Built in the eleventh century, St Sophia cathedral is one of the oldest surviving buildings in Kiev – hence its rightful place on the World Heritage site list. The ancient building isn’t immediately obvious, having been cloaked in a cheerfully garish white, green, and gold Baroque facade in the eighteenth century. Inside, however, many of the original mosaics and frescoes survive, whilst floor tiles, graffiti and the ingenious structure of the building continue to be uncovered by conservators and archaeologists.
Draconian ladies in hooded green ponchos checked my ticket in every room, kept a watchful eye and prevented me from taking any but the sneakiest of photos, so most of these images are from other (linked) websites and the guide book I bought on the way out.
The cathedral’s history is intertwined with that of the Grand Princes of Kiev, Varangian Vikings who established their powerbase in Kiev in the ninth century. It’s now thought that Volodymyr I founded the building in 1011, then it was completed by his son, Yaroslav.
Volodymyr had converted himself and Kievan Rus to Christianity after pulling off an unlikely marriage to Byzantine princess “born in the purple” Anna. As sister to the powerful Emperor Basil II, the match to a pagan ‘barbarian’ who already had a number of wives seemed a doubtful one, but, nevertheless, the marriage went ahead. Through this diplomatic wedding contract, Volodymyr gained a tie to the powerful Byzantine imperial family, whilst Basil II gained military support against rival Bulgaria and a long term Christian ally.
Anna herself is unlikely to have had much say in the matter, but she had a very important impact on her new home, judging by St Sophia and its art. The cathedral is named after Hagia Sophia (“Holy Wisdom”) in Constantinople (now Istanbul). The choice of and subject matter of the mosaic decoration shows this Byzantine influence, and may have been undertaken by artists sent from Constantinople.
Anna is depicted at least twice in the cathedral’s decoration: with her family in a procession portrait in the central apse, and in a fresco celebrating her entrance into Kiev.
The high number of female saints depicted and choice of iconography may also signify Anna’s importance to the cathedral. The fresco below shows Mary receiving the precious purple and cochineal materials needed for her to make a veil for the temple of Jerusalem. This unusual choice of subject matter seems to identify Princess Anna with Mary, through the symbolic and status-bound colour purple. Anna’s title Porphyrogenitus – “born in the purple”, signifies her status as a member of the Imperial Byzantine family, born in the purple clad chamber of the Imperial palace.
In the towers and upper gallery, reserved for the Prince and his family, there are many secular frescoes. Imagery includes the Hippodrome, dancers, musicians, acrobats, fighters, creatures and strange beasts. Some of the decorations, like the medallion below featuring a griffin, are reminiscent of the rich silk textiles woven in the Byzantine empire.
More details about the mosaics can be found here: http://sofiyskiy-sobor.polnaya.info/en/mosaics_st_sophia_cathedral.shtml and the frescoes here: http://sofiyskiy-sobor.polnaya.info/en/frescos_st_sophia_cathedral.shtml
As I left the cathedral building, a white-haired man playing a multi-stringed instrument began singing. Here’s the resulting video I made of Stepan and his bandura (a Ukrainian folk instrument similar to the lute).