St. Sophia Cathedral

[by Jenna Brightwell]

Yaroslav the Wise, leader of Kievan Rus from 1036, built the St. Sofia Cathedral in Kiev, breaking ground in 1037 and completing it in 1100.  The architectural design has clear Byzantine influences, and currently demonstrates the baroque style because of a major restoration in the late seventeenth century.  The survival of the St. Sofia Cathedral throughout the history of Kiev helped make it into an essential part of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and a site of Ukrainian nationalism.  As historian Anna Reid describes, “Under the tsars, pilgrims came in millions…The Bolsheviks desanctified but never quite dared demolish it; during perestroika Ukrainian nationalists demonstrated outside it…and in 1996 Orthodox believers tried …to bury their patriarch within its walls” (Reid 7-8).

Building the Cathedral

Ukrainians tell two different stories about the development of the Cathedral of St. Sofia in Kiev.  In the first, Yaroslav the Wise, a renowned Riurik prince of Kievan Rus’, built the cathedral to celebrate his father’s conversion to Orthodoxy in 988 AD.  Orthodox faith was an integral part of Kievan (and later Ukrainian) culture, and the St. Sofia Cathedral became a lasting representation of Orthodoxy (Reid, 7-8).  The Orthodox Church canonized Yaroslav’s father, Volodymyr,and folklore glorified and idealized his decision to convert to Orthodox Christianity over Islam, Judaism, and Catholicism, calling him the “‘founder saint’ of Rus” (Wilson, 6).  The second story of the Cathedral reports that Yaroslav built it to commemorate the final defeat of the strong, nomadic Pechenegs who had long threatened and raided the steppe (Magocsi, 79).  Even though the two stories conceptualize very different characteristics of the Kievan religious tradition versus military strength, both glorify Kievan Rus’, establishing its importance in Ukrainian culture.

Yaroslav worked to beautify the city of Kiev and develop it culturally.  He built the Golden Gate entrance to the city, consisting of three churches: the Annunciation, St. George, and St. Irene, along with the Cathedral of St. Sofia (Magocsi, 81).  The building has clear influences from Byzantium; Hagia Sofia Basilica in Constantinople became the namesake of St. Sofia Cathedral, Byzantine architecture influenced the Greek cross base plan and the design of the Greek domes, and imported Greek artists worked on the interior of the cathedral (Magocsi, 104).  The relatively conventional facade gives way to a magnificently designed inside: “inside it breathes the splendid austerity of Byzantium.  Etiolated saints, draped in ochre and pink, march in shadowy frescos round the walls; above them a massive Virgin hangs in vivid glass mosaic, alone on a deep gold ground” (Reid, 7).  Yaroslav also began publishing books and sermons in Slavonic during his reign, and he set up a publishing and research center in the St. Sofia Cathedral (Magocsi, 105)

Ukrainians use the architecture of St. Sofia Cathedral as an argument for the impact of local culture in Kievan society.  Despite its clear Greek influence, the Cathedral design is not strictly Byzantine: “The configuration of St. Sofia, in particular the proliferation of the apses, naves and galleries, has no direct analogy in Constantinople” (Wilson, 15).  Some of the scenes depicted in the frescos portray pagan images, such as swastikas, six pointed stars, and a “trident-like image,” which reveals the influence of ‘local’ paganism on ‘imported’ Orthodoxy (Wilson, 36).  Ukrainians argue that the distinct culture of Kiev is “evidence of the early provenance of Ukrainian national symbols” (Wilson, 36).

Re-establishing Orthodoxy and the Russian Influence

After the defeat of the Mongol Horde, Ukrainian territory became part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.  In 1596, at the Treaty of Brest, religious leaders merged eastern Orthodoxy with Catholicism to create the Uniate Church.  The dominant Polish political authorities, who practiced Catholicism, favored the Uniate Church over Orthodoxy and transferred Orthodox Church wealth and infrastructure, including the Cathedral of St. Sofia, to the Uniates.  Orthodox Ukrainians resented the dominance of the Uniate Church, so after the death of King Sigismund in 1632, they seized their opportunity to reassert Orthodox authority.  The Ukrainians successfully secured the split in the position of Metropolitan into two, one for Orthodoxy and one for the Uniates.  The Orthodox Ukrainians voted for Peter Muholia as their Metropolitan, and he soon remade St. Sofia into the center of Ukrainian Orthodoxy, removing the Uniates with the help of the local Ukrainian gentry and Orthodox clergy.  This reassertion of power by the Orthodox Church was described as a national victory not just a religious triumph (Hrushevsky, 264-267).

Ukrainians often link the St. Sofia Cathedral to moments of national victory.   Beginning in the mid 17th century, the Ukrainian Cossacks began to revolt against the Polish authorities.  Ukrainians portray the first Cossack revolt lead by Bohdan Khmelnytsky in 1648 as the first step toward Ukrainian independence, depicting Khmelnytsky as a national hero.  To emphasize Khmelnytsky’s role as “the savior of a nation reborn” (Wilson, 63), the artist, Mykola Ivasiuk, painted Khmelnytsky “on a white charger…being hailed by the leaders of the Kievan church in front of St. Sofia’s” (Wilson, 62).  The use of St. Sofia as the backdrop for an event so integral to Ukrainian nationalism made the cathedral itself into a site of nationalism.

By the time the Orthodox Church had regained control of the St. Sofia Cathedral, much of the building had been destroyed (  When Russia took over Ukraine in 1654, the new Ukrainian Cossack leader, Hetman Ivan Mazepa, became a cultural patron in Kiev.  With the help of Metropolitan Muholia, restoration of the St. Sofia Cathedral began, transforming it into a baroque-style structure.  Mazepa understood the importance of developing a close relationship with the Orthodox Church because of its integral role in Ukrainian society (Magocsi, 272-273).

Ukrainian Independence

During the Ukrainian independence movement in the early 20th century, the Cathedral of St. Sofia continued its role as a site of importance to Ukrainian nationalists.  In June 1917, the ‘Convention of the Ukrainian Soldiers and Peasants’ took an oath in front of the cathedral promising not to leave the city until the establishment of an autonomous Ukraine (Hrushevsky, 526).  When western Ukrainians declared allegiance to the rest of Ukraine on 22 January 1919, they made the proclamation at St. Sofia and the date became known as the third Ukrainian independence day (Magocsi, 550).  In the 1920s, a new Ukrainian modernized church, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, used the St. Sofia Cathedral as its religious base.  The Autocephalous Church was uniquely Ukrainian, separate from Russian Orthodoxy.  They had nearly six million members and believed in separation of church and state and decentralization of church structure (Wilson, 139).  This religious institution became part of the Ukrainian national movement: “the church attracted particular support among nationally minded intellectuals and other patriots who believed its value as a Ukrainian institution.  It fact its defenders believed…[it] represented the vanguard of free Ukraine” (Magocsi, 582).

The Soviets did not destroy the Cathedral of St. Sophia during the 20th century, which is a testament to its importance in Ukrainian religious and national culture.  During perestroika, St. Sofia Cathedral became a natural rallying point for Ukrainian nationalists (Reid, 7).  Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the new Ukrainian state has reemphasized the importance of the Kievan Rus in Ukrainian cultural development, in an attempt to develop a new, strong Ukrainian identity.  As one of the few architectural structures still in existence from that era, the Cathedral of St. Sofia represents a tangible connection to Kievan Rus, giving it both a significant religious and national importance (Wilson, 225; 238).


Works Cited

  • Michael Hrushevsky, A History of Ukraine, 2nd ed.  (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1943).
  • Paul R. Magocsi, A History of Ukraine: The Land and its Peoples, 2nd, rev. and expanded ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010).
  • Anne Reid, Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine, (Boulder: Westview Press, 1999).
  • Andrew Wilson, The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000).
  • “Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kiev,”, (accessed May 4, 2012).