek-cross church, is one of the major edifices representing the culture of Eastern Christianity in the 11th century, inspired by Byzantine models. the stylistic features of its decoration were spread throughout Kievan Russia in the 11th century by the icon painters working in Kiev. Kiev-Pechersk Lavra is of outstanding significance in the Ukrainian national heritage, and the ancient monastic foundation plays a very important role in the spiritual and intellectual life of the Russian world.
The construction of St Sophia Cathedral was begun in the first half of the 11th century, probably in 1037 by Yaroslav the Sage. It was meant to replace Kiev's very first church, the Dessiatinnaya (Our Lady of the Tithes), built by his great-grandmother Duchess Olga in 952. Conceived in opus mixtum, with 12 columns dividing the interior into five naves, the church represents a perfect fusion between symbolic image and architecture: the big central gilt cupola and twelve smaller cupolas which crown it evoke Christ and the 12 Apostles in a pyramidal composition so strongly expressed that it was not diminished in the restoration of the onion domes in the 18th century
A complex of monastic buildings surrounds the church. Built originally of wood in 1633, the buildings were destroyed by fire in 1697 and reconstructed in stone. The four-storey bell tower, overhung by a gilt onion cupola, the Metropolitan's house, the refectory, the west gate, the tower at the south entrance, the Brothers' building, and the seminary were built. A stone enceinte encircled these buildings, which are typical of Ukrainian Baroque style, the influence of which can also be seen in contemporary restoration work on the cathedral. Designated an 'Architectural and Historical Reserve of the State' in 1934, St Sophia was spared the widespread devastation of the Second World War. It is now administered as a monument museum.
In a wooded area on two hills overlooking the right bank of the Dnieper River is Kiev-Pechersk Lavra, a monastery complex consisting of numerous monuments and grottoes. Now the area is surrounded by the urban agglomeration of Greater Kiev, which has undergone rapid expansion since 1980.
The Lavra boasts very ancient origins and rapidly became the seat of a community governed by the abbot St Theodosius. With the support of the Princes of Kiev, the monastery immediately began to prosper. Devastated by the Mongols and the Tatars, Lavra was almost entirely rebuilt in the 17th century and afterward. A print shop was founded in 1615, mainly issuing devotional literature and history. The Lavra played a highly important intellectual role: these were times of great prosperity, when pilgrims flocked to the site, and the grounds were filled with numerous Baroque monuments. The Clock Tower and the Refectory Church are two of the main landmarks in a monastic landscape totally transformed by the construction or the renovation of numerous churches. Declared a 'Historical and Cultural Reserve' in 1926, the Lavra was very severely damaged in 1941 when its oldest edifice, the Dormition Cathedral, was almost fully destroyed.
Today the major elements of the very old historic heritage are Trinity Church, whose 12th-century structure is hidden by the extremely rich Baroque decor, and especially the catacombs, which include the Near Caves and the Far Caves, whose entrances are respectively at All Saints' Church and at the Church of the Conception of St Anna. Over the years the monks' cells became a necropolis where hundreds of their mummified bodies have been preserved.
Most of the monuments of the Lavra had new cultural functions in 1926: the Metropolitan's residence is now the State Museum of Ukrainian Decorative Folk Art, the printshop houses the Book and Bookbinding Museum, the Refectory Church is a museum of Christianity, and the Church of the Exaltation of the Cross is the museum of the history of the catacombs. Source: UNESCO/CLT/WHC