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Ancient churches of Holy Wisdom in the Slavic lands


The Rev. Andriy VLASENKO offers his philosophical, theological and cultural reflections about the spiritual and artistic significance of Hagia Sophia, the Church of Divine Wisdom.


The word Sophia for divine wisdom has been borrowed from Greek through Latin.

In Ukrainian, the word sophia is best known in its phonetic transcription as Sofiya, the woman's name; this word appears in the name of the church in Kyiv, Holy Sophia, and the same word is used in philosophical and theological literature both to denote divine wisdom and in a special sense, the discussion of which would take us too far from the subject matter of this article.


We are concerned here with Hagia Sophia, the Church of the Holy Wisdom, but it would be wrong not to mention that it was Solomon, son of David, who said it was wisdom that guided him in building The House of the Lord  Wisdom hath builded her house says Solomon in his Proverbs (9:1).

God commanded David to erect an altar to the Lord; he built the altar and then called the place ... the house of the LORD God... and thus the beginnings of the first temple were made.

Then he called for Solomon his son, and charged him to build a house for the LORD God of Israel (I Chronicles 22:6). The temple Solomon built was later destroyed; Hagia Sophia that was built almost a thousand years ago is a major surviving architectural landmark in Kyiv. But Kyivs Hagia Sophia is not the only church that bears this name. There is one in Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, one in Novgorod, Russia, and one in Polotsk, Belarus.

The builders must have been guided by the divine wisdom as well when they were erecting and adorning these Houses of the Lord God.


Hagia Sophia in Constantinople

Only three hundred years passed between the time when Jesus Christ brought his teaching to a relatively small group of people, and the time when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire  the empire that stretched from the British Isles in the north, all across Europe, northern Africa and all the way to Mesopotamia. By historical standards of that era the transition from persecution of Christs flowers and violent rejection of the Christian teaching to the official acceptance of Christianity as an official religion was extraordinary short. The Bible was translated into Latin and other languages of the Roman Empire, churches were built. The new capital founded by Constantine was naturally in the lead of church construction. A great change occurred in the 530s A.D. when the Roman world was ruled by the Emperor Justinian, one of the greatest builders of all times. He was responsible for four major churches in Constantinople; one them was the great cathedral of Hagia Sophia, where the ideas of longitudinal basilica and centralized building were combined in a wholly original manner. There is some evidence that suggests that it was not the first Hagia Sophia built in the Eastern part of the Roman empire, but the one in Constantinople was by far the biggest and most magnificent Christian church in all Christendom for centuries to come. The distinctive feature of all this structure was the form of roof, the dome. The dome stands above a square, and the transition from the one to the other was complicated.

Though Justinians domed basilicas are the models from which Byzantine architecture developed, Hagia Sophia remained unique, and no attempt was thereafter made by Byzantine builders to emulate it. In plan it is almost square, but looked at from within, it appears to be rectangular, for there is a great semidome at east and west above that prolongs the effect of the roof, while on the ground there are three aisles, separated by columns with galleries above. At either end, however, great piers rise up through the galleries to support the dome. Above the galleries are curtain walls (non-load-bearing exterior walls) at either side, pierced by windows, and there are more windows at the base of the dome. The columns are of finest marble, selected for their colour and variety, while the lower parts of the walls are covered with marble slabs. Like the elaborately carved cornices and capitals, these survive, but the rest of the original decoration, including most of the mosaics that adorned the upper parts of the walls and the roof, have perished. They were all described in the most glowing terms by early writers. But enough does survive to warrant the inclusion of Hagia Sophia in the list of the worlds greatest buildings.

Hagia Sophia was built as the result of the destruction in a riot of its predecessor, the basilica was begun by Constantine, and the work of rebuilding was completed in the amazingly short period of five years, 10 months, and four days, under the direction of two architects from Asia Minor, Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus, in the year 537.

The marble of various colours and shades  snow-white, light green, pink, granite and porphyry were delivered from various parts of the empire to adorn the most amazing architectural creation of that time. On December 27 537, when the new church was consecrated, Justinian was reported to have exclaimed, Glory be you, Our Lord in Heaven, who has chosen me to undertake and complete such a great feat! I have done better than you, Solomon, did!

Hagia Sophia was not only a stunning architectural creation (the mere size of it was a wonder in itself)  in its architectural forms and design it embodied the very essence of the Christian teaching. Paulus Silentiarius, an official at the court of Justinian (flourished ca. A.D. 560) who wrote some of the liveliest love poems in ancient Greek, also praised Hagia Sophia in verse, compared this cathedral with a beacon whose beam shows the way to safety in the darkness of the night.

Hagia Sophia remained such a beacon for people lost in the storm of life for centuries. It withstood powerful earthquakes; it was not destroyed when the invading Turks stormed Constantinople. The city became Istanbul and the church turned into a mosque  but remained a house of worship though of a different religion.


Hagia Sophia in Kyiv

According to tradition, one of the legendary founders of Kyiv, Prince Kyi, travelled to Constantinople and was even granted an audience by Justinian. When in Constantinople, Kyi just could not fail to see Hagia Sophia, the greatest marvel of the Christian world. There is hardly any doubt that he must have been greatly impressed.

When over four hundred years later, when the Grand Duke of Kyiv Volodymyr was faced with making a choice of a religion to adopt, he opted for Orthodox Christianity rejecting Judaism, Islam and Catholicism, not least because his envoys described in glowing terms the great church they had seen in Constantinople. According to one of the early chronicles, these envoys who had visited several countries with a purpose of finding out what they could about the religions practised there in order to help Volodymyr make the right choice, had been so overwhelmed by Hagia Sophia that they later, upon their return to Kyiv, told Volodymyr that, We did not know where we were, still on earth or in heaven. Their stories convinced Volodymyr that Byzantine Christianity was the right religion for him and his land.

Thus Christianity came to Kyivan Rus in its Byzantine form; churches began to be built, and several decades later at least in three cities  Kyiv, Novgorod and Polotsk  there arose churches devoted to Divine Wisdom. Hagia Sophia in Kyiv was the most magnificent.

However, it was not Volodymyr who built Hagia Sophia in Kyiv but his son, Yaroslav the Wise.

Kyivs Hagia Sophia was invested with the greater symbolic meaning. Its esoteric significance was partly due to its role of prime cathedral and coronation church, and partly to the fact that the site chosen was one on which Yaroslav had inflicted a crippling defeat on the Pecheneg nomads, thereby ensuring Kyivs security. It was surely not by chance that the centre of the cathedrals main apse fell on the point at which two lines drawn from each of the citys four gates interjected. The Grand Duke himself laid the cathedrals foundation-stone in 1037; the building was of brick, set in a pinkish cement, and the architect and master mason came from Byzantium. However, Kyivan masons and labourers were employed on the work as well as the Greek ones. Yaroslav and the Metropolitan, Hilarion, took a deep interest in the work and were responsible for many of the cathedrals features.

Kyivs Hagia Sophia followed a Byzantine plan, it being cruciform with several aisles and domes. It contained five aisles and was greater in width than in length, but a feature which seldom occurred elsewhere was the introduction of a single-storeyed peristyle running round its north, south, and west walls and opening into the towns main square, with porphyry, marble, and alabaster columns supporting the arches of the west front. Kyivan taste already at this early date managed to express itself clearly in a large central dome symbolizing Christ, rising from amidst twelve smaller ones representing the Apostles. The Byzantines had never indulged in such a galaxy of domes. Indeed the dome became both an architectural necessity and the expression of a spiritual aspiration of Kyivan Rus, riveting attention on the celestial sphere which the Scriptures portrayed as existing, if almost unattainable, but which the architects invested with a convincing reality.

Kyivs Hagia Sophia appears to rise like some great natural growth, resembling in this Hagia Sophia at Constantinople, but whereas the latter emphasizes its oneness with its site by reserving its adornments for its interior, Hagia Sophia in Kyiv bore the imprint of mans artistry on its facade no less than within its walls. Regardless of their origins, even the fully formed artists produced from the start works which were so strongly imbued with the Kyivan Rus spirit that they differ completely from everything that these artists had created in their native lands before going to Kyiv.

In later centuries, the exterior of Hagia Sophia was greatly changed in major reconstructions but the interior remained largely intact. When restored to its original form, that is to say when visually stripped of its Baroque additions, Kyivs Hagia Sophia is remarkable for its monolithic yet superbly elegant appearance. Much of this distinction is due to the inclusion, above the rounded arches of the peristyle, of a row of shallow, well-proportioned, oval alcoves. Equally unusual for its date is the row of windows set above the niches; the transition from the rounded arches to the oval niches, and thence to the rectangular windows is accomplished with consummate mastery; any suggestion of monotony is cleverly avoided.

In its interior, with its multiplicity of columns and arches, of vistas and galleries, Kyivs Hagia Sophia presents a complexity and sophistication, unique in Kyivan Rus at that time, excelling in the variety of its effects those achieved in such a building as St Marks at Venice. Indeed, nothing quite so grand and vibrant existed anywhere else in Western Europe at the time. In Kyivs Hagia Sophia, the feeling of vitality within the cathedral, or rather of actuality, was sustained by the mosaics. The effect was due partly to the scintillations produced by the light catching the gold and delicately coloured cubes, but still more to the frontal pose of the figures, which invests the personages with the character of an audience, suggesting that they are both participating in and also watching all that takes place within the church. The traditional scenes appear in their prescribed positions on the walls.

Graffiti found on the walls include Slavonic inscriptions as well as the Greek ones, and so seem to confirm that both the Greek and Kyivan artists and masons took part in the construction and decoration of Hagia Sophia. In making mosaics no less than a hundred and seventy different shades of cubes were used to produce the desired effects.

Wall paintings had from the start played a prominent part in Hagia Sophia. In addition to biblical scenes, some frescoes showed the figure of the Saviour receiving from Yaroslav a model of the cathedral; behind Yaroslav his sons were ranged in order of seniority and opposite to him his wife and daughters, all in a single file. All the central figures have disappeared, but the portraits of four daughters survive on the south wall and of two sons on the north. They are shown in attitudes of adoration, the elder children holding long tapers. All wear the court dress of the day; their robes are made of foreign brocades cut on simpler lines than the Byzantine models which they resemble. Each portrait reflects more of the childrens individualities than might have been expected at this period.

Quite distinct and unique in their choice of subjects are the paintings which decorate the walls of the fine staircase which linked the adjacent palace to the cathedral and leads to the Grand Dukes private pew, situated, as in Constantinoples Hagia Sophia, in the centre of the west gallery. In contrast to any surviving Byzantine paintings the subjects chosen for these decorations illustrate secular instead of biblical themes; they depict the mimes, jugglers, musicians, wrestlers, dancers, and animal tamers who took part in the so-called Goth Games held, according to Constantine Porphyrogenitus, in the Hippodrome at Constantinople on the ninth day of Christmas. Kyivan notables visiting Constantinople greatly enjoyed the Games organized in their honour; the delight which Yaroslav derived from such pastimes as well as from hunting can be inferred from the criticisms which they evoked from Kyivan churchmen of his day, but the Grand Duke must have disregarded their strictures, since he had the walls of his private staircase within the cathedrals precincts decorated with the scenes which amused him.


Hagia Sophia in Novgorod

Hagia Sophia in Novgorod (now in Russia) began to be built shortly after the completion of the construction of Kyivs Hagia Sophia in 1045. There is a good reason to suppose that some of the architects, artists and masons who had worked in Kyiv and gained a considerable experience in building and decorating a brick church of such a monumental size, travelled north to Novgorod. Basically, Hagia Sophia there follows a plan very similar to that one of Hagia Sophia in Kyiv  cruciform with several aisles and domes, but the church in Novgorod looks much less elaborate; there is even some severity in its appearance. Probably, it was the influence of a more northern clime and of the local traditions. Instead of 13 domes of Hagia Sophia in Kyiv, the one in Novgorod has only 5 domes  they symbolize Christ and four evangelists. The interior decorations lack mosaics, with walls covered in frescoes. Unfortunately, only the representations of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great and of his mother Helen survive the original, eleventh-century frescoes (curiously, the artist who painted the fresco wrote the name of this female personage to identify her in the fresco not in Greek but in Slavonic, spelling it as Olena, that is the way it would be spelled today in Ukrainian; in the nineteenth century, the word was removed during restoration).

During the Second World War, the cathedral was damaged  a shell hit the central dome, but the church itself survived.

The door of the western portal, made of bronze and richly decorated with wonderful relieves, dates from the twelfth century. It is believed to have been brought from Sweden but it was made in Magdeburg, Germany. Isnt it a fine example of what we call the cultural ties between nations?


Hagia Sophia in Polotsk

In the middle of the eleventh century a third Hagia Sophia was built in the land of Kyivan Rus  in the town of Polotsk (now in Belarus). Only the apses and lower parts of the walls survive from the original structure  all the rest are the result of several reconstructions. The architectural research done in the church has revealed that Hagia Sophia in Polotsk, though of a considerably smaller size, must have looked similar to Kyivs Hagia Sophia and there is a good reason to believe that master masons and artists from Kyiv were responsible for its construction.


Hagia Sophia is more than a church  it is a link between Heaven and earth, a concentration of spiritual energy.


Sketch of the reconstruction
of the original exterior appearance
of Hagia Sophia in Kyiv.


Sketch of the reconstruction
of the original exterior appearance
of Hagia Sophia in Polotsk
(now in Belarus).


Hagia Sophia in Sofia, Bulgaria,
(built in 5th early 6th centuries).


Interior of Hagia Sophia
in Istanbul, Turkey.


Interior of Hagia Sophia in Novgorod.


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