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Saviour Transfiguration Church and St. Sophia Cathedral in the town of Polatsk

Date of Submission: 30/01/2004
Criteria: (i)(ii)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Délégation Permanente de la République de Bélarus auprès de l'UNESCO
Ref.: 1893

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The town of Polatsk is one of the most ancient towns founded by West Slavs. First mentioned in "Pouvest vremennyh let" (a Chronicle of Kiev and Kievan Rus) in 862. The town was named in accordance with the Palata river name, on the right bank of which the first settlements appeared. From 10th to 13th centuries Polatsk was the central town of the Polatsk Principality. Favorable geographical location on trade ways ("From Varengians to Greeks") promoted the rapid economical and cultural development. At that time outstanding examples of architecture of the period St. Sofia Cathedral and Savior Transfiguration Church were constructed.

The Saviour Transfiguration Church in the town of Polatsk, Vitsebsk Province, is a monument of ancient Russian architecture. Its style suggests the Polatsk school of architecture. It was built between 1152 and 1161 by the Polatsk architect Ioann by the order of the princess St. Euphrosyne of Polatsk as a cathedral church of the Convent of the Saviour and St. Euphrosyne.

In 1582, King Stefan Batory gave the church to the Order of Jesuits. In 1832, the church was placed under the Orthodox administration, and in 1990 it became a property of the Belarusian Exarchate. In the 19th century it was partially remodeled according to the design by the architect A. Port.

The church is a stone-made, 3-nave, 6-pillar cruciform building with a domed roof (8x12 metres), with a dome rising on a high tambour. From the east, the central nave leads to the massive semicircular apse, while the narrower naves finish up with semicircular wall bays. The southern and northern facades are divided by pilasters with semi-columns, which evenly separate the walls into two narrow and three wide piers (in alternation), and have two tiers of semicircular window openings. The lower tier windows are 1.5 times larger than the upper tier ones, topped with four rows of plinths. The walls of the temple are made of plinth bricks, the brickwork having a "concealed row" typical for the Polatsk school, i.e. when every second row is placed 4-5 cm deep inside the wall and covered by the lime mortar. Cobblestones and oak copings were also used in the brickwork. Within the walls, around the periphery of the tambour under the windows, there are resonators, which rest upon pendentives and arms of the under-dome square.

Initially, the church had semi-circular roofing of the main space and of the narthex. The tambour of the dome dominated the vaults and rested on a square pedestal with arched pointed semicircles on its edges. The zakomary (arched gables) and arched pointed semicircles had a keel-like end, thus creating the tier structure of the upper level. In the 19t` century the arched gables ceiling was replaced with a three-pitched roof. The choirs were entered from the northern part of the western wall. Alongside the choirs there were two small cells, one of which was supposedly intended for Euphrosyne of Polatsk. Exploration of the surfaces of walls, vaults, and pillars, clearing of mural paintings, and spontaneous dropping of oil paint helped reveal plenty of fragments of the unique ancient frescos. The entire original structure of the foundation, of the walls and vaults of the Saviour Church is preserved. At present, the church is an active place of worship. The St. Sophia Cathedral in the town of Polatsk, Vitebsk Oblast, is a monument of various architectural schools from IIffi to 18th century. It was built originally between 1044 and 1066 under Prince Vsyaslau Brachyslavavich on the right bank of the river Western Dvina, at its confluence with the river Palata. The cathedral was erected on a strong foundation which is still there. The walls of the church were made of plinths, with the use of mixed masonry technique with a "hidden row", with each second row embedded inside the wall and closed with grout made of lime and ground brick. Cobble stones, which in some places stuck out of the walls, were also used in the construction. According to its structural design, the old St. Sophia cathedral was a five-nave cross-dome temple, having the form of a cube with the edge of 26.5 m. The cathedral was crowned by 7 helmet-shaped cupolas. The interior space was divided into 5 naves by 16 crossed bearing pillars, with three middle naves ending with cut apses.

The facades of the cathedral (with the exception of the eastern one) were intersected by flat edges whose location coincided with the axes of the bearing pillars. The dome drum of the central cupola towered over the middle of the church. Inside the cathedral there were large U-type choirs and arcades opening into the space under the cupola.

After the 1447 fire, the cathedral was rebuilt into a five-tower fortress-type church. The next reconstruction took place in 1618. One level was removed from the angle towers.

While the central one was raised and crowned with a hipped roof. In accordance with the Uniate tradition, the altar was removed from the eastern to the northern part. The cathedral was closed in 1705 during the North War. In 1710, it was greatly damaged by the explosion of a gun-powder store which was arranged in the church at the time. The cathedral lay in ruins until a new construction supervised by Ian Christoph Glaubitz, the architect from the town of Vilna, began in 1738 and finished in 1750. The cathedral has been preserved in that form till present. Today, it is a three-nave one-apse basilica oriented from the south to the north, with two towers on the facade. The cathedral was rebuilt in the Vilna Baroque style. A three-part apse on the eastern facade, parts of the walls and a burial vault are the remains of the 11th century cathedral. The length of the old building determined the width of the new one. The old apse has a symmetrical extension on the western side. The central nave on the main facade and at the altar part is completed with figured attic pediments. The main facade is embellished with Rococo-style ornamental elements: molded garlands on pilasters, over bays on projections, pinnacles on the corners of tiers of towers and pediments. Inside, three pairs of profile composite pillars divide the space into three naves covered by cylindrical arches. The altar part is separated from the nave by a three-level barrier which adjoins the bas-relief picture of New Testament Trinity on the arch. The first and the second levels were adorned with paintings and wooden sculptures. St. Sofia Cathedral is open for visitors. It is used for organ and chamber music concerts. The cathedral is a branch of the Polatsk National History and Culture Reserve.