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Resurrected Church of the Birth of Christ in Kyiv
Priest Andriy VLASENKO traces the history of one of the architectural landmarks of the city of Kyiv — the Church of the Birth of Christ.
On January 2005, the Patriarch of Kyiv and of All Rus-Ukraine Filaret consecrated the Church of the Birth of Christ, which had been rebuilt in Podil, one of the oldest sections of Kyiv. The site where the church stands had been occupied by churches since the early times of Christianity in Kyiv.
Not every church is destined to become a national shrine, but every church, by its very nature and purpose, is a place of worship, the Arc of Noah, in which the faithful sail towards their salvation in God’s harbour. In the soviet times, the Church of the Birth of Christ in Podil was also a beacon which gave the spiritual guidance to Ukrainian believers in the darkest night of militant soviet theomachy.
According to tradition, the first church to be built on the site where the Church of the Birth of Christ now stands, was erected in the times of the Grand Duke Volodymyr the Great. It was the church to which rulers of Kyiv came to worship before embarking on important military campaigns. But the first written mention about the Church of the Birth of Christ dates from the year 1520. Since no trace of that church was ever discovered, it must have been made of wood and it must have been burned during one of the many fires that once in a while devastated Podil.
There is some evidence that suggests that another wooden church was built there in 1643. From more reliable sources we learn that a church in the Ukrainian baroque style of the time was erected in 1717, and the money for the construction was donated by the then Burgomaster of Kyiv Roman Tykhonovych. The church was a small one — either because the burgomaster was niggardly or because it was originally designed to be a small building, is difficult to say. The local community needed a bigger church and the construction of a new church was begun in 1744, with the older one remaining in the core of the new building which encased the older church on all sides. The construction lasted for several decades and the result was so dissatisfactory that in the early nineteenth century the church was pulled down. It was decided to build an entirely new church on the site of the old one and the most sought-after architect of those times, Andriy Melensky, was commissioned to create the design for this new church.
The architect did prove to be up to the task and he designed a church in the early Empire architectural style of a very impressive and harmonious appearance. The site itself was very advantageous for the church too — at the foot of Volodymyr Hill and at the fringe of Podil. The church, which had a belfry and a big dome, perfectly fitted the scenery amidst which the church stood, with the hill on one side and the River Dnipro on the other. The church had two main entrances provided with elegant porticos. The interior of the church boasted a great gilded iconostasis in the classical style (similar to the one that now can be seen in the Mykola Naberezhny Church in Podil); the icons were displayed in silver frames and the interior decor reflected the general elegant appearance of the church.
The church was consecrated in 1814 by the Metropolitan of Kyiv Serapion at a solemn ceremony. The ancient icon of St Mykola the Miracle Worker and the silk-embroidered Holy Shroud displayed in the church were the items of a special pride for the congregation.
The church, in spite of its evident architectural beauty, would have remained one of the many churches in Kyiv with no special significance attached to it if not for being associated with Taras Shevchenko — in his life and in his death. It so happened that it was the church to which the genius of the Ukrainian people Taras Shevchenko paid visits. He paid his last visit to the church in his coffin.
Shevchenko died in St Petersburg in 1861, and his body was brought to Ukraine in compliance with his will, in which he asked to be buried on Chernecha Hora (a tall hill) facing the River Dnipro in the town of Kaniv.
When the coffin with Shevchenko’s body was brought to Kyiv, the procession accompanying it moved across the bridge (that bridge is no more but in its place there is another one of much more recent construction) from the left bank to the right bank of the River Dnipro. The authorities that had persecuted and prosecuted and harassed Shevchenko during his lifetime, were afraid of him even when he was dead, and the Governor General of Kyiv Vasylchykov and the Metropolitan Isydor did not give their permission for the funeral procession to enter the centre of the city. The procession moved along the river and when it came to the Church of the Birth of Christ it was decided to place the coffin in that church for the service for the commemoration of the deceased. The word about it spread fast, and in spite of the high displeasure of the city authorities at what was happening, thousands of people attended the service which took place on May 7 (Old Style) 1861. At the end of the service, a crown of thorns was placed on the casket and then it was carried out of the church and put on a passenger boat which took it downstream to the town of Kaniv. Oral tradition has it that before the crown was placed on the coffin, it had been worn by one of the women who were present at the service for the peace of Shevchenko’s soul; her face was concealed by the veil but even through the veil one could see she was beautiful — it might have been Varvara Repnina, the woman who had always been a faithful admirer of Shevchenko.
The tsarist government tried to suppress the Ukrainian national movement and even attempted to do away with the Ukrainian language — but failed in both. The Bolshevik government in the twentieth century tried to suppress religion and make all the citizens solid atheists. The Bolsheviks failed in their attempts too but during their atheistic campaigns of the 1920s and 1930s, many architectural landmarks — “the buildings of the religious cult” in the Bolshevik parlance — were destroyed. The Church of the Birth of Christ had some chances of survival — it was put on a list of those architectural landmarks, which the Architectural and City Planning Department at the City Administration asked the Bolshevik authorities to preserve. But “in accordance with the reconstruction plan of that area” the church was pulled down. A square was created where the church used to stand, and opposite the site where the church once stood the River Terminal was built — though years after the church had been destroyed. The authorities did not allow the archaeologists and architects to examine the site or do any archaeological digging either before or after the church’s demolition. However, before the destruction the church, in accordance with the usual Bolshevik practices, was stripped of everything that had in the eyes of the authorities any value — silver vessels, silver frames, and gold leaf, and these items were salvaged. Some of the icons were sold to the collectors abroad. The Bolsheviks were much more practically minded than the invaders of the past, like the Mongols, who just burned churches down.
Without the Church of the Birth of Christ at its place, Podil looked like a mouth with a missing front tooth. Surprisingly enough, under the national-minded and Ukrainian oriented communist party boss in Ukraine Petro Shelest, it was decided to rebuild the ruined church, and the architect Volodymyr Shevchenko was commissioned to do the design. But in the early nineteen-seventies, Shelest fell out of favour with the top communist bosses in Moscow because of his Ukrainian nationalist leanings, and was removed from his post. The project to reconstruct the church was put in cold storage.
However, eleven years after Ukraine’s independence, it was decided to revive the project and rebuild the church. The foundation stone was laid around Christmas 2002. The chief architect of the project Yury Losytsky led a group of architects who did the preliminary research and found not only many photographs of the church taken before it was destroyed, but the original plan and design made by Andriy Melensky. One of the major problems was the subway line which passed right under the foundation of the church. Special safety measures were taken to prevent any possible damage that could be done to the foundation and the church itself by the vibration caused by the passing underground trains.
The construction took three years to be completed. Architecturally, the resurrected church looks a close replica of the nineteenth-century church. The interior was decorated in such a way so as to reflect the early-nineteenth-century style too. I find though that the iconostasis, which was made in a style that resembles Baroque, is in disharmony with the general early-nineteenth-century style of the church.
Religious services began to be held right after the church was consecrated. The Church of the Birth of Christ belongs to the religious community of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate which has inherited the traditions of the Ukrainian Church that were laid down in the time of Grand Duke Volodymyr who brought Christianity to Kyiv.
In writing this article, the author has used materials published
Photos by Ivan Dudkin
The interior of the church.
Iconostasis in the Church of the Birth of Christ.
Icon of Jesus Christ in Glory. The icon was
Icon of the Virgin Mary with Child. The icon was